Saturday, August 28, 2010

Young & old, mothers & daughters (by Suzie)

Echidne linked to a NYT column by Christine Stansell on Thursday. This passage angered me:
... in the first decade of the new [20th] century, though, an influx of bold young women, allergic to the old pieties about female purity and comfortable working with men, displaced their moralistic, teetotaling elders.
Just what we need: Another feminist pitting the sexy young against the old prudes, I thought. But I didn't finish my writing after I double-checked my discharge instructions, which said I shouldn't drive, return to work or make any critical decisions. That saved me from attacking a historian who has just published a fascinating book, “The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present.” Some may remember Stansell, a history professor at the University of Chicago, for her letter "Feminists for Clinton." Her husband, Sean Wilentz, also was a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter.

In her book, she writes about the French and American revolutions, "revolutions made by men who saw themselves as brothers overthrowing tyrannical fathers -- as the Americans and later the French labeled their kings." How did women fit into this political family? "Women would be acknowledged as mothers, not sisters, present at the edges of the political community in their families and safely under the governance of men."

Women used this role to ask for rights: As mothers, they needed to protect their home. In contrast to these practical women who worked within the system, Stansell describes radical, rebellious women she calls the daughters. She acknowledges that these descriptions are not tied to age, and she says feminism achieves the most when mothers and daughters work together. For example, she writes about Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in the early 1900s.
The new order was different. Those who forced the change were not always young in years (Blatch was forty-six when she returned to the United States and jumped into New York suffrage). But in their political psychology they occupied the position of the daughters.
In her book, I get the analogy of mothers and daughters, although I still have qualms about its use in her column, which, by nature of its format, has to condense so much complexity. It reminds me of how feminists have been shoe-horned into the second and third waves.

In her column, Stansell discusses the racism of white feminists, and in her book, she criticizes the condescension of white women who wanted to help their “inferiors.” But what's the explanation for white feminists who express more anger at the racism and classism of white women than they do about the bad behavior of other oppressed people? One possibility is that they hold white women to a higher standard. Is that not condescending to others?

Will there come a time when black male scholars write with equal disgust about forefathers who were condescending, and thus, sexist, in their desire to protect and help women? Who conducted business without women present? Who put more emphasis on their rights than women's rights?

I look forward to those books. In the meantime, I’m happy with Stansell’s, despite my quibbles.
This is a commentary on her column, not a review of the book, which I have not read thoroughly. Also, I hoped to sneak this post under the Friday header, but Echidne has foiled me by posting after midnight.