Sisterhood, Interrupted: a review
Full disclosure: I kind of wish I had written this book. Over the years, as I’ve read basically every history or memoir of the women’s movement, I’ve often thought that I’d like to write a popular account, one that would capture the passion and power of the second wave for the next generation, and also convey the relationship of the third wave to its predecessors. Well, Deborah Siegel has done it, and she’s done a damn good job. Siegel is (like me, actually) a thirty-something Ph.D. who left the academy to do women’s studies in a more public context. Caught somewhere between the second and third waves of feminism, she’s taken on the project of trying to explain each to the other.
Siegel’s book explores the ways in which feminists have too often fallen into a pattern of attacking one another rather than attacking their real enemies. This dynamic is particularly true of feminists of different generations – generations that she, as have many others, labels “mothers” and “daughters.” (This significant shift in metaphor, which Siegal explores in detail, itself signals the breakdown of the “sisterhood” second wave feminists sought.) She aims to demonstrate that despite their real differences, feminists of the second and third waves have more in common than they may realize, and would do well to recognize their common interests, learn from one another, and join forces against the resilient patriarchy.
Siegel explores how changing perceptions of power and how to get it underlie many misunderstandings among feminists. In discussing the current emphasis on sexual liberation as empowerment, she writes, “It is not a failure of feminism that is leading to the confusion of these empowered women about the contours of real power.” Rather, she blames “a world that has changed, yes, but not enough” – one in which the success of feminism for some women masks the persistent inequality experienced by many others. While she’s critical of the younger generation for their sometimes singular emphasis on the sexual arena, she also points out that this issue is not new but part of a long feminist conversation about the nature of sex and power.
This point underscores two of the central arguments of this book:
1. Debates about feminism in each generation are not new nor do they represent radical breaks with the feminism of the previous era, but rather must be understood as part of an ongoing conversation. This formulation positions feminists of different generations as partners in dialogue, rather than opponents or competitors.
2. The partial but still quite incomplete success of feminism is confusing. This explains postfeminism, she argues, because “if you grew up believing you were equal, then wasn’t the term ‘feminist’ – with its implications of battles yet unwon – itself a threat to your sense of social standing?” And it explains the non-political emphasis of some young women today, who have the resources and privileges to focus on sexual expression, for example, rather than economic power, and whose own advantages blind them to the inequality experienced by other women.
In general, Siegel does a great job of explaining the nuances among various strands of feminism. Her analysis of popular culture is a little bit superficial in places, but this is entirely forgivable in a short review of several decades of feminism. I also appreciate that Siegel knows when to remain an objective reporter of various feminist positions and when to interject her own opinions. (The fact that I agree with her on most issues I’m sure helped my appreciation.)
One nitpicky criticism from this historian of feminism: Siegel states that “in the 1990s, for the first time in history, we had two generations of feminists living side by side – the second wave still churning within and alongside the rising and boisterous third.” What about the 1910s? That period of the suffrage activism saw the clash of two generations of first wavers who had radically different political approaches and social styles (for the non-historians, check out a good pop cultural depiction of this in the movie Iron Jawed Angels, with Angelica Huston as Carrie Chapman Catt and Hilary Swank as Alice Paul).
In her conclusion, Siegel notes that feminism, whose death knell has been sounded more times than we can count, is still alive and is as messy, dynamic, and non-linear as all living things. Given this messiness, she’s done an amazing job of capturing the spirit and challenges of feminism in a readable and succinct volume. So no matter your age or feminist-identity-of-choice, check out this book and engage your mother or daughter – or should we just say sister? – in conversation about what feminism means to you today.