Responding to Susan Faludi: On mentoring and “being seen”

Susan Faludi’s recent piece in Harper’s on intergenerational conflict in the feminist movement has already provoked thoughtful rebuttals—both here on Feministing and across the feminist blogosphere. Like others, I found her stereotyping of young feminists as matricidal, materialistic, and frivolous to be insulting and unfair; choosing Courtney Martin, of all people, to represent this young feminist caricature was just plain weird.

As to her larger point, I agree with Amanda Marcotte and Katha Pollit that much intergenerational strife stems less from differences in substance and more from struggles over power—which is unsurprising, understandable, and in no way unique to the feminist movement. Furthermore, as Miriam points out, some of this tension is actually evidence of progress—the happy proof that some feminist battles have already been won and the truth that no movement can really move unless it adjusts to the realities of the current cultural moment.

But all such nuance is lost in Faludi’s narrative of dramatic extremes. Her argument seems to allow for only two options: either feminism can successfully “reproduce itself” or we end up “blowing up [our] own house.” In the absence of suffrage era mother-daughter collaboration, there must be flapper-style matricide. And it’s abundantly clear where Faludi comes down. The piece is almost comically melodramatic; she rings the death knell with vigor, worrying that these internal dynamics assure “feminism’s episodic self-destruction,” claiming that today’s feminism is “a nightmare of dysfunction,” and lamenting that the “transmission of power repeatedly fails and feminism’s heritage is repeatedly hurled onto the scrap heap,” leaving only a “legacy of no legacy.”

None of this rings true to me. Like Courtney, I’ve gotta ask, “Is there nothing in between becoming mini-me’s of our mother’s revolution and mass foremother genocide?”

I think so—and I think we’re actually doing a fairly good job of striking that balance. But it’s perhaps unsurprising that Faludi misses it. Because another thing that her sweeping generational strokes erases is the fact that feminists do not fit neatly into older and younger, mother and daughter, Second Wave and…whatever wave we’re on now. A few decades—and a whole lot of feminists—exist between the veterans of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the “young feminists” like Courtney (who are themselves nearly a decade older than me). And feminists of all ages interact with and learn from women both older and younger than themselves every day.

The transmission of feminist legacy does not flow solely from mother to daughter—literal or figurative. In fact, some of the relationships that have most influenced me—and my feminism—have been with older mentors who were nowhere near my mother’s age but not my peers. In middle school, it was my older soccer coaches, only in high school themselves, who taught me—and my fellow 12-year-old teammates—to be confident as we stumbled into puberty. (Later, in college, they also helped me stumble into the real world.) In high school, it was my young American history teacher who taught me the great Howard Zinn and convinced my whole senior seminar that it’s cool to be smart. And these days, it’s my 30-something coworkers who provide a model for how to be successful professional women, encourage my ambitions, and patiently and persistently leave volumes of women’s history on my desk.

I think it’s telling that Faludi so thoroughly misunderstood (or misrepresented) Courtney’s quote about the importance of “being seen” for young feminists. Courtney explained: “What I meant was not that our revolution is one of aesthetics, but that our leadership has to reflect who we are and who we want to become, or we won’t be able to identify with the movement.” Faludi completely—seemingly willfully—misses this point, instead twisting the anecdote into evidence of the materialism of a generation preoccupied with fishnets and pop culture.

But to me, as a 24-year-old feminist who has been—and continues to be—lucky enough to be nurtured by mentors who both give me an idea of who I want to become and truly see me for who I am, this is exactly where Faludi should be looking for hope that feminism is gonna survive yet another day.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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