More Than a Mother-Daughter Debate

Linda Hirshman, the sharp-tongued author behind the most contentious battles of the so-called "Mommy Wars," has now set her sights on younger feminists and their views of Hillary Clinton. In a recent Slate article titled "Yo Mamma," she laments the "'Mother-Daughter' power struggle" playing out in the primaries, using an out-of-context quotation from me as a jumping off point, and then going on to make fun of a few other young feminists.

Her framing of young women's electoral choices as a mommy complex is reductive. Yes, I did admit, in a post on Glamour magazine's Glamocracy blog, that Clinton sometimes reminds me of my mother in her I'm-feeling-unappreciated moments. Whether we like to say so or not, we're all swayed by our emotional experiences of the candidates -- which is one more reason why I wish we saw a bit more of Clinton's wide-eyed Wellesley self. I hardly intended 350 words from that post to sum up my views on the election. (Hirshman must have missed the 20,000 or so other words I've penned on Clinton and Obama.)

In any case, Hirshman's spuriously simple piece represents a sad trend during this primary season -- intergenerational potshots. The media loves a catfight, and over the last six months or so, feminists have provided no shortage of finger-pointing, name-calling, and stereotyping. I don't intend to rehash the firestorms here, but suffice it to say that more than a few bridges have been burned.

The tension between second- and third-wave feminists was evident far before Obama became a household name, but primary season has certainly provided a Rorschach for our intergenerational disconnect. My interpretation? That the Clinton-Obama debate -- and no, not all young women are voting for Obama and not all older women are voting for Clinton -- has revealed something tried and true about intergenerational feminism: Our interactions are most useful and enjoyable when they acknowledge the complexity of our feminisms and lives. I can vote for Obama in the primaries and still support Clinton's right to a fair run. I can care about so-called personal issues like body image and political issues like the Iraq War. I can know my history and still reinvent feminism. And while there will probably always be generational misunderstandings within feminism, keeping these complexities in mind helps ensure that the dialogue stays productive.

In fact, as all of this controversy over Clinton and feminism has been playing out in print, I've had some fascinating "real life" experiences as part of a touring panel called "WomenGirlsLadies: A Fresh Conversation Across Generations." As the proverbial "daughter" on the panel, I've been chastised, dismissed, lectured, and humiliated by older women. I've also been respectfully challenged, constructively criticized, moved, and celebrated. And the differences between those types of treatment shed light on larger dynamics playing out across the feminist movement.

At a recent pre-panel reception, I immediately connected with a philosophy professor about the difficulties and joys of teaching feminist theorist Judith Butler. But the professor's mood took a 180-degree turn when the issue of eating disorders came up. "I'm so sick of hearing young feminists talk about fashion and body image and work/family balance," she said, rolling her eyes like an adolescent, though she looked to be about 50. "What about the women in Afghanistan!?"

She even approached one of the other panelists, 42-year-old journalist Kristal Brent Zook, with a plea to shut down any conversation about these "frivolous" issues if they should come up during the panel (i.e., shut down me, the silly author of a book on body image). Zook had my back, of course. She responded to the professor, "Actually the entire goal of this panel is to create intergenerational dialogue where all voices are heard. It's not my job to decide what's important to Courtney or any other feminist. It's my job to express my own issues and listen openly to others."

Buoyed by Zook's support, I was able to take the stage and proudly talk about the range of issues that are important to me -- the war and sexual objectification and the election and, indeed, body image and workplace issues. I care deeply about the work of Arundhati Roy and Malalai Joya and Haifa Zangana and all the other women bravely advocating for their communities in countries that the U.S. has violated. I also care about the violent inner lives of my friends, my students, the young women who approach me with tear-filled eyes after my lectures. These sentiments are not mutually exclusive.

At another university, a woman in a black, boxy blazer took the microphone as she stood up, clearly preparing for a full-on lecture. After talking about the books she'd donated to the women's center, the feminists she'd known in the late 1960s, and the virtues of knowing your feminist history, she said: "I don't want to hear about justice and blogs and food politics; I want to hear about feminism. Is there some common ground that we can all stand on?"

I looked her in the eyes and said, "I'm deeply, deeply grateful, and I want you to really hear that." Then I paused very intentionally and continued, "I feel like you're belittling what is truly important to some of us, what truly is our feminism." She took the microphone once again and backtracked, clearly saddened that she'd come off as dismissive.

In contrast to those experiences, I have had so many conversations with veteran feminists that have left me feeling like I am part of a vast and beautiful history, like I am one more radical thinker in a paradigm-shifting tradition. Most often, these are conversations that acknowledge our complexities.

For example, Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood who is in her 60s, challenged me on stage at one of our recent panels about my choice to support Obama. "Courtney, I'd love to hear from you on this," she began, then asked if I was worried about losing the potential to influence political leaders if a unified "women's vote" proved impossible to coalesce. A great question. I gave my most earnest answer -- that I think women, like men, are diverse and will never vote as a bloc.

I learned from the exchange (which was part of an ongoing dialogue Feldt and I have been having on stage and off) and felt like my perspective was respected and my thinking refined. I know that Feldt may not agree with all of my choices, that some of them might even disappoint or irritate her, but that she sees them in the context of who I am as a whole person, as a complex feminist.

When we engage in "either/or" thinking, when we dismiss and reduce one another, it weakens the movement. Of course the mainstream media encourages this degraded form of debate -- those who imitate shock-jock provocation find it easier to get column inches and air time because they are mirroring the already reductionist tone of the mainstream media. Those feminist writers that disagree while exploring the nuances and avoiding personal attacks are seen as too soft, too complex for most media outlets. Too many producers and op-ed editors want fur flying, not thoughtful exchange.

The media may not have the future of the feminist movement in mind, but I do. It's time that we declared a ceasefire on the caricatures and explored the shadows -- not just the silhouettes -- of our differences. I may not have voted for her in the primary, but I deeply respect what Clinton has endured as a woman painstakingly unknotting gender and power. I'd like to learn more about why many of the older feminists I know are so supportive of her; too often I've only heard why they're frustrated that more young women aren't. Regardless of what goes down in the Pennsylvania primary tomorrow, I'd like us all to celebrate how Clinton's run has changed the face of politics and strategize on what we can do to ensure that future women get a fair shot at the nomination.

I have gained an immeasurable amount from the wise, older women who have challenged my views on this election and other issues within a context of complexity. These women have made me a better thinker, a better writer, a better feminist, and a better human. And because of them, I will not cower, but I promise to be grateful. I will not forget, but I must also move on. I will not be a dutiful daughter, but I promise to be an impassioned, authentic, and brave inheritor.

My mom and I have agreed: No matter the outcome of the primaries, we'll be celebrating it, then setting our sights on the general election. We believe that the real feminist battles at hand are not mother versus daughter, but injustice versus justice, militarization versus diplomacy, corruption versus democracy. Now that is something worth fighting for.