- Feminist Currents
Today's women's movement is faltering "along a 'mother-daughter' divide," claimed Susan Faludi in the October 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine.1 Faludi, the author of the acclaimed 1991 Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women and more recently The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-911 America, reported that younger and older feminists, the "mothers and daughters" of the movement, are clashing in a range of political and cultural venues: elections to office of the National Organization of Women (NOW), university classrooms, journals, and blogs.2 Younger women contend their mothers' feminism isn't relevant and worse, it's stodgy—with no place for fashion, fun, and sex—and they are tired of being patronized. Older feminists fume that the younger women are narcissists, captured by consumerism, who shun older leaders, their books, and their political activism simply because of their age. Faludi believes the women's movement is in great danger, unable to pass power, authority, and legitimacy down from mothers to daughters. For this column I asked, "What do you think? Does feminism face such a divide? Do the familial metaphors of mother-daughter accurately describe this fault line in feminism? What constitutes feminism in our time?"
Some of us may find the use of kinship metaphors less productive than other ways of classifying political and cultural distinctions and differences between feminists, never mind between women. We may prefer intersectional and transnational lenses. But the mother-daughter dichotomy refuses to go away. Faludi's reliance on this metaphor is hardly original, but her sympathies with the mothers bucks against historiographical and, perhaps, social-movement trends. Take women's studies scholar Astrid Henry. Her 2004 Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third Wave Feminism celebrates "bad daughters" over "betrayed mothers," while defending the power of this trope to explicate "third-wave" feminist thought, particularly when it comes to sexualities and sexual identity, with lesbian foremothers and queer daughters [End Page 101] engaged in their own generational battles.3 Historian Christine Stansell has elevated the mother-daughter distinction into an organizing theme in her sweeping 2010 The Feminist Promise. "The politics of the mothers," she claims, "lean toward responsibility, propriety, and pragmatic expectations of what can be done." In contrast, "the feminism of the daughters has contempt for the status quo. . . . It batters on the doors to power and demands dramatic rearrangements in marriage, motherhood, sex, and male psychology." Put that way, wouldn't we all want to embrace our daughterhood?4
Faludi certainly has her doubts. Her skepticism over "Lady Gaga Feminism," as playfully announced by cultural studies scholar and prominent queer theorist Judith "Jake" Halberstam at a New School conference on gender studies, has her clinging to an understanding of "woman" that puts her out of step with trends in unraveling gender that scholars like Halberstam have played such a leading role in performing. So much for new sexualities. The young challenger to NOW's leadership in the organization's 2009 contested presidential election, as recorded by Faludi, was an African American woman, Latifa Lyles. Here too Faludi is divisive: the reportage, while focused on age, reinforces the racial divide within feminism, layering the mother-daughter conflict with a white women-women of color one, just as the description of the conference placed a heterosexual-queer dichotomy on top of a generational dichotomy. Halberstam is a proponent of critical ethnic studies who supports radical formulations. Faludi's attack makes it appear that the mothers are also essentialists in the worst sense, neglectful of the ways that race, class, sexualities, citizenship and immigration status, and other factors shape social life and so frame political responses.
Elizabeth Horan replied to our post with a point-by-point refutation of Faludi's article. She embraces the feminism of challenger Lyles and her followers, "using Twitter, blogging, and yes, even giving workshops while wearing high heels." Faludi claims that young women complain that older women refused to mentor them, but Horan and her friends have had "terrific, wonderful older women mentors, and a few (very) old men too." The women that Horan knows "are worried about having any reasonably good...