So, the second-wave feminists and the third-wave feminists: Always beefing! Am I right? Truly, the older feminist ladies and the younger feminist ladies are set against each other, in deadly Mortal Kombat from which only one party can emerge victorious, and, potentially, un-stung by the other party’s deadly scorpion tail or whatever. Because one party is like, “we care about women and don’t want them all effed over,” and the other party is like, “we ALSO care about women, and don’t want them all effed over, BUT HAVE SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT IDEAS ABOUT THAT,” and so clearly we cannot ever possibly have a conversation. Katha Pollitt even wrote about it, as so:
Can we please stop talking about feminism as if it is mothers and daughters fighting about clothes? Second wave: you’re going out in that? Third wave: just drink your herbal tea and leave me alone! Media commentators love to reduce everything about women to catfights about sex, so it’s not surprising that this belittling and historically inaccurate way of looking at the women’s movement–angry prudes versus drunken sluts–has recently taken on new life, including among feminists… As Naomi Wolf wrote in the Washington Post, “The stereotype of feminists as asexual, hirsute Amazons in Birkenstocks that has reigned on campus for the past two decades has been replaced by a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland.” Pick your caricature.
What’s wrong with parsing feminism along a mother/daughter divide? Everything.
Fair enough! I mean: It would be pretty silly to think there is no difference between the two waves — or that our many and various Beefs are not grounded on some pretty clear disagreements. But it is also pretty silly to think that we do not have more in common with each other than we do with, say, people who hate the crap out of feminists! And so, as part of our ongoing work to Heal The Divide and End The Madness, I ask you, the reader: Would you, perchance, be interested in a conversation with a feminist who has worked as a journalist, is a disability activist, was involved in anti-racist work, and is of the second wave? If the other person in the conversation was a feminist who has worked as a journalist, works to be as involved as possible in issues of disability, anti-racism, and basically every other form of marginalization to the extent that she can be, and is of the third wave?
Okay, but what about if it was a conversation with my mom, though?
Yes! It is true! I called her, and I was like, “Happy Mother’s Day GET ON GCHAT PLEASE,” and she agreed to it! So BEHOLD as we discuss Stevie Nicks, the dark secrets of science teachers, that time my Mom was put on a death list by the Klan, Jesus, and The Feminism. For your personal entertainment! While managing not to fight!
ILLUSTRATION: I attribute the success of this chat to the fact that nobody brought up this lady. When Our Blessed Mother enters the convo, ALL BETS ARE OFF!!
SADY: I think we should probably start by telling people the reason we are doing this, which is: You are my mother. My first question is, how is that working out for you?
KAREN: I’ve always loved being your mother, with the possible exception of when you were in anal-retentive Mr. W.’s science class.
SADY: He was terrible! We had to log each of our individual grades on a spreadsheet! FOR EVERYTHING! So he didn’t have to grade us himself, basically, at the end of the term. Didn’t he also have severe personal issues that we learned about later?
KAREN: He also made the other teachers use a log for the Xerox machine.
SADY: And had a separate drawer for his right and left socks, right? Or did he sort them by color? This is very important Teacher In The Middle Of Nowhere Gossip that I want to make available for the public.
KAREN: He had “a place for his black socks and a place for his brown socks.” He said he didn’t understand anyone who wasn’t like that. And that was certainly true. He didn’t understand you at all.
SADY: He didn’t understand A LOT OF THINGS. But let us go back to the you-being-my-mother question, for a moment. Because I can remember, when I was little, that you said on more than one occasion, “I hope someday you have a daughter EXACTLY LIKE YOUUUUUUU, so that you can KNOW WHAT THIS IS LIKE.” As if it were a terrible curse you were laying on me with your magic powers. Let’s revisit that moment! (There will be better and more serious questions later, I promise!)
KAREN: That was probably the day when my boss denied me a raise because the middle school had called me 37 times in one two-month period. Although a lot of that was Mr. W. complaining about your empty science log.
SADY: Oh, I’m sure there were other problems! I also had a lot of “fevers” that required me to “go home immediately” during that period of my life, as I recall. I was walking toward science class, and the terrible Grade Log appeared as a phantom before my eyes, and I was like, “do I feel ill today? I bet I do!” But I was also a terrible child because I was sure I was right all the time, even in interactions with adults, and I would NOT BACK DOWN on any given issue. And now I’m a feminist blogger, so: That worked out. But I owe a lot of that conviction to you, I think! Because I can recall you as also always being someone who did not back down if you were sure of something.
KAREN: Yes, I did have to leave work to pick you up a lot (as my boss also pointed out during that review.) We once thought about putting a courier slip on a barrette and putting it in your hair so you could be delivered between the middle school and my office. But I didn’t back down with the middle school, so that’s true.
SADY: Well, that’s sort of what I wanted to ask you about, which is: When I think about how I “became a feminist,” I can’t honestly find a point in my life when I “became” one. I was always one. So when people ask, or when I ask myself, I say that it’s because of my mom and how she raised me. But what were your interactions with feminism, growing up? You were obviously around when it was just starting to blow up. What was your experience of that?
KAREN: My mother raised me to be able to take care of myself. She wanted us all to have an education, basically so that we could get out of bad marriages if we wanted to. So I was always encouraged to have skills and have a career. At the same time, I always thought my life would be raising kids, ironing and watching “As the World Turns,” unless my husband turned out to be awful.
SADY: But it didn’t turn out that way! You’ve had a pretty long and successful career.
KAREN: Yes. I was a journalist for about 10 years, mostly covering civil rights in Mississippi. And then, when my husband did turn out to be awful, I got into marketing and public relations. I went to work in the early 70s when women often were not paid equally. And I wasn’t paid equally. That made no sense to me. I was also told by a boss in the 80s to gain 20 pounds, wear ugly suits and not keep any pictures of my children on my desk so no one would know I was a) attractive or b)a working mother.
SADY: So, you were Peggy Olsen, in that scenario. In order to have a job, which was of course a Man Thing, you had to downplay any aspects of yourself that made you seem like a woman. Did you ever take that up with people? Like, were there issues that you crusaded for? Because you were covering the civil rights beat, so obviously you were pretty keyed in to issues of social inequality.
KAREN: What I crusaded for was the right to work AND the right to do a good job as a mother. I was probably among the first to fight hard for flextime and working at home .. actually so I could spend the mornings with you when you were a baby. Day care was pretty scary then for infants. So I wanted you to only have an afternoon’s worth a day.
SADY: Yeah. I mean, you’re very good at your job, but I’ve always gotten the sense, from how very involved you were with me and Joey, and how carefully you took charge of both our educations and everything, that your private life and your family life were top priorities. Were you met with much resistance, on that front?
KAREN: It went two ways. First, many people in the 70s assumed that you couldn’t work and have children. They assumed once you were pregnant, that you wouldn’t do a good job anymore. I tried very hard to keep up when I was pregnant to stop them from sidelining me. On the other hand, the working mother of my time had to lie a lot. When our children were sick, we said we were sick, because you wouldn’t get raises or promotions if they thought you had kids that got sick a lot. You were automatically placed on “the mommy track,” which went nowhere.
SADY: Well, and women still talk about that, the “mommy track.” But you were, as you said, in the first wave of women for whom that became an issue. How have things changed, if they have changed?
KAREN: First, people like me are now the bosses. I do everything I can to help the young mothers who report to me to have flexibility to do what they need to do as mothers and still get the job done. Some of the successful women of my age and those who are slightly older chose not to have children so they could be more successful. Those women, now in their late 50s and 60s, are still a barrier, and I have to fight with them a lot on behalf of young mothers and others who want a balanced life. They can’t see being a successful woman any way other than being a 100 percent workaholic. Which is sad really.
SADY: That really is sad. Because men can get people pregnant any time they want to! It’s kind of assumed that’s not going to affect their awesome careers AT ALL. Because, of course, they won’t be the ones doing ANY OF THE WORK, what with the aftermath of the impregnation (read: A Baby and/or A Child). Or, they MIGHT do the work, but it’s not assumed that they WILL do it.
KAREN: That’s true. One of the good things I do see is that the young fathers are also demanding things like flexible time, time off to be with a sick child, etc. To me, feminism is just allowing people to be complete human beings… men and women.
SADY: Yeah, absolutely. So, I want to ask you about two more things! And then you can actually have a nice Mothers’ Day! But, OK: Can you tell me some awesome Journalism Stories, please? Because I always tell people that you home-schooled me as a teen (WHICH YOU DID) and now you are home-J-schooling me as an adult. But mostly I just like the stories! So let us revisit a time in the swinging ’70s, when the smooth sounds of folk-rock were everywhere, and you were listening to a LOT OF STEVIE NICKS and also a journalist. Go!
KAREN: Mississippi was still a mess. And every day felt important when you were a liberal white journalist in rural Mississippi. The Klan began a small resurgence about the time that Mississippi began to reinstitute compulsory education. (When the federal government ordered the schools integrated, Mississippi revoked all mandatory education laws so the white kids wouldn’t “have” to go to school with black children. This was getting fixed when I was there.) The Klan members wanted to be interviewed with their hoods on, and I refused to do so. They supposedly put me on a “death list,” but they did take off their hoods. It turned out they were all just factory workers that no one knew. And then the Klan treasurer stole all their money, and the Klan dissolved.
SADY: I mean, a “death list.” Jesus. Were you scared? Of course you were scared. How did you handle it? What came of it?
KAREN: I was really only scared one day, and I had to go to cover a trial in Okolona, Mississippi. But really I just visualized that God was with me, and I felt at peace after that.
SADY: Yeah. That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about, which is: I know your spirituality is really important to you. And it’s definitely also a part of the work you do now, with other people in your community. Would you want to talk about that work, the work you’re doing now, at all?
KAREN: I am a radical Christian with a special interest in peace and justice issues. Right now much of my volunteer work is around helping people with severe mental illness and their caregivers. A century from now, people will be appalled at how people with schizophrenia – a brain disease – were treated. So I help people, especially mothers, who are struggling because they see their children’s personalities disintegrating and they can’t get any help. It’s hard for them. I have always felt very close to God, and I have a personal practice of contemplative prayer that has helped me a lot.
SADY: I mean, that’s the thing. I tell people, sometimes, that my mother is very religious, very Christian. And the immediate thing that pops into their mind is Fred Phelps, or someone like that. Because there are a lot of people who have claimed the church as a means to defend bigotry, and that’s a lot of people’s immediate association with the word “Christian.” But even people who are automatically shy of Christians for that reason — which I don’t even necessarily think is a BAD reason, it’s just a pity that those folks have made people think they stand for the entirety of the Christian religion — tend to get, once they’ve interacted with you, that you really do walk the walk, with the practice of compassion and the obligation to care for your community.
KAREN: Yes, I actually get prejudice about being a Christian all the time.
SADY: It’s really unfortunate. And, you know, I honestly think it’s kind of the fault of Fred Phelps, or the Promise Keepers, or whoever, for appropriating God as the mascot for their personal defense of these inequalities and these forms of hatred. But there are also people like you in the world, and they see their faith as a reason for them to be activists as well. So, you know, I wanted to ask: Why is your activism so based in your faith? Rather than being, as mine is, based in a more secular conviction about how people deserve to be treated, or whatever? Like: How does your faith support you and inform your work on these fronts?
KAREN: I’m ashamed of a lot of people who say they are Christians. But Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, too. Jesus made it pretty clear that he cares a lot about the poor, the disadvantaged, the aged, the lonely. Of those to whom much is given, much will be expected. But he expects and empowers his followers to behave in a loving, kind way. So all of that flows. If you see a Christian who is hateful, you aren’t looking at a Christian.
SADY: Yeah, absolutely. And you find it pretty easy to operate as a Christian activist who is also a woman? (And, I mean, we should be honest about the fact that I don’t identify with any one church, but the statement “of those to whom much is given, much will be expected” basically defines my attitude toward privilege, both my own and those of others. YOU HAVE SHAPED ME, MOTHER! YOU HAVE INFORMED MY ETHICS AS A GROWN LADY!)
KAREN: Yes, my church wants every woman who feels called to any ministry to listen to that call. You were raised to have integrity, and I’m pleased with that. And, to get back to the aforementioned Stevie Nicks, “You’re the poet in my heart. Never change. Never stop.”
SADY: I am actually listening to Stevie Nicks lately! I downloaded “Bella Donna,” because I heard a snippet of one of the songs somewhere and it sounded really good, and with one exception I actually really like every song on it. I still don’t like “Leather and Lace,” on which I think the lyrics are grody. But it’s a really good album! Which was a fun surprise for me! I was like, “wow, Mom was on to something all this time, who knew?” So, final question: Which Stevie Nicks album do I download next?
KAREN: See if you can get “Buckingham Nicks,” her original album with Lindsay Buckingham.