Some people find the analogy of mothers and daughters to describe intrafeminist generational tension annoying and inaccurate, but not me. Chapter six of Manifesta, my book with Amy Richards (2000), is titled “Thou Shalt Not Become Thy Mother” and ends with an open letter to “older feminists,” the theme of which is “you’re not the boss of me!” Mothers are everything to children at the beginning of life, and maturing is the child learning to live independently. Development requires a series of betrayals, painful but necessary. Yet in patriarchal culture, mothers are also the gatekeepers of what is socially appropriate—both judged and judge. (Your teen daughter is pregnant? Well, I guess you raised a slut.) Maternal acceptance is sought, and any judgment is a blow to self-image. Looking back, I see how the criticism I perceived from second-wave feminists as a young, third-wave feminist contained at least a strand of personal insecurity. Was I allowed to claim the mantle of feminism for myself? Mom, can I have the keys to the movement?
My actual mother was indeed a feminist, which, as a child, I experienced as an “over it” vibe around cooking and other tedious daily tasks. (Classic response to me inquiring what’s for dinner: “Poison.”) Her Ms.-magazine ways both embarrassed and inspired me, and I have wondered at times what it would have been like to have a “famous” feminist for a mom. Christina Baker Kline’s 1996 anthology The Conversation Begins: Mothers and Daughters Talk about Living Feminism, edited with her mother, offered glimpses of daughter-life with Barbara Seaman and Joy Harjo, among others. Likewise, the writings of Alice and Rebecca Walker. But Nona Willis Aronowitz, the thirty-seven-year-old daughter of the women’s liberation icon Ellen Willis, revived my interest in these generational dynamics with her new book, Bad Sex. In it, she explores love and sex—and how (or whether) feminist consciousness helps one get a grip on authentic desire. I chatted with a very pregnant Nona in early April 2022 about her parents, Tinder dates, and the self-protective schtick that is being a “chill” (as opposed to “intense”) girl.
Nona’s daughter, Doris Fern, was born this past May, just as I was editing Sarah Dougher’s account of going to a conference she’d attended annually, this time with her baby in tow. I flashed back to the gazillions of trips I took with my screaming baby to college speaking events (my primary source of income at the time), at which I’d hand him off to some random student while I met my work obligations. Good times! Actually, these were good times, in the sense that I maintained my work and baby, two things I wanted. Also, horrible times.
And now I find myself in different times, where perhaps I’m perceived as a gatekeeping foremother who can choose to insist on driving the conversation or spend some time in the passenger seat. “Movements like feminism have spent decades wrestling with [. . .] abstractions [like] what do women want?” Noelle McManus writes in their essay on the growing use of gender-neutral pronouns. Their lucid framing of questions like, “What does it mean to be a woman or a man?” and, “What does being a woman or a man feel like?” was a revelation and gift to my ongoing understanding of self and my feminism. Noelle, with whom I have worked since they were eighteen, is moving to Berlin for the rest of 2022 to study. I’m not their mother, but discussing books, theory, and linguistics while making Noelle a vegan lunch these past four years have been very good times.