The Myth of Matricide by Joanna Chiu (Fall 2011)
Three years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, I cut classes for a week to attend a feminist retreat in Quebec. I looked forward to a relaxing and stimulating week where I would meet inspiring feminist activists of all ages from across Canada. Instead, I found myself stuck in the wintery hinterlands of Quebec with no phone service to call a taxi to get me out of there.
I don’t know how it happened, but by the second night the hundred or so women at the retreat had divided into three camps: young feminists of colour, young white feminists and older feminists. The young feminists of colour got together every night to talk about why they disliked white people, and the young white feminists felt hurt as a result.
Meanwhile, the older feminists tried to ignore the drama among the younger women; they spent the evenings having stimulating conversations over their knitting projects. After a few days of witnessing the younger feminists bash each other, I joined the older women’s knitting circle.
The retreat was the last straw after a string of frustrating experiences I’d had, and at the age of 20, I pronounced myself officially burnt-out from feminist activism. I decided to focus instead on developing a career as a journalist. As a writer, I reasoned, I could avoid trying to navigate the divisions and tensions among feminist communities.
Two years later, I landed an internship at The Nation magazine in New York City, where I spent the next four months immersed in American politics and in the left-wing media culture of New York. During my internship, I came across a column by feminist writer Katha Pollitt in The Nation. The September 2010 column, “Feminist Mothers, Flapper Daughters?” was Pollitt’s response to an essay by American author Susan Faludi in Harper’s entitled, “American Elektra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide.”
In her essay, Faludi claimed that, by the turn of the 20th century, harmony among suffragists had begun degenerating into a “nightmare of dysfunction” where each new generation of feminists sought to metaphorically kill their feminist mothers. She used the 2010 U.S. National Organization of Women (NOW) presidential race between a young candidate and an older candidate as an example, and described how she saw discussions of the NOW presidency “degenerate into bitter accusations from both sides”—with young feminists accusing older feminists of infantalizing them and of saying things like, “We have to take back the women’s movement since it’s obvious these third wavers can’t get the job done.”
Faludi, 52, characterized such generational divides as “seismic generational rifts” and concluded that “the contemporary women’s movement seems fated to fight a war on two fronts: alongside the battles of the sexes rages the battle of the ages.”
A Canadian living in the U.S. at the time, I didn’t know whether Faludi’s grim diagnosis applied north of the 49th parallel. But the talk about ritual matricide made me a bit uncomfortable. As a pacifist, I was relieved to read in Pollitt’s response that she thought Faludi “paint[ed] with too sweeping and too dark a brush.”
I was less happy, however, that Pollitt took the liberty to tell readers the things young feminists do that annoy her. “I … find young feminists a bit trying on occasion,” she wrote. “I’m tired of their constant use of teeny-bopper words like ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome,’ the lazy use of obscenities and the way they refer to themselves as ‘girls’ and ‘chicks.’ What’s wrong with ‘woman’? Is ‘woman’ too fat for them?”
Crouched over my desk at the magazine office, I seethed. I use the word amazing. I like the word amazing. I am not a teeny-bopper! I decided to interview Pollitt to find out more about the generational differences among feminists.
To her credit, Pollitt commended the new cohort of feminists for being feisty, passionate and savvy with media. She told me that “the generational quarrels in feminism are about power and leadership and attention—not ideas.” And she added that “if [young feminists] rankle the old guard, that might be quite useful!”
I forgave Pollitt for poking fun at my vocabulary, but I was troubled about the animosity between different generations of feminists. Faludi’s essay gave me the impression that older feminists think younger feminists are Lady Gaga-worshipping nitwits.
As soon as I got Michele Landsberg on the phone, she reassured me that reports of conflict among feminists were not a new thing. As one of Canada’s longest-running columnists (she began writing for the Toronto Star in 1978 and retired in 2003), she has been looking at media through a feminist lens for a long time.
“The media will always say that feminism is falling apart,” says Landsberg, 72. “If they can’t find examples, they’ll just make them up.” Landsberg doesn’t buy in to the matricide myth.
“In my experience, I haven’t seen much generational struggle, except for in the natural tendency for the young to forge their own identity.”
Susan Cole, a senior editor at Toronto’s NOW magazine and a columnist for Herizons, agrees that while divisions among feminists have always existed,
“The media loves it when women fight.” According to Cole, who was part of a feminist collective in Toronto that published the feminist newspaper Broadside from 1978 to 1988, older feminists have a responsibility to look past stereotypical ideas about youth culture in order to understand the complex conditions in which younger feminists live.
“It is a real challenge for older feminists like myself to remember that we cannot ask young feminists to think like we do or experience life the way we did,” says Cole, who came of age in the late 1960s. “Younger feminists may have different approaches to how to get things done, and I think that [older feminists] need to understand that the world is very different.”
Cole admits that if she has felt frustration with younger feminists, it has been when she thinks that younger feminists “do not know their history and ignore the struggles that older feminists have gone through.”
Landsberg grew up in the 1950s, and it wasn’t until she read Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex that she found a word to describe the injustices she had grown up seeing all around her. Even then, Landsberg says, “I had to be a feminist alone, and that wasn’t easy.”
Inevitably, younger feminists will disagree with older feminists. “It is natural and good for young feminists to feel angry at perceived injustices from older feminists,” Landsberg believes. Attitudes towards pornography and prostitution are an example of where Landsberg says she has encountered a real generational divide.
“I think it’s so frivolous when younger feminists deride older feminists for being ‘anti-sex,’” she says.
“No older feminist is perfect. We can’t afford to trash each other over minor differences when there are so many injustices we have to deal with.”
Landsberg doesn’t believe there is a strict hierarchy among feminists, one with older feminists sitting stubbornly at the top: “I think the idea of there being a hierarchy of power among feminists is a myth,” Landsberg insists. “I’m not holding down a job keeping someone from taking my job as a feminist.”
As I talked to Landsberg and Cole, it struck me that women in the early second wave didn’t have to deal with criticism from feminist foremothers; nor did they have them as mentors or allies.
“I didn’t have any older feminist mentors,” says Cole, who came of age in the late ’60s. “We were inventing the wheel.”
After I returned home to Vancouver from New York, I asked two younger feminists to share their views on generational differences, starting with Faludi’s characterization of feminism as a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
“I find the narrative of feminism as a mother-daughter struggle very simplistic,” says Amanda Reaume, executive director of the Antigone Foundation, which publishes a quarterly, Antigone, to encourage young women to get involved in politics.
“It obscures the issues that actually exist.” Reaume, 26, says “Many older women are very supportive mentors for younger women, and, on the flip side, many younger women deify mythical mother feminist figures.”
Although Reaume’s experiences working with older feminists have been positive on the whole, she has seen generational differences at work.
“One of my good friends tried to convince a feminist organization led primarily by older women to become trans-inclusive, and they wouldn’t hear any of it,” she recalls. Hearing about such resistance from an established feminist organization was one of Reaume’s motivations to start her own organization with other young feminists.
Manjeet Birk is a former executive director of Antidote, a network of multiracial girls and women in Victoria, B.C. In her experience, she encountered “some older feminists who have a hard time letting go of power struggles and issues because of what they had gone through.
“I think many older feminists have had to overcome obstacles such as racism and classism within the feminist movement, which made them into incredible activists,” explains Birk, 30. “And [younger feminists] may find them more difficult to work with because of how their experiences have hardened them.”
In spite of any differences that exist, Reaume and Birk would like to see feminists of all ages work to collaborate and share resources, rather than close themselves off into opposing camps.
“We have to stop making assumptions about other feminists, and start listening,” concludes Birk. “That is the only way to move forward. If you want to know more about other feminists, you should just ask them. We have to open our minds and hearts and be prepared to have all sorts of difficult conversations.
Ultimately, as Landsberg concludes, feminists cannot afford to let differences weaken their resolve or take away pride in their work.
“Feminists are always a minority,” she says. “Thinking people who reject the mainstream are always a minority. Feminism is a critique of society that takes more energy, and creates more discomfort. It’s not as easy as going along with the flow, so we’re going to be a minority—but we’re a minority that has changed the world.”
Joanna Chiu is a Vancouver writer and founder of WAM! Vancouver. womenactionmedia.org
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