Faludi Says “Matricide!” I Say “Srsly?”
I was in a New York bookstore last weekend when the word “Matricide!” scrawled across the cover of Harper’s magazine caught my eye. Yet another story about the cat-(read: bitch)-fight between my feminist generation and our second wave mothers, this time by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi in a cover story titled “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide.” The need to invoke Greek tragedy to add fateful weight to a warmed-over story did not bode well. I shrugged and moved on.
So maybe I was irritated by a sexist media’s need to paint intergenerational conflicts as distinctly “female,” maybe I was nonplussed by their assumption that fragmentation in the sisterhood is necessarily a negative thing, maybe I was angered by their constant need to ask what I consider a silly, tautological question: Why do women, who have been raised by their mothers to freely decide their futures, fail to become their mothers?
And by “shrugged and moved on,” I mean I stewed throughout my four-hour bus trip back to Boston and bought the mag when I arrived at South Station. Let me throw in a few full disclosures at this point. First, if a generational label is forced on me, then you would call me a member of the seemingly incoherent, rogue younger generation. Or in Faludi’s generational construct, a feminist who not only repeats the 1920s young women’s matricide of her reformist mothers, but has fallen into the “1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz ‘liberation’ to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers.” I’m going to assume, though Faludi might try to disavow it, that this is code for oversexed, frivolous, panderer to the masculine worldview.
Second, I am more inclined to reconciliation than polemics, and used to blog at Girl w/ Pen with Deborah Siegel and Courtney Martin, whom Faludi discusses as members of “’Women, Girls, Ladies,’ a feminist road show meant to foster a “fresh conversation” between younger and older women.” Finally, before picking up Faludi’s article, I had just finished Wendy Kline’s new book, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave, a great look at the paradoxical successes and failures of the American women health movement’s efforts to transform medicine’s way of knowing from an objective, lab-based epistemology to an experiential one and ground a “universal sisterhood” of women in corporeality. I was softened at the time by Kline’s descriptions of the earnest if often futile efforts made by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective to incorporate as many different experiences of the “female body” into Our Bodies, Ourselves as possible. I was more than ready, in other words, to lend a sympathetic ear to the concerns of my elders.
Instead I was infuriated. I’m still not sure why Faludi wrote this piece. She herself acknowledges that media coverage of this intergenerational feminist “conflict” is hardly new; flare-ups happen every couple of years. Perhaps Faludi did the math and realized there hadn’t been any major shots fired since Rebecca Walker’s 2008 smackdown of second-wavers in Baby Love. Perhaps she thought she was saying something “new” in constructing a narrative wherein daughters have been committing matricide since the 1920s (when the New Woman killed her reformist mother), not just the 1990s. But isn’t this just the typical storyline of cyclical youth rebellion in a rapidly evolving, “modern” society? Why gender it? In any case, her obvious preference for Second Wave feminism still places any “betrayal” squarely on my generation’s shoulders. Perhaps her initial aim was reconciliation, but she found the surprise defeat of a thirty-three-year old black daughter figure (Latifa Lyles) by a fifty-six-year old white mother figure (Terry O’Neill) for the leadership of the National Organization of Woman (NOW) too convenient a plot line to ignore. But in that case, why is her story titled “Matricide”? Was “Infanticide” too political, “Suicide” too gender-neutral?
But let’s not get caught up in things like coherent representations, apt illustrations, and basic definitions. Let’s instead address the main thrust of Faludi’s screed, which is that “over and over, the transit of feminism seems to founder in the treacherous straits of mother-daughter relations. Over and over, a younger generation disavows the women’s movement as a daughter disowns her mother.” According to Faludi, universal sisterhood was lost after the late 19th/early 20th century age of women-led reform movements. And this was a bad thing. For “how can women ever vanquish their external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house?”
Of course Faludi, in writing an article proclaiming “Matricide!” is partisan to this destruction. Case in point: my own experience. The hazy warm glow I’d retained from the women’s health movement was blown away by the Faludi’s diatribe. The very act of reading polarized me into the younger generation’s camp: defenses up, teeth bared, dare I say claws ready? I was prepared to do anything to aggressively defend my right to take a divergent path and alternative ideology from an older feminist generation.
But why does Faludi think women challenging women means a failure of feminism? Part of the problem is that she doesn’t differentiate between ideals, issues, and organizational structures. I think my generation shares many of the same ideals as an older generation, but the specific issues we face and the way we organize to advocate for those ideas have necessarily shifted in response to our changed historical circumstances. Slate recently asked a number of feminist writers what “feminism” is, given its recent appropriation by various grizzly bear characters like Sarah Palin. Katha Pollitt, born 1949, expressed ideals that I think transcend recent American feminist generations:
Feminism is a social justice movement dedicated to the social, political, economic, and cultural equality of women and men, and to the right of every woman to set her own course in life.
What is different is how my generation tries to advocate for those issues. Rather than working in umbrella women’s organizations, women today are more likely to be dispersed in issue-based activism, often working alongside men. They also may be less visible “on the street,” since so much action today takes place online. As Courtney Martin wrote at feministing.com in response to Faludi’s piece:
If you want to find feminism-in-action,you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of “the life,” veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future.
Is this de-ghettoization just re-submission to the patriarchy? Funnily, while Faludi sees women as constantly evolving creatures (signaled by their ritual maternal defenestration), the men in her narrative stay static. While gender relations are still far from equal, I agree with historian Elaine Tyler May, who argues in America and the Pill that American masculinity has evolved with American femininity as a result of the feminist and sexual revolutions.
No matter, Faludi is still put off by blogs, depressed by Lady Gaga, because they are signs of betrayal and incoherence. But let’s humor her, let’s take a closer look at what this ideal mother-daughter unity looks like. Because it’s important to think about the fact that what Faludi is actually lamenting is our loss of the late 19th century reformist mother-daughter team:
By expanding their orbit of influence into the public realm, nineteenth-century female reformers set out to disrupt the male protection racket’s reign. They would deliver their daughters from both the rapist and the savior. Through temperance, abolition, and anti-prostitution campaigns, they took the male rescue fantasy and recast it as a mother-daughter emancipation drama.
But wait, wasn’t this relationship structured and sustained by a patriarchy that gave middle-class, white women few outlets besides maternalist reform? Wait, wasn’t this only a movement of middle-class, white women, which excluded working-class and women of color, who by the way, had long been working actors within the “public sphere”?
Details. Moving on. Who is to blame for the loss of this unity? Who committed the first act of matricide?
The legacy of the 1920s feminist betrayal haunts modern feminist life… The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother… Even as the second wave appeared on the surface to reject the intrusions of 1920s commercialism—the second wave’s first big demonstration was, after all, a protest against the Miss America pageant—it retained another 1920s code, not as an oversight but as a founding trait: the driving principle of matricide.
So first, Faludi has an obvious problem with a consumer society and the fragmentary nature of modernity itself. Strange that she automatically genders it female. No not strange; rather: misogynistic. I could also raise some historical quibbles: part of the reason 1920s women no longer sought to fight their mothers’ fight was that there was no fight left to fight: women’s suffrage had been won, and many feminists were at a loss as to what to do next, or thought there was no next. Further, this was the era of the “lost generation” with over 100,000 American men dead in Europe, and millions of soldiers returning from an experience of industrial killing and looser sexual mores. The 1920s didn’t see matricide, it saw the death of an old regime that had at long last snuffed itself out. Here’s an example: In 1916 the membership of the Women’s Peace Party, one of Faludi’s women’s reform movements, totaled close to 40,000. By war’s end, membership numbered only 100. Not because of matricide, but because most of its members had gone pro-war.
But never mind history. What is most distressing is that in her exuberant nostalgia for the coherence of mother-daughter sisterhood, Faludi rejects the value of fragmentation and pluralism — things she obviously thinks characterize my own generation.
Why must we assume that “universal sisterhood” is a strength and fragmented pluralism an ideological and practical weakness? What if it’s the other way around?
In her excellent 2001 book, Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption, and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents, Mary Shanley outlines a series of principles for the regulation of reproductive technologies in the U.S. While countries like Great Britain and Germany regulate contract pregnancies (surrogacy), gamete (egg or sperm) donation, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization, U.S. states let market forces determine who has access to these technologies, how much they pay, who the donor is, and so on. A “universal sisterhood” like Faludi’s might argue that women have the “right” to reproduction and if this imagined homogeneity of “women” wants to pay $8,000 for a 5’8”, ivy-educated, healthy white woman’s eggs, then that’s their right. But as Shanley points out, “the right to reproduce may mean that some people get the right to take advantage of others’ vulnerabilities.” This is important: Women have conflicting interests, and they’re not just generational. However, Shanley argues that pluralization doesn’t necessitate the failure of a coherent feminist program but instead allows the articulation of new principles to ensure greater equality.
Take egg donation as an example. Shanley thinks differential pricing in egg transfer should be prohibited as it validates the notion that some human attributes are “worth” more than others, which may result in the valuation of some women and their eggs over others. In terms of surrogacy, she fears that some women may become an exploited “breeding class” for their wealthier sisters and advises regulation of payments to surrogate mothers. A presumption of “universal sisterhood” might blind us to these conflicting interests of woman donor vs. woman receiver, leading us to negligently ignore how problematic it is to allow a dominant class of women to determine and constrain the options of other women. A recognition of pluralism forces us to hammer out a policy solution that addresses the concerns of all women involved.
Of course what is especially perplexing about Faludi’s piece is that the Second Wave also saw and worked to address the contradictions inherent in “universal sisterhood.” Let me take a moment to get warm and glow-y about the second wave women’s health movement again. In the mid-70s, Wendy Sanford, an author of the chapters “Sexuality,” “Body Image,” and “Women Loving Women” in Our Bodies, Ourselves responded to a letter from a woman who had decided to have an abortion because her child would have Tay-Sachs. The woman found the book’s chapter on abortion off-putting because it only addressed women who chose abortion for an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy, not those who decided to abort a very much wanted pregnancy. Sanford wrote back:
I feel very much humbled by your letter of August, and I appreciate the time you took to help us make the abortion chapter of Our Bodies, Ourselves more careful and compassionate. It is letters like yours that help us make the book better, but it is always a sorrow for us that someone suffered for what we did or didn’t say.
Working as Sanford did to relate across difference rather than through mimicry seems to me to be fundamental to any feminism able to encompass a pluralism of women whose experiences, as a result of both historical contingency and increased freedom, are multiple and thankfully divergent.
Now for the hell of it, and because she seems to so mightily discomfit Faludi, let’s end with some Lady Gaga, whose unexpected actions, whose potentially hidden penis, may be doing either great or terrible things for women. It depends who you talk to:
Update: Although, if we want to get a sense of what matricide actually looks like, we should end with Elektra’s “death dance,” the final scene in Richard Strauss’s opera, Elektra (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl). After her brother kills her mother and Elektra’s thirst for vegeance is satisfied, Elektra dances herself into a frenzy and then collapses dead. Voilà: