As part of my participation in Nonfiction November, I’m digging into the blog archives and re-posting my thoughts on some of the notable nonfiction I’ve read during the last few years…and if I’m talking about it again, it’s nonfiction I think you should read, too.
Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild
Palgrave Macmillan (2007), First Edition, Paperback (140398204X / 9781403982049)
Nonfiction (history/gender studies), 240 pages
Source: Personal/purchased copy
(originally reviewed December 13, 2010)
“Sisterhood is powerful,” the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and ‘70s declared. I have, and am, a sister, and I believe this; my sister and I are very good friends. But we haven’t always had the easiest relationship – it’s pretty unusual to have sisterhood without sibling rivalry. In Sisterhood, Interrupted, her history of contemporary feminism and its factions and friction, Deborah Siegel considers the ways in which the sisterhood analogy has united and divided women.
Feminism may appear to be fragmented in various directions these days – because it is – but Siegel shows that even from the beginning of the second wave, feminist “sisters” never spoke with a single, unified voice. While there was agreement on the need for change to improve women’s lives, there were many opinions on what sort of changes were needed and how to go after them. Did women need to change how they saw themselves, or how society saw them? Did they want legal, economic, or sexual equality – and did they need to choose among them? Should they work for change within the system, through traditional political channels, or embrace the concept that “the personal is political” and push for radical reforms through less conventional methods? Were men the source and cause of everything that held women back, so that embracing feminism equated to rejecting men? (For some feminists, this was true, and lesbianism was one way in which they expressed that the personal and political were equal.) While the 1970s and the decades that followed saw progress made in the areas of economic and educational opportunity, personal protection, family law, and reproductive rights, the underlying debates went on.
These questions weren’t definitively answered, and in the 1980s, as the Equal Rights Amendment failed to be ratified and society became more conservative, they became increasingly academic and debated outside mainstream awareness. A generation came of age having benefited from what the second wave did accomplish, but not always fully aware of how it was accomplished; they revived the questions, sometimes ignorant of – or indifferent to – the fact they weren’t the first to ask them, and began to raise new ones. They disagreed – with their predecessors and with one another – on whether the personal really was political, what “sisterhood” meant in an era of focus on the individual over the community, and whether the work of feminism was even still necessary.
My own answer to that last question is an unqualified yes, but because I want to keep this particular discussion focused on the book itself, I’ll save elaborating on that or another post. While Siegel essentially covers the same time period addressed by Gail Collins in When Everything Changed, her emphasis is much more specific and “inside:” her story is about what’s gone on within the feminist movement more than its effects outside it. And as fragmented as the movement is, I was very impressed by Siegel’s even-handed, balanced discussion; I didn’t get a sense that she was taking sides. The book is a “popular” history aimed at a general audience, and I found it highly accessible and fascinating reading, but with 289 endnotes to its 170 pages of text and more than 20 pages of references and additional resources, Siegel approaches it with academic discipline.Sisterhood, Interrupted is a survey, but one focused and detailed enough that I didn’t feel the author shortchanged anything important. This was an enlightening and thought-provoking read that I’m glad to have liberated from TBR Purgatory after nearly two and a half years, and that I’d recommend for all young (and young-ish) feminists.
Book Description, from the author’s website: Older and younger feminists are often depicted at odds, with elder feminists cast as relics of a bygone era and younger feminists portrayed as unaware and ungrateful of the work their mothers did. In fact, as Deborah Siegel points out in this book, younger women are not abandoning the movement, but reinventing it. With a vengeance….SISTERHOOD, INTERRUPTED is a history of feminism from the so-called bra burners to the bloggers and a compelling protest that the generations are more alike than they are different.
Opening Lines (from the Introduction): “On February 15, 1969, the day I was born, the newly formed women’s liberation movement launched its national attack on domesticity. In New York City, members of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell – WITCH – stormed a Madison Square Garden bridal fair.”