I am my parents’ daughter & my mother’s sister

Troubled mother-daughter relationships are a recurring theme in second wave feminist writing. They are also discussed in Astrid Henry’s book about generational conflict in feminism, Not My Mother’s Sister. But guest-blogger Finia found that these depictions of daughters at war with their (literal and metaphorical) mothers just didn’t resonate with her own experience.

Like many women born in the 1990s, I was raised with an unshakable belief in my own equality. My parents grew up in the Leftist movement in West Germany during the Cold War, and when they had a daughter it was clear she would become their feminist project. This involved an atheist upbringing, empowering kids’ books, an artistic education, and a father who stayed home part-time while my mother made her career as an international IT journalist. (The recurring joke in my family is that if Mama had stayed home with me I would have learned to change light bulbs, but stuck with Papa, I had no chance to learn any practical skills at all.)

In Marge Piercy’s 1973 novel Small Changes some of the women live in communes, and I could relate to that from the kids’ perspective, because I grew up in a house with five adults: my Mama, myself and the big bearded teddy downstairs, my Papa, the woman artist and the musician upstairs. Recalling this period, I have fond memories of a busy, energetic house, where there were always people around (many of them men with long hair and long beards) for me to talk to and play with.

The two main protagonists of Small Changes both have difficult relationships with their mothers. One of them reflects that it was as if

there was a law in operation that mothers and daughters could not teach each other, could not inherit, could not relate.

In my family I think we overcame this, by opening up to the possibility of learning from each other. Dinner-table conversations would frequently revolve around stereotypes, personal experiences and mutual support – an early consciousness-raising of a sort. My parents helped me to perceive situations in different ways and to recognise injustices. It must have killed them to sit through all eight seasons of Germany’s Next Top Model—looking back it is a terrible sexist show – but they preferred to watch it with me rather than let me go off and watch it without context.

It was probably unavoidable that in my teenage years I would rebel. But as the daughter of hippie parents my rebellion took an unusual form. I chose Latin as my third language, and took up ballroom dancing as a hobby. To this day I believe I’m a disappointment to my parents, since I have not learned how to juggle (“not even with fabrics” – my father likes to add with utter judgement in his voice), nor can I ride a unicycle. But I felt no need to reject feminism, or (in Astrid Henry’s words) “escape from my mother”: she was never a prison to escape from, but rather a launch-pad from which to start.

Today my Mama and I relate to each other first and foremost as women, without erasing our generational family bond. We share many of the same concerns: we talk about our relatives’ ignorance of gender issues, criticise badly-written female characters in films (or praise the ones we admire—we both love Claire Underwood in House of Cards), and complain about the lack of sanitary products in male-dominated office environments (while celebrating Mama’s ingenious plan to expense the tampon supply for the staff bathrooms on the sly). Even now I still call my mother if I am not sure whether I am reacting to a situation appropriately. And—here’s the twist—she does the same. I know all about her office politics and struggles with incompetent male board members. She values my advice as much as I value hers.

One source of conflict Astrid Henry mentions is the idea that feminists today are less idealistic than the second wavers, less optimistic about their personal power to bring about social change. But many radicals of my mother’s generation have ‘cooled down’ over time—they have been willing to compromise to achieve results. My Mama now acknowledges that jumpsuits are more appropriate for business meetings than jeans, and she eventually agreed to accept a promotion, even though this pushed her onto the ‘wrong’ side in the capitalist system. The tension between radical ideals and the practical politics of incremental change is something I grew up with: I think of it as an integral part of feminism, rather than a division or a conflict between different generations of feminists.

If your relationship to feminism is bound up with your relationship to Mother (both in the literal ‘my Mama’ sense and in the more metaphorical ‘second wave’ sense), then that’s a good thing for me. My relationship with my mother is one of mutual respect: it has evolved over time and it continues to facilitate our growth as individuals. We do have arguments and disagreements, because our values and approaches are not the same. But the issues we face are similar. We are part of the same struggle, and we fight it together—as mother and daughter, and as sisters.

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Re-reading feminist utopian fiction

Most of the texts we’ve been reading for the Second Wave course are either academic books and articles, or else they’re political manifestos, polemics and position papers. But the reading list also contains quite a long section devoted to fiction, and it’s not there just for light relief.  Feminist fiction in the 1970s and 80s had important political functions. Writers used it as a vehicle for exploring ideas, creating alternative worlds, documenting women’s life-experiences and reclaiming their forgotten histories. Looking back, I’d say my own feminist education owed as much to the (many) novels I read as to the weightier theoretical tomes.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of feminists if the same had been true for them, and if it had, which novels had made the biggest impression. Everyone’s list was different, but one thing immediately stood out: almost all the lists included at least one story set in an imaginary future or a parallel world.

A couple of women mentioned a ‘first wave’ example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-female utopia Herland, which was originally published in serial form in 1915, and reissued in 1979. Other favourites had been written during the second wave: they included Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Suzy McKee Charnas’s A Walk to the End of the World (1974) and its sequel Motherlines (1981), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979). But by far the most popular novels belonging to this genre (they didn’t just dominate the speculative fiction category, they were the two most frequently-mentioned titles overall) were Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The ‘woman on the edge of time’ is Connie Ramos, a working class Latina woman who has edgebeen committed to a psychiatric hospital after trying to defend her niece from a violent pimp. She finds she is able to make contact with the future, of which (in time-honoured fashion) there are two different possible versions. The one evoked in most detail is Mattapoisett, a utopian society where women and men live as equals. The other is a nightmare world where the most oppressive elements of Connie’s own society (such as the objectification and prostitution of women) have been taken to even greater extremes.

The book has been reissued this year to mark the fortieth anniversary of its original publication. The Guardian recently published an extract from the author’s introduction, in which Piercy both explains what she was trying to do when she created Mattapoisett—‘I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete’—and considers why fewer feminists today are inventing their own ideal fictional societies. Feminist utopias, she says,

were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.

The optimism of the early second wave was already beginning to fade by the time Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which is unequivocally a dystopia—not so much a call to imagine the ideal feminist future as a wake-up call focusing attention on some alarming developments in the present. Conservatism handmaidhad reasserted itself, with Ronald Reagan elected US president in 1980, and Atwood’s fictional Gilead dramatises the potential consequences of a related political phenomenon, the rise of a militant right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Some of the women who put The Handmaid’s Tale on their lists commented that its dystopian vision seemed even more relevant now than it had been in the 1980s. And indeed, you can’t help feeling that the newly-elected Vice-President of the US would be very much at home in Gilead.

A similar prescience can be discerned in the British writer Zoe Fairbairns’s dystopia Benefits, which imagines a patriarchal government using the machinery of the welfare state to keep women in their place. The book was published in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. It’s not as well-known as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s equally revealing about the mood of the 1980s (and spookily on the money about a lot of what’s happened since).

Feminist utopian fiction was particularly popular during the years of the Anglo-American second wave, but women’s desire to imagine a better world has both a longer history and a wider reach. 51pb9nrvgtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The tradition begins as early as 1666, with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, in which utopia is ruled by an empress who uses her power to promote peace, tolerance and equality. And not all examples come from Europe and North America: in 1905 (a full decade before Herland), the Bengali writer and social reformer Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein published ‘Sultana’s Dream’, a story set in ‘Ladyland’, which is ruled by women 512huudm8xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_while men are kept in purdah (as one woman explains to a visitor: ‘men, we find, are of rather low morals, and so we do not like dealing with them’).

I expected some women to include some of these books among their favourite second-wave novels, but I’ll admit to being surprised that the two most frequently-mentioned titles were both in the utopia/dystopia category. Evidently they did make a deep impression, and I think Marge Piercy is right about why: one woman who remembered devouring vast quantities of feminist sci-fi said she loved it for ‘that sense that things could be different’. Since visions of the future are always shaped by the author’s present, a lot of the books I’ve mentioned seem dated now; but the best of them still have the power to draw you into their worlds, and to make you think differently about your own.

Postscript: thanks to all the women who answered my question about what feminist fiction had been important to them. FYI here’s a full list of the ten most frequently mentioned titles.

  1. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  4. Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965)
  5. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
  6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  7. Kate Millett, Sita (1977)
  8. Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (published in Arabic in 1975, and in English in 1983)
  9. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)
  10. Marilyn French, The Woman’s Room (1977)