My mom recently drove out to campus for a mother-daughter weekend. When she arrived, she dropped off some spring clothes and picked up random books and heavy winter coats at my dorm. It felt so normal to be climbing back into our 2007 Subaru Outback, to feel the texture of the worn leather seats under my fingertips—seats she picked out for their resistance to my little-kid spills. It was like coming home when I heard the rumble of the engine coming to life. As if it knew I was there, the temperamental display blinked on, declaring it was ready for the AUX. We drove up to Nassau to the sound of U2 serenading us with the melodies of my childhood, chatting the whole way.
As we talked, I kept having to ask her if I had told her about this or that person. I had to keep track of what had happened since the last time we talked and explain the context and chronology of so many events over the past two months. It was strange and exhausting to have to actively communicate what was going on to her—the venn diagram of our lives had overlapped for so long that I didn’t know how to react as I felt the circles drawing away from each other.
Growing away from my mother is a natural and inevitable thing, but it got me thinking about how mother-daughter relationships change over the course of our lives. I’ve had so many friends tell me about problems with their mothers—tensions that only seem to increase as we grow up. Today, there seems to be an ever-expanding rift between mothers and daughters, especially when it comes to different visions of feminism. Many older women don’t seem to understand modern ideas about sexualized “slut-walk” feminism, the need to disrupt the gender binary, and the constantly shifting vocabulary about various political issues. Having been a Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies professor for over 15 years, she looks at the movement nowadays and cannot relate to it. She and other older feminists like her question why so many displays of sexually liberated feminism align perfectly with the male fantasies they are trying to combat and worry that the emphasis on questioning the gender binary has the consequence of marginalizing women’s issues even further. Because these older feminists have reservations about ideas that I and many of my peers don’t question at all, it becomes easy for us to view them as part of the oppressive monolith they are also trying to fight against. Because of this incompatibility, many older feminists are labeled “white feminists” and “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” to the extent that many of my peers are wary of even discussing issues of gender with their mothers and other older women.
I think that this lack of intergenerational solidarity occurs precisely because we don’t communicate with each other enough. I understand where it comes from—young people feel misunderstood by their elders, so they isolate themselves in self-defense. But this creates echo chambers where nobody tries to understand the other side, and the conversations develop separately in a way that provides fertile ground for further misunderstanding. And so, the cycle repeats. I decided to explore this problem and process potential solutions by interviewing my mom during our weekend together. So, between shopping and dinner, we had the following conversation.
This transcript has been trimmed and lightly edited for clarity.
Kristiana Filipov: So we’ve mentioned this idea that American feminism commits a sort of “ritual matricide” every new generation, and that the ideas and allegiances of each wave of feminism rarely translate down from the older women to their daughters. Where does this idea come from?
Mom: Yeah, so the argument that Susan Faludi makes in her Harper’s [Magazine] piece, “American Electra,” is that men are very good at passing on power and privilege from one generation to the next. This is the idea of the old boys’ club. They’re very good at nurturing and mentoring the younger generation. And younger men are also really good at making older men feel important in their roles as mentors. And so one of the reasons that patriarchy has worked so well for such a long time is because men always establish a new class of elite men who are going to replace them. Unfortunately, women are really bad at this. Every generation of women needs to reject their mothers in order to establish themselves. Why that is the case is a really interesting question. Because on the one hand, you could say that women at the top, who are in positions of power, struggled so hard to get those positions, and nobody helped them, that they’re not willing to pay it forward yet.
KF: Yeah, and they feel like it’s cheating. Or it’s unfair for them to have to mentor younger women. They’re already exhausted from clawing their way up to the top.
Mom: Exactly. They struggled so hard against the old boys’ club to get their positions, the last thing they want to do is turn around and just repeat the old boys club for women. So I think there’s a little bit of that.
KF: Do you think that’s because as a society created by patriarchy, there’s this whole problem that we just don’t like older women? That we value them significantly less than we value other groups in society?
Mom: Yes, that’s part of it. Older men are seen as distinguished. Older women are just “Karens” or grandmas, and we do not have a good role model of powerful older women. And even when we do, intergenerational solidarity has to go both ways, right? Young women need to be able to stand up and defend older women, and older women need to stand up and reach down and help younger women. That’s hard to do. There are a couple of theories about why this solidarity isn’t happening. One theory is just that women’s power is too new, and that after a couple of generations—and actually, here’s where the Soviet Union is a really good example. The fact that you have women in the Soviet Union who earned their PhDs in physics in 1949 means you now have several generations of women in science who can support young women in their fields so that it’s totally normal that women go into science, whereas in the United States, it’s still a real struggle. And American women in STEM are still struggling with sexism themselves. They don’t have the time and energy to help. That’s one thing.
KF: Uh huh, yeah.
Mom: You know, there’s another school of thought that thinks that this [lack of solidarity] is a conspiracy because women’s power is a threat to patriarchy. It is a threat also, in some ways, to capitalism, and the best way to undermine women’s power is to convince every new generation of young women that their mothers did everything wrong. If you can convince people that older second wave feminists are “TERFs” [trans-exclusionary radical feminists], for instance, or not intersectional or something like that, then you can break the intergenerational transfer of women’s power and then feminism just dies out. Because nobody was there to defend it.
KF: Or it doesn’t die out, necessarily, but it loses its power and meaning. It becomes a hashtag with the veneer of feminist language and thought, but it doesn’t actually operate or change the system at all. It’s just there. Because it keeps having to be reinvented.
Mom: Exactly. It keeps being reinvented and then commercialized, co-opted, and defanged by capitalism and patriarchy. And it’s not actually challenging authority.
KF: So do you think that the problem here is a certain form of feminism? I mean, I want to shy away from saying we need to reinvent feminism, right, because that’s exactly the problem. Why do you think that capitalism has co-opted feminism and a lot of these other social movements?
Mom: So Nancy Fraser, a professor at The New School in New York, has a really interesting article called “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.” And she makes a really interesting argument that one of the only things standing in the way of capitalism in the ’70s was patriarchy. Patriarchal relations prevented the exploitation of familial labor. There are all sorts of ways in which patriarchy was a bulwark against capitalism. And capitalism had a really interesting incentive to destroy patriarchy.
KF: So when Fraser says that patriarchy was a bulwark against capital, what exactly do you mean? Is that because of the redistribution within the family unit?
Mom: Yes. Her argument is really interesting. Post-World War II, we had a society with tight labor markets and unionized labor with a family wage and men were the breadwinners and most women stayed home. If you want to break the backs of the unions, you need to flood the market with new labor so that you can keep downward pressure on wages, right? And patriarchy upheld this model of the breadwinner and housewife. And so as long as women were in the home, they weren’t working, so you had tighter labor markets, which meant that employers had to give higher wages.
KF: You doubled the labor force with women, and so wages could go down.
Mom: Exactly. And it’s worth saying that women had always worked, especially poor working-class women or women of color. They have always worked in this country. But there was a massive group of women that were genuinely out of the labor force: middle-class and upper-class women. When they got married, they left the labor force, and they stayed home with their kids. And that meant that there was this whole reserve army of labor that the capitalist wanted to get out in order to break the backs of the unions. And so Fraser basically says in this article that when capitalism was looking for an ally to destroy or undermine patriarchy, the feminists stepped in and made it all about self-empowerment and self-actualization, right?
Mom: And even though there were earlier, very strong left, intersectional, and Black feminist movements in this country that were quite radical and challenged capitalism, the kind of feminism that became associated with the word “feminism”—the kind of Gloria-Steinem-Betty-Friedan-type of second-wave, white, middle-class feminism was a feminism that really never challenged capitalism at all and became primarily about allowing women to be exploited on equal grounds as men.
KF: Yeah, or just as exploitative as the top, most powerful men.
Mom: Exactly, exactly. And I think that there’s a story there, that those women, you know—this is like the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” narrative—those women just played the game. And they just wanted to be in the C-suite. And they just wanted to run for President and they just wanted the benefits of being female CEOs.
KF: Yeah, like they wanted more people in the top 0.1% that were women, but they still only cared about the top 1%. And this is exactly the problem that the younger generation currently has: like, this is not feminism. We shouldn’t accept this, and we shouldn’t endorse that vision. I think that it’s still very much being co-opted, and it will be more co-opted by capitalism, but right now I think a lot of people are reacting to how second-wave feminism was very individualistic and did not serve all women.
Mom: So, the critique is right. The problem, as far as I see, is that the “Gen Z” critique of the boomers and of the second wave is that they’re focusing on a very selective history of the second wave. There was so much more. There was this whole other kind of feminism: socialist feminism or left feminism or radical Black feminism that did not focus on the individual and did not focus solely on men and focused much more on changing the economic system. So that’s where I feel like if more young women took the time to actually understand a little bit more about the complexity of the history of women’s activism, they would get more out of the movement today and actually be able to build on the ideas that already exist rather than reinventing the wheel every generation.
KF: So is there also a bit of Cold War stuff happening here? It seems like there’s a lot of remnants of anti-communism in this story, and, you know, history is written by the victors, so of course the narrative that we’re consuming now is going to talk about the most “successful” and the most prominent visions of feminism from the ’60s and ’70s. And for a wide variety of reasons, the Black and socialist feminist movements were sidelined and sort of dismissed by most people. So given that they only had limited influence, what can we learn from them now?
Mom: They were a lot more influential than you think. I’ll give you a concrete example. President Nixon created the Second Presidential Commission on Women (the first was in 1961, President Kennedy, but the second was President Nixon) because the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. President Nixon signs it knowing (being advised) that the states will never ratify it, so he doesn’t really want to sign it but he signs it because he wants the women’s vote. But I found these declassified documents that show that basically some of President Nixon’s advisors warned him that he “ignored feminism at his peril” because there were different strands of feminism and the one that he should support was called—and this is a direct quote—”emergent responsible feminism.” So, in other words, the nice white ladies who want to go to Harvard. So Nixon’s advisers are saying: “We should support them, because if we don’t, we’re going to have to deal with those crazy, radical Black feminists with their red flags calling for socialism and liberation.”
KF: So you’re saying that to the extent that [radical feminists] are not important anymore, it’s because they’ve been made unimportant by the people who endorsed “emergent responsible feminism.” And so now when we think of second-wave feminism we only think about this white, upper-middle-class feminism, because that is what was co-opted and popularized. And I think that this is very relevant because capitalism and the American political economy have realized in recent years that they can’t carry on with the same sexist, racist, classist norms because people are paying attention now. They’re waking up. And so they have to find the lesser of the threats. For example, they find the vision of anti-racism that is the most compatible with capitalism, the one that allows them to sell, “Stop Asian Hate” t-shirts, BLM banners, “the Future is Female” sweatshirts, and $300-a-month memberships at women’s clubs and things like that.
Mom: And not only can we learn from these previous radical incarnations of feminism, but a lot of those women are still alive, right? Instead of every generation of women reinventing the wheel—this is precisely what Susan Faludi is writing about—why not create intergenerational solidarity with those women? So, for instance, the person who wrote the best book about Black feminists in the CPUSA [Communist Party of the USA] was a man. Not a young woman activist, but an African American man who actually tracked down these women and interviewed them and got their papers and looked through their archives. There’s so much work that could be done. If younger and older women worked together more and really spent time trying to understand each other, we could build bridges rather than always having to burn them and rebuild them every generation.
After my mom left on Sunday, I kept thinking about our conversation. It made me want to read more, learn more, and most of all, talk more. I want to talk not only to my mom, but also to her colleagues, my professors, and any older women I encounter. So much of intergenerational solidarity rests on connection, even if it is tense at first. Even across the distance, I’ve been trying to talk to my mom more about these issues, because hearing her perspective, even if I disagree with her, is a valuable growth experience. By learning from our mothers, we can improve on their thoughts and ideas, and eventually, hopefully, pass them onto our own daughters without them feeling the need to kill us.