In the November 2010 issue of Harpers, Susan Faludi published “American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide“:
No one who has been engaged in feminist politics and thought for any length of time can be oblivious to an abiding aspect of the modern women’s movement in America—that so often, and despite its many victories, it seems to falter along a “mother-daughter” divide. A generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism—its fleeting mobilizations followed by long hibernations; its bitter divisions over sex; and its reflexive renunciation of its prior incarnations, its progenitors, even its very name….
Feminism takes many forms and plays out in efforts in which younger and older women do collaborate over serious issues, usually out of the spotlight. It would be inaccurate to say that the generational schism is the problem with feminism. The primary hurdles feminism faces are the enduring ones…
But these external obstacles also mask internal dynamics that, while less conspicuous, operate as detonators, assuring feminism’s episodic self-destruction. How can women ever vanquish their external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house? As feminist scholar Rebecca Dakin Quinn wrote more than a decade ago in “An Open Letter to Institutional Mothers,” an essay chronicling her own bruising intergenerational experience at a women’s studies conference, “Mothers and daughters stand divided; how long until we are conquered?”…
Faludi’s quest takes her through a hotly contested election campaign at NOW, and through a history of the advertising industry’s hijacking of first-wave feminism back in the 1920s. At the NOW conference, “thirty-three-year-old Latifa Lyles, a charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers” is challenged by “fifty-six-year-old Terry O’Neill, who made a point of representing the concerns of NOW’s older, more traditional constituency… her campaign was geared to her boomer sisters: its rallying cry was a return to Sixties-style street activism, and its view of young feminist social networking ranged from tolerance to bewilderment.” Things do not go well.
By the final day of the NOW election conference in Indianapolis, the “unity” theme was a standing joke. Plenary sessions were bitterly divided and rife with rumors and allegation. Had Latifa Lyles presided, as vice president of membership, over a dramatic decline in financial contributions, as Terry O’Neill’s forces claimed? Or had O’Neill’s camp manipulated the numbers to present a false picture? Had Lyles’s supporters enlisted young ringers? Had O’Neill’s aides recruited older Hillary Clinton–turned–Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute?
The tactics, charges and counter-charges, may seem familiar to those who remember the 2008 Democratic primaries. Feminist politics have been a concentrated microcosm of “larger” progressive issues since at least the 1850s, when abolitionists and suffragists were frequently derailed by debates over whose rights “deserved” to be fought for. The only individuals who seem unscathed are a few savvy marketers — some of them, like Rachel Walker, literally children of older campaigners — who have turned their private grievances into successful careers bashing “old school feminism”.
Faludi goes on to show how advertisers in the Roaring Twenties used young women’s rebellion against “old, outdated suffragettes” to sell everything from sanitary napkins to “scientific behaviorism”. Setting campaigners for women’s rights against anti-slavery crusaders had worked wonderfully as a political delaying tactic in the previous century, but now setting one generation of women against another could be directly monetized for an individual company’s profits.
The legacy of the 1920s feminist betrayal haunts modern feminist life. The women’s movement went dark for nearly half a century…
Second-wave activists rejected consumer culture and merchandised sexuality because they saw their mothers as victims of postwar materialism and hated them for it. By that rejection, they repeated the 1920s sin of matricide. The third wavers have discarded some of the ideological rigidity and rancor that the second-wave feminists felt toward their personal mothers. But they are no freer of the 1920s curse. In many respects, third-wave politics and postmodern gender studies have shifted from the battleground of doctrinaire Seventies women’s liberation toward the intellectual playground of bodily display and pop-culture-friendly theory—a feminism, as Courtney Martin has put it, that is more “about being seen.” In doing so, they’ve fallen into the 1920s trap of employing a commercialized ersatz “liberation” to undermine the political mobilization of their mothers.
In light of the unfortunate convergence in the Twenties of a mass movement’s collapse with the mass market’s ascendancy, the contemporary “feminist” urge toward shopping and retail culture takes on a more sinister coloring. It’s hard to see as innocent the consumer indulgence that was implicated in the death of first-wave feminism—especially as the old formula, commercialism versus feminist continuity, is playing out all over again, in academe as well as in the marketplace.
Today’s Republicans — modern ‘conservatives’ — remember their previous successes well enough to use both variations against us: They tell us that we can have “civil rights” issues or “feminist” issues… and that these are by definition in conflict. We can have an African-American candidate or a female candidate — but those candidates must run against each other, not against any of the dozen or so white male candidates who are judged implicitly Serious & Important by virtue of possessing pale skin and a penis. At the same time, Democrats — liberals, progressives, un-herdables — are accused of being out-of-date, using ‘outworn tactics’, holding on to ‘theories no longer relevant in the interconnected, globalist modern era’. Social strategies like a social safety net, environmental protection, workers’ rights are things we ‘can’t afford.’ And when we try to argue that basic human rights are not negotiable…
Hey, Donald Trump just called President Obama a dirty name! Everybody run send some tweets to each other! Blog about how those other progressives are failing to sufficiently acknowledge the hurtfulness of this issue within the historical framework of mine-is-worse activism! Then all we need to do is pick out the appropriate color and change our Facebook page, and the war will be as good as won!
Because if we’ve given up on defeating our real mutual enemies, we can at least be happy that we’ve driven the Inadequately Pure from within our (ever-dwindling) ranks!