Monday, June 16, 2008


Recently I've been reading about the epic, very public and one-sided feud between Rebecca Walker and her mother, author and feminist Alice Walker. By her own account, Rebecca's relationship with her mother had been deteriorating for years; at age 38 they are now completely estranged.

If Rebecca's recollections are accurate, Alice Walker would certainly not have won any prizes for mothering. Ever fearful of losing her focus as a writer, she was often absent--if not actually physically gone at her writing retreat, she was distanced, doling out the duties of parenthood to others, wishing to see her daughter as a "sister," not the dependent person a child is. Rebecca was, and clearly still is, devastated by her mother's ambivalence, longing for the kind of mother that derived her life's joy from motherhood.

Such is the stuff mother-daughter rifts are made of. Can you think of a single woman you know who was mothered exactly the way she wanted to be, who felt truly known and understood by her mother? Getting over that disappointment and learning a new way to connect to our mothers is what adulthood and therapy is for. In her bitter and sensationally titled essay How My Mother's Fanatical Views Tore Us Apart, it is not only evident that Rebecca has not done this work, but that she has laid the blame for their unsatisfying relationship and eventual schism on feminism, which struck me as utterly absurd.

In Salon, Phyllis Chesler discusses her own take on the feud, though again I do not agree with her assessment that the second wave of feminism valued abortion over motherhood. I was a women's studies major in college and in the early 90s, that meant you couldn't avoid Alice Walker. The Color Purple, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens, and Living the Word have survived many bookshelf purges in the past fifteen years since I graduated. Holy shit, I'm old.

After I read Rebecca Walker's article and Chesler's response (Alice Walker has been publicly silent on this subject as far as I can tell, to her everlasting credit), I scoured my bookshelves for Walker's books and others I've kept through the years by Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and Linda Gordon to name a few. Not a one of them espouses the so-called feminism as represented by Walker and Chesler: abort, and if that doesn't succeed, neglect or ideally abandon your children.

What I remember instead were honest words about how few choices women had about their bodies and futures, the difficulty of mothering with such narrowly prescribed ideas of motherhood, how isolating motherhood could be, how women's emotional and physical work was devalued, how difficult it was to be both as artist and mother.

It pains me that Rebecca Walker is blaming feminism for the very real, difficult but not particularly unique chasm between her mother and herself. I see that she is hurt. Understandably so, that a woman who was a hero to so many thousands of women throughout the world could not meet the needs of one little girl. She feels misunderstood. Perhaps she's a bit stubborn and wants to be right more than she wants to be happy (hats off to Dr. Phil for that one)--maybe Alice Walker really was a nightmare of a mom. But to blame feminism for this, in the process sounding like a mouthpiece of the religious right, is just downright weird.

Does Rebecca not realize that her ability to choose and embrace motherhood after a period of self-described ambivalence during which she attended Yale and became an author in her own right, owes a huge debt to feminism? She seems to take for granted that these options were open to her, showing a curious lack of history. It would appear that caught up in the pain of her fractured relationship she did not grasp that if she was able to see as far as she did, it was because she was standing on her mother's shoulders.


batwinger said...

Gahhhh. Nothing like turning your one-person experience into an indictment of the whole world. Didn't feminists used to consciousness-raise, to check out if other people had had the same "personal" problems, before spouting off about The Man?

I'm totally willing to believe that Alice Walker is/was a narcissist. AND a feminist. But not BECAUSE a feminist.

Professional Critic said...

Tell it, Winger. She sure did seem to have missed the consciousness raising. Too hopelessly second wave, I guess.