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Notes from an Unfinished Movement

Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild by Deborah Siegel

Reviewed by Rachel Fudge
Bitch Magazine

Within both feminist and mass media, it often seems like there's as much discussion of feminist infighting as there is of actual feminist theory and action. From the endless hand-wringing over generational conflict to the still-heated battles over the role of sexuality in feminist identity, you'd think all feminists were trapped in a hellacious, never-ending consensus-building session, futilely trying to come to agreement before taking any action. Yet while these discussions are in fact happening -- I've certainly been party to them on listservs, at conferences, and with individuals -- I don't buy the argument that we are so hamstrung by dissent that feminism is losing ground. Just take a look at the fresh new crop of books to hit the women's studies section in the past year, or at the number of insightful, witty feminist bloggers hitting back at daily outrages. Having thus revealed my bias, I will also confess that my initial reaction to Sisterhood, Interrupted was dismissive: Do we really need another rehashing of those tired old debates?

In a word, yes -- but only if the approach is as smart and well considered as Deborah Siegel's. In a brief 220 pages, Siegel provides a succinct, compelling summary of the landmark battles in feminist history -- not the ERA effort or the decriminalization of abortion, but rather the battles between different feminist factions over how to define and structure the movement itself. Part one of Sisterhood, Interrupted -- which Siegel labels "Mothers" -- sketches out the major ideological struggles of second-wave feminism, paying particular attention to the debates between the radicals and the reformists over such weighty issues as how to define politics, power, and the personal. The second half -- "Daughters" -- focuses on the third wave's re-visitation of these very same issues, albeit with different language, as well as the intergenerational conflicts between these metaphorical mothers and daughters. By positioning both halves of this feminist story in one book, Siegel aims to build a bridge across the turbulent waters that supposedly divide the generations.

Siegel does an admirable job of distilling the chaotic excitement and charisma of the early days of second-wave feminism in the book's first half, but her most insightful moments come in a chapter titled "Postfeminist Panache," which digs at the roots of the generational conflict we now take for granted and describes how, "as popular feminist writers like [Katie] Roiphe and others turned their critical gaze on their predecessors and each other, the emphasis on patriarchal domination and control faded into the backdrop."

In the end, the impact of Sisterhood, Interrupted will be less about the book itself and more about its potential as a jumping-off point for intergenerational dialogue and renewed movement building -- and in fact that's already happening, as Siegel is joining forces with third waver Courtney Martin, African American feminist and writer Kristal Brent Zook, and former Planned Parenthood head Gloria Feldt to tour college campuses. They might not consider themselves sisters, but then again, maybe it's time to retire the familial metaphors of sisters, mothers, and daughters and simply relate to one another as friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators.

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