In our rather depressing political situation, it’s easy to forget the spirit of hopefulness that once characterized the women’s movement. Luckily, a straightforward narrative and clear-eyed critique makes it easy to get caught up in. The version of feminist history Deborah Siegel lays down in Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild proves that the relentless romance surrounding 1960’s radicalism is warranted. Starting in 1963 with Gloria Steinem’s undercover investigation into the life of a Playboy Bunny, Siegel describes the actions and ambitions of the feminist movement. In part, Sisterhood, Interrupted is a book about intentions.
It’s also about consequences. After all, if the second wave had accomplished all that it set out to do, there would have been no need for a third. The history of feminism has been written many times, and from various points of view, but none until now has paid specific attention to the conflicts -- both within and across generations -- that divided the movement, and have the most to teach us. Siegel deftly illustrates how these internal struggles have led to the difficulties still plaguing feminism.
Where people once argued about who was responsible for women’s oppression, the question today seems to be whether it even exists. Some of the strategic and theoretical differences between the second and third waves of feminism -- which Siegel discusses in separate sections tellingly titled “Mothers” and “Daughters” -- are obvious. Some are misunderstandings. Decades of vicious media portrayals have left false impressions about what feminism actually is and does, and contributed to the infighting that followed. If the story told here feels repetitious, with characters constantly echoing each other, it probably felt that way as it was happening, too.
At various points, second wave feminists differed on whether pornography was harmful, whether men were the enemy, and whether lesbians damaged the public face of the movement. They struggled with each other over racial issues, radicalism, and the importance of overthrowing capitalism. There was resentment toward those who didn’t devote themselves sufficiently to any of these causes, as well as to those who were seen as devoting themselves too much. Eventually, feminists were too busy fighting each other to fight the establishment.
Siegel exhaustively outlines the many configurations, (re)interpretations and hijackings of “the personal is the political,” the slogan and idea she locates at the center of feminism, and around which much of the drama develops. The debatable meaning of “feminism’s foundational catchphrase,” Siegel argues, is one of the main reasons the movement has been so embattled. She outlines the tensions that have existed between “personal” and “political” over the years, and shows that feminist conflict can be basically be distilled into a series of debates over which of the two should be the priority.
In the section on “Daughters,” Siegel makes a point of differentiating between third wave feminists (whose work emphasizes continuity with earlier waves, even though their style may be different) and post-feminists (who generally distance themselves from feminism). Her careful distinction is one that’s been lacking from other books on this subject, and is sorely needed. She refreshingly portrays Katie Roiphe (pre-Uncommon Arrangements) and Rebecca Walker (pre-Baby Love) not as simple villains or heroines, but as feminist archetypes with distinct lineages. Younger women may be replicating the struggles women waged some 40 years ago, but the realities provoking the problems haven’t really changed. For all Siegel’s fairness, though, there’s still a cheap shot or two. Particularly frustrating is when she mentions that young women are more likely to know Paris Hilton’s name than those of feminism’s founders.
Siegel advocates a cautious embrace of a plural “feminisms,” while acknowledging the need to be a little protective about what the word means. She also offers a pretty convincing defense of why “feminism” as a word is worth hanging onto. Though Sisterhood, Interrupted inspires hope in what feminists can (and do) still accomplish, some of the enduring problems seem all but irresolvable. Encouraging the kind of flexibility that sees feminist potential in a whole range of not-so-obviously feminist things, while also preventing the feminist label from being indiscriminately slapped on everything from Wonder Woman to the Pussycat Dolls, is a balancing act all its own.
There is potential to do something about the passive-aggressive tensions that rage on between older women -- who want and deserve credit for all that they attempted and accomplished -- and a younger generation trying to make its own mark. Sisterhood, Interrupted is a mediation tool well suited to this clash of sensibilities. Even with its cornea-searing hot pink cover, the book will almost certainly be read mostly by insiders, who can apply it as a lens to the more fully detailed -- if less nuanced -- histories they’ve already consumed. It should be read by anyone who cares about feminism’s future.