On feminist genealogy: Reading the reading of “Rereading the Second Wave”

mother-and-child

So this week, myself and some other women took part in a series in the New Statesman to reread the work of some central second wave thinkers. As Helen Lewis writes in her intro, the second wave has pretty much been “ground down into soundbites.” This process of grinding a complex body of work into a few easily dismissed axioms began as part of the anti-feminist backlash in the eighties, but it continues apace in the present, and not only by self-identified anti-feminists.

For many modern feminists, the second wave exists only as a backdrop – painted in increasingly flattened strokes – against which they define themselves, as something other. Unlike those dungarees wearing bile-spewers of the past, the new waves of feminism are not man-hating, or anti-sex. Their rank and file are not bored well-to-do housewives with too much time on their hands. And their politics is not, therefore, an artifact of privilege, of the preoccupations of white middle-class women in a long-faded picket-fence surburbia.

This caricature of the second wave is not baseless. It is a striking sketch easily disseminated, which, like all effective caricature, accentuates some evident and unattractive features to the exclusion of everything else. But what caricature doesn’t do is deal in subtlety. And those who trade in caricature are rarely bothered with whether their handy sketch is a just portrait of its subject. They are far more concerned with whether it does its job.

So we thought it would be worthwhile to read – and critically reappraise – the words of second wave writers. The response has been thunderous. And not in an applausey kind of way. On the one side – predictably – the caricature-dealers have been outraged about us uncritically lauding the work of a bunch of privileged all-but-one white women whose work is – they just know (without reading it, or its reappraisal) – simply a catalogue of bigotry. On the other – somewhat less predictably – the radical feminists of twitter have been similarly outraged about ‘patriarchally approved’ liberal mediafems who don’t know their stuff, and haven’t paid their dues, having the audacity to speak about their feminist foremothers, and usurping their rightful voice.

Both of these responses are fascinating because, as Glosswitch pointed out yesterday, the fractiousness between waves of feminists is about the relation of mothers and daughters. In Sarah Ditum‘s memorable words the third-wave response to the second is akin to “a swarm of tiny cannibal spiders devouring the maternal body.” And the body of that mother is seen by her devouring daughters as, Glosswitch suggests, a “wizened old crone,” a “racist-transphobe-frigid harpy who doesn’t know her time is up.” At the same time, the radfems claim to speak for the mother against her insolent ingrate daughters. To them, younger women writing about their feminist mothers are basically, Glosswitch continues, “swishy Snow Whites, faking rebellion while basking in the patriarchal gaze.” Indeed, according to @radicalfeminist, the purpose of the project is “to erase and misrepresent other women’s work” in the service of our “liberal feminist careers and profiles.”

It’s always fun to find yourself in the centre of a Radfem/Intersectionalfem pincer movement. Both, and at the same time, a flighty liberal sell-out and a controlling old battleaxe. And the fact that these two – usually embattled – factions have found themselves united (oh happy days!) in their condemnation tells us something interesting; as does their mirror-image positioning of us as their genealogical other – the insolent daughter to the wronged mother, the controlling mother to the oppressed daughter. And what it tells us, is that both factions are similarly beholden to a patriarchal idea of women’s genealogy.

How we understand the possibilities of relation to our mothers is a critical feminist issue, and more than that, it is a critical index of how we – both as individuals, and as a culture – think about the very possibility of identity and relation in general. All of us come into existence in dependency on another, and that other is symbolically – and most often actually – the woman who birthed us. And at the same time, we live in a society which prizes, above all else, individuality, identity, independence, self-determination.

These are the sacred signs of personhood, and they are, entirely unincidentally, also the marks of manhood. Becoming a person, we are led to believe, is all about radical renunciation of the ties that bind us. A casting off of our infantile needs and dependencies, of the absolute vulnerability with which we enter this world, the remnants of which we carry with us as long as we live. Our culture, as Irigaray was acutely aware, is fashioned by our endless efforts to strive towards an impossible ideal – to make ourselves anew, each and every time, out of the ashes of our past, shining and invulnerable.

This impulse corresponds, Irigaray argued, to the murder of the mother. And it is the motive force of all the acts of appropriation and annihilation – against ‘others’ and against nature – which this culture perpetrates, on both quotidian and epic scales. Radical feminist analysis has one great weakness. It tends to accept that domination simply is. But while domination is the how of patriarchal-imperial-capitalist violence, it is not the why. And if we want to change it, we have to understand why.

Irigaray’s answer is that the violence spews from the crucible of identity formation, and our inability to understand – and tolerate – the vulnerability and terror of our existence. The stuff of life is identity-in-relation. We are creatures with soft skins, not hermetically-sealed shells, and if we weren’t, we would simply die. If we want to stem the flow of blood we need to get our heads and hearts around this fact: we can be ourselves, without denying that our-self is also others.

We do not have to kill our mothers to make ourselves anew. And at the same time, we are not just dutiful daughters. It is absolutely – literally – vital, that we remain in relation, and indeed honour, the work of the women that gave us life. But the life that they gave us is our own, and it is also honouring them for us to live it.

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3 comments

  1. As one of those second-wavers, i know that the cariacature deletes many of us women who were working-class, lesbian, and women of color. We are defined out of existence in the new summary interpretations of Women’s Liberation. We were not housewives. We were activists who came out of the civil rights, left, anti-war movement, who saw the claims of social justice crumble before our own devaluation and abuse.

    As one of my friends in the 1970s used to say, before the rise of the third wave, a basic principle of male domination is “Kill the mother.” I am not anyone’s mother, by lifelong resolution. But what i say is this: it’s in the natural order of things for young women to stand on my shoulders. Just do not spit down on my head as you do it.

  2. I’m not saying that identity formation doesnt involve the struggle you say Irigaray describes, but doesn’t framing it the way you did make these facts of identity formation seem ahistorical and contextless? In other words, doesn’t it make them seem unavoidably or naturally a part of human identity formation, rather than a result of the needs of a patriarchy/capitalist society/empire, and their way of harnessing human sociality?

    I don’t think it’s so obvious which way (direction) to read the causation here. You say that domination isn’t the why, it’s the how, but surely in a patriarchal-capitalist-imperialist context it very much IS the why. The great why of patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism is resource extraction (of one group for the benefit of another), which is not just something domination allows, but actually IS domination. I don’t think they’re neatly separable, certainly not in the case of patriarchy, since women’s ‘resources’ ARE (in part) their bodies, their bodies’ innate reproductive possibilities, their human capacity to care/bond/be social, etc.

    Great blog. Love your poetic, philosophical style.

  3. As a culture we’re really good at heavily criticizing our mothers and the way they raised us, often in excruciating and perfectionistic detail. We still hold mothers as a class of people to a practically impossible standard. We don’t look at the context of the mistakes they may have made, and forgive them for being completely human.

    For instance, my mom (inadvertently) taught me to fear being alone as an older woman. The result was that I was not sufficiently picky about who I married, and wound up with someone who treated me very badly. When I noticed this, that I’d been socialized to fear being alone without a man, by my mother – I was pretty angry for several years. Why did she saddle me with this burden?

    But with education about the past I learned she was simply a product of her times, and of the mistakes that her mother made in turn (which I’d argue were a whole lot more abusive – in comparison my mother was a saint). When I examine my situation critically, I see my mother did a great job of encouraging me to develop and care for my own mind, my skills, and my health, which I’ve used to get me out of my bad marriage.

    What if we looked at our philosophical foremothers the same way? Of course they were imperfect, and were inevitably going to be blind to many injustices of their day. Our culture tends to idealize and idolize those people who have come to prominence and we find their flaws to be unforgiveable. What we should celebrate is what they DID see, what they were brave enough to point out. And now, being adults with our own experiences and understanding of history we can look at their imperfections, seeing the human beings that wrote these things as humans, and learn what NOT to do without dismissing them entirely.

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