Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sisterhood: Obsession Rhetorical and Real

Obsessed by rhetoric, I have a new body to contemplate: the review headlines that my book, Sisterhood Interrupted, have spawned in the weeks since its recent release. "Why Can't These Mothers and Daughters Be Like Sisters?" asks the New York Observer. "Can Mothers Be Sisters?" muses the header on an interview I did over on Chicago Moms last week when I was in town. I'm fascinated with the whole mother-daughter-sister thing. Truly. And for those who haven't, do check out Astrid Henry's book, Not My Mother's Sister, for more. But what interests me, really, and what I've been talking about on the road is this: Sisterhood is generationally interrupted, but feminism--"young" and "old"--runs strong.

Just not together.

I use the word "sisterhood" with nostalgia and a tinge of irony in the title (wasn't ours supposed to be an ironic and self-contradictory age?!), and in the conclusion (spoiler alert?!), I talk about its limitations as an organizing metaphor for a social movement. Still, I can't help but think a lot, these days, about sisterhood metaphorical and real. Of all the questions I've been asked, one of my faves was from an interviewer (Veronica Arreola) who had read my previous book, Only Child. Veronica asked me this:
Q: "Considering that you're an only child, what does sisterhood mean to you? I have friends who are best friends with their sisters, others who rarely talk, and then others in the middle and can understand how they frame 'sisterhood.' I'm curious to see how someone without a sister frames it."

I thought I'd share my response with folks here, because I'm curious how others, veterans and novices alike, those with sisters and those without, feel about the concept of sisterhood in regard to feminism these days. So here we go--here's me:

A: As an only child, sure I idealized the idea of a sister—always wanted one—but I also saw the reality to be far more complicated. My best friend growing up was a twin, my mother's a twin. My best friend was (and is) very close with her twin, but my mother and hers didn’t become close until mid-adulthood, and they have an older sister with whom my mom has a troubled bond. I‘ve watched these sets of sisters suffer hurt feelings and envy in addition to enviable closeness and great love. So my closest models of biological sisterhood were of this loving but tempestuous relationship.

Historically, for the women’s movement, the concept of sisterhood was powerful. But the idealized vision many had quickly erupted into something much more difficult, but, I think, far more real. Sisterhood (metaphorical or real) is not about twinship—looking into the mirror and expecting to see oneself—though sadly I think that’s sometimes what happens when you get swept up by an ideal. The word “sisterhood” today elicits an eye roll from many women under 40 (confession: myself, sometimes, included!) and particularly among a younger generation of feminists who are more conscious than their foremothers about the intensely significant difference of race in particular, but I use it in my book’s title to evoke a profound sense of lost common ground. Metaphorical sisterhood to me doesn’t necessarily mean sameness, or agreement, but rather recognizing commonalities across our differences. Solidarity. Generation is a new, salient difference, but the finger pointing going on right now (“younger women are throwbacks—they’re letting feminism down by dropping of careers, and flaunting their sexuality!” “older feminists are out of touch with our issues!”) has reached a new low. Women across generations have lost sight of what we do share in common—namely, lack of affordable childcare, reproductive justice, access (still) to many of the nation’s top jobs, equal pay (77 cents on the male dollar!)…I could go on.


And on. But I want to hear from *you*. C'mon, sisters big and little, tell me what you think. Got sisterhood? Got a new, 21st century metaphor? A free book goes to the commentor with the best new metaphor - for reals.

6 comments:

teabird said...

I don't think I'll be able to say anything better than you have....Since I was part of the first modern wave of feminism, I've seen the mistakes that every feminist group seems to have made by allowing the movement to be defined by its own minorities, and its leaders to seem (at least to others)elite. (Really, how many women could identify with Gloria Steinem? I certainly couldn't - and didn't even want to!)

I think those issues are at the heart of each generation's "I'm not a feminist but..." crowd, just as many women who breast-feed will say "it's the best for my child, but... I don't think it should be done in public."

Feminists should have started with the basic issues, those that are the most rational and visible, such as the need for affordable child care and salary equality, and stayed with them until they were mainstream. It was - is - a mistake to throw in so many issues that the conservative elements (shall we say) could reject the basics because they could ridicule the rest.

It's not that reproductive rights, rights for gay women, etc. are not crucial. In fact, they are not really women's issues, at heart. Lack of decent birth control and access to abortion affects men who have to raise and support unwanted children, or, worse, abandon them. Rights for gay people in general are crucial - why did the movement identify only with gay women? Etc.

What you said about sisterhood is spot on, I think - that it need not mean loving or identifying with any other woman on earth. In fact, the idealism of those who would define it so - of any generation - is more narcissism than sisterhood.

Sisterhood, feminism, any social movement should be, simply, about identifying goals and working towards them with others. Just as NAFTA and GATT brought together such odd bedfellows as Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan, the goals of a sisterhood should supercede all else. Not all feminists need be liberal, or interested in gay rights, or in agreement on anything but the defined issues.

tea leaves

tea reads

Jackie said...

I have been thinking about sisterhood since I read the blog the other day - I have to confess I have NOT read the book YET - had to order it from local bookstore, but.....as a long time feminist, a woman who grew up with 2 sisters, and a family therapist who has been listening to stories about sisters for over 20 years, I can say this.........sister (and sibling)relationships have the greatest longevity over the course of the life cycle......sisters are close, then more distant, then close again through the years......they struggle with their relationships......have difficult conversations......depend on each other from time to time........no one shares the same history - the same intimate details of early life.....after I lost my mother I came to love seeing her sister, my aunt, because her hands were so like my mother's that I found myself staring at them.....the similarity stunned me. Sisterhood is an apt metaphor for feminism because it locates women as having a shared experience/history because of our gender and the structures that oppress - although not all in the same way. The experiences for women of color, poor women or women who do not participate in heterosexuality do differ in significant ways- and, still there is much we share. I have witnessed the magic of this in my own relationships with women as well as the sisters, families and groups I have worked with over the years. Sisterhood is the instant 'knowing' and recognition of the experiences of being a woman that don't get talked about much but exist nonetheless - like the microaggressions we experience daily.

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