Collateral Damage of the Feminist Movement: One Daughter’s Story

In her autobiography, Black, White, and Jewishreviewers have noted
Rebecca Walker’s unfavorable view of her famous mother Alice Walker. Alice Walker, most famous for her novel The Color Purple and the 1985 film adaptation, is a Pulitzer prize winning author and feminist. She wrote about her parents’ Alice Walker and Mel Levanthal, who were the first interracial couple in Mississippi and the challenges of growing up as the daughter of the famed feminist. This weekend Rebecca walker wrote an article challenging her mother’s views on motherhood titled, How my Mother’s fanatical Views Tore us Apart.

Rebecca Walker writes:

Yes, feminism has undoubtedly given women opportunities. It’s helped open the doors for us at schools, universities and in the workplace. But what about the problems it’s caused for my contemporaries?

The ease with which people can get divorced these days doesn’t take into account the toll on children. That’s all part of the unfinished business of feminism.

Then there is the issue of not having children. Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: ‘I’d like a child. If it happens, it happens.’ I tell them: ‘Go home and get on with it because your window of opportunity is very small.’ As I know only too well.

Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They’ve missed the opportunity and they’re bereft.

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women’s movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them – as I have learned to my cost. I don’t want to hurt my mother, but I cannot stay silent. I believe feminism is an experiment, and all experiments need to be assessed on their results. Then, when you see huge mistakes have been paid, you need to make alterations.

Here’s one of the quotes that grabbed me in her article:

But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfilment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.

In had a brief discussion about how some of Rebecca Walker’s experiences reflected a broader trend in Black American society. My friend said that if we believe Rebecca Walker’s accounts of her mother, Alice Walker is self-absorbed person. I’m not trying to be apologetic for Alice Walker’s views on motherhood, nor can I claim to be very familiar with Alice Walker’s writings outside of the Color Purple and her work on Female Genital Mutilation. But can we blame feminism for making Alice Walker a self-absorbed, neglectful mother? I just wonder if the treatment of her daughter was really a product of feminist thought. It sure doesn’t reflect third world feminism or women of color movements. Rather it seems reflective of deeper cultural shift that I see linked to the “Me” decade. Following the great social unrest in the 60s and cultural revolution, a new focus on the self took bloom in the late 70s. It continues to this day as a culture fueled by consumerism and pop psychology.

I have seen how a number of women, single mothers, have struggled to balance their own personal fulfillment, sense of contentment and motherhood. When mothers make poor life choices, their children suffer with them. Increasingly, we see more and more cases of children who are neglected by two irresponsible parents. We have read about terrible cases, where children are beaten to death by stepdads or boyfriends. Other children experience the emotional scars of a mother who they don’t see for years on end.

The news reports about neglected children are often chilling. These stories are rare, because for the most part extended family comes in to keep things together. But still, something is wrong with this picture. How many of you know kids who call their grandmother mom, and their mom by their first name? I know a number of women who became grandmothers in their mid- to late thirties. Its not like these 30-something grandmas are imparting a lot of wisdom to young moms. Often young mothers make attempts at reclaiming their young adulthood. So, they shuffle off their young children to family (often grandma) or friends. Mom, meanwhile heads off to the grown and sexy party. Even the grandmother was young enough that she was running the streets, there are the 30+ clubs catering to those in their late 30s to 50s. I’ve seen great grandmas step in, cause grandma isn’t very motherly either.

I know it is difficult raising children on your own. I know some damn good single mothers, and even a few great single fathers. But some cases over the years bothered me. More than a few of my friends in highschool were raised by their grandparents. Often, this was the best choice the young mothers made for their children. Other times, the arrangements seem more strained and the children suffer. This is why Rebecca Walker’s quotes struck a chord. I’ve babysat for a woman who left me with her kids for four days. I had no idea where she went and everyday her kids cried for her. Me, I was not well equipped to deal with four babies. I knew a mother who worked full time, attended classes week nights at University of Phoenix, and what did she do with the little time she had left to spend with her beautiful little girl? Well, she dropped the baby off at the great grandma’s house (mind you a retirement home because grandma was over 75) over the weekend. You could tell the little girl missed her mom and wanted to spend more time with her.

Can we call the partying moms and irresponsible motherhood a bi-product of the feminist movement? I don’t see a direct connection. Rather, I see a breakdown of social norms and practices. Single mothers are, still, single and don’t have the same prerogatives as a married couple who might be more interested in family or game night. Most of the moms going on pleasure cruises and weekend escapes with their boyfriends, however, are not pulitzer award winning authors or activists. They are not touching the lives of thousands of women at the expense of the one little girl who needed them the most. This daughter is hurting and writing an open letter to her mother. And I really wish that Alice Walker just apologizes and tries to make amends. But in the end, I can see how this relationship has suffered due to Alice Walker’s commitment to her work and trail blazing as a pioneering feminist.

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20 thoughts on “Collateral Damage of the Feminist Movement: One Daughter’s Story

  1. The only way I can think semi-clearly about her points is to not focus on Rebecca Leventhal…err…Rebecca Walker. I must try to not focus on this woman because, frankly, I find her repellent. Here is someone dogging her mother in public while simultaneously trading on her mother’s last name to promote her writing career. I’ve browsed through her book Baby Love in the bookstore, and she comes off as a cruel, self-absorbed ingrate. What she didn’t mention in her article is that she co-parented her former female lover’s child for several years during that relationship. She made a point in her book of pointing out the difference in her feelings for her biological child & how she felt about her former lover’s child. She wants to complain about cruelty—did she ever consider how that other child might feel if he read her comments about him?

    Anyway, enough about Rebecca Leventhal…err…Rebecca Walker. I think the problem she’s describing is more a reflection of a general mass shift toward selfishness. And the eternal human desire to get something for nothing. Very, very few women even know about hard-core feminist writers or their theories. Even fewer women ever read any of these books. What WAS actually propagated, in a mass way during the 60s & 70s, were the ideas of : “looking out for No. 1,” “you can have it all,” and “something for nothing.” Well, no. Nobody can have it all. And there’s no such thing as something for nothing. There’s a price tag attached to everything. There’s a society-wide price tag attached to casual sex. There’s a society-wide price tag attached to out of wedlock births. There’s a price tag attached to fathers doing weekend-only parenting & tele-parenting. Everything has a cost.

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  2. Pingback: Feminism & Motherhood « Between Hope & Fear

  3. Salaam alaikum Khadijah,
    You made some excellent points. You’re so right, there is a price to everything. The problem is, who is paying it? Often the next generation is footing the bill.

    Also, a number of things about the article didn’t sit right with me. At first I thought it was the article’s tone, or the writing style that irritated me. Or maybe it was some of the inconsistencies in the article. In some parts Rebecca claims that her mother cut her off for becoming a mother. But the issue seems to be the Rebecca has built a career and a name for herself by criticizing her mother. Maybe the book was better written than the article, but I didn’t find her writing to be that captivating (not to say mine is). But who would care what she had to say if she wasn’t the daughter of one of America’s most prominent Black feminists?

    I remember as a girl in the eighties hearing and reading about the outrage that many Black men had regarding the depiction of Black men in the Color Purple. I remember them being upset at Alice Walker and Oprah Winfrey for pairing up with a white Jewish man (Steven Spielburg) to make Black men look like monsters. Some of those men may feel a sense of vindication reading Rebecca’s depiction of Alice Walker. Others, afraid of the feminist critique and the women’s movement, may also see this article as a major critique of feminism. But to me, the problems between this mother daughter pair seem to be more deep seated than one mother’s radical ideology. I really didn’t want to take sides in this mother-daughter dispute, do I find Rebecca Walker’s life intriguing enough to spend money and time reading pages and pages of her self indulgent exploration of her life in the shadow of Alice Walker.

    I have read time and time again from Muslim and Black bloggers accusing feminist thought for contributing to the instability of Black American families. Its like they are looking at Black families in a vacuum, without thinking about the effects systematic and institutionalized racism, the Vietnam war following the civil rights movement, heroine and then the crack epidemic, increased mobility, integration and the break down of Black communities. There are a number who would argue that feminism has undermined manhood and masculinities. Some people call it the feminist backlash. I work on social and cultural history and I find it harder to believe that hard core feminist and postmodern thought has done so much damage (especially when hardly anyone is reading it) in changing traditional family structures.

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  4. Wa Alaikum Salaam Margari,

    I’m often reminded of the hadith “Actions are judged by intentions.” That’s what’s so obviously wrong with Rebecca Leventhal…err…Rebecca Walker. As you noted, this woman has built her entire career on berating her mother in public. She’s not a talented writer. And she probably would never have gotten a book deal on her own merits. Her whole career & arguments are founded upon bad intentions.

    Their obviously bad intentions are what’s wrong with those men who are so preoccupied with rescuing what they [falsely] claim is endangered masculinity. Their bad intentions also taint their arguments regarding the breakdown of the Black family. These men are the equivalent of the “angry White men” who are angry because some of their unearned, racist privileges have been snatched away—the false privilege of doing racists acts without any consequences. Many member of the “masculinity squad” are angry because they can no longer beat & mistreat women without the possibility of consequences. Just look at the sort of men who compose the “masculinity squad.” These are NOT knights in shining armor. They are NOT men who care about the fact that women are being beaten & mistreated all around them [especially Muslim women]. At their core, most of them are men who deeply hate women. Islam as an organized religion is often the last refuge for wanna-be batterers, wanna-be harem-operators, & woman-haters because Muslim women are the most vulnerable women on the planet.

    Angry White racists have deliberately mischaracterized the civil rights movement [that removed some of their false privileges] as “being politically correct.” The men who want to restore their full false male privileges are doing the same thing with feminism—deliberately mischaracterizing the feminist movement & its impact. I’m not saying that there we no excesses to either struggle. But I find it fascinating that both sets of wanna-be oppressors [angry White racists, chauvanistic men] NEVER mention what it was that these movements were responding to. They never mention the very real oppression that these movements were created in response to.

    Here’s where my being older helps in discussing some of the things you mentioned. I was old enough to observe some of what you mentioned. *Smile* I was in college when The Color Purple movie came out. I was in law school when Shahrazad Ali’s vile book “The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman” came out. Here was a deranged Black woman advocating domestic violence against other Black women! The same Black men who were soooo very concerned about The Color Purple said NOTHING in response to a book that advocated domestic violence against their “beloved queens.” I also don’t recall any BAM men saying anything about how this woman was also disfiguring the face of the deen by spewing her madness. The only appropriate, organized response came from the secular Black nationalist camp. Haki Madhubuti published a book in response called “Confusion By Any Other Name: Essays exploring the negative impact of the Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman.”

    You asked who pays the price? The same people who always pay—the weakest, most vulnerable members of society: women & children.

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  5. The feminist movement started to give equal opportunities to women, but somehow, there seems to be a confusion. I have not read Rebacca Walker’s book, however the family unit is being attacked, it was attacked by dominating males beating up their womean and abusing their children and it is being attacked by the ultra feminist movements, some want women to behave like men. Our religious orangisations Islam, Jewish and Christianity, do not talk or teach God’s words, but they had their own agenda to crush the female and the ultra feminists agenda is to crush the male and we end up destroying ourselves, behind the work, all the work behind the scenes is Satan. We need to get back to a balance, because we all need each other. We are killing ourselves, our children and our planet.

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  6. I think it’s quite unfortunate that this family’s dirty laundry is being aired in such a bitter and public way. Certainly this does get some of feminism’s dirty laundry out in the open, which I view as a good thing. It’s high time for the ‘mommy wars’ to move beyond this either/or dichotomy that it is stuck in, and for parenting to be considered a valuable societal contribution. I’m just not sure this is the best way to do it.

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  7. Assalamu alaikom,
    Blaming everything on feminism is getting soooooo old. Didn’t we do this in the 80s and 90s? Nice try on her part, though. It’s easier and more profitable to blame feminism than it is to actual deal with her issues with her mother. (Much like it’s quite profitable for Arabs or ex-Muslims to blame Islam right now… Women have been able to cash in on anti-feminism for a long time now, so it doesn’t surprise me when I come across it.)

    Lazy thinking is unforgivable when someone is making such bold statements. I hate intellectual laziness and stupidity most of all, and that’s why what this woman has written annoys me.

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  8. Oh my, why is everyone so mad at Rebecca Walker? Upon reading her book and subsequent new articles that she has written and been interviewed for, it’s blatantly obvious that she has issues with her mother. But it her opinion that they are related, in a way, to her mothers “militant” feminism ( I don’t know Alice Walker, so who knows if she is really is militant).

    It seems that it may just be Alice Walker’s brand of feminism wasn’t great to raise her daughter in.

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3866798.ece

    Also, this weekend C-Span re-aired a 3 hour “In Depth” interview from her Berkeley, CA home. It’s a pretty decent interview.

    http://www.c-spanarchives.org/library/index.php?main_page=product_video_info&cPath=6_10&products_id=203000-1

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  9. Assalaamualaikum:

    I just read Baby Love a few weeks ago and (although my mother couldn’t stand it because she said Rebecca Walker’s neuroses jumped from every page) I think that it was an interesting memoir and contribution to writing on motherhood. I think that Rebecca Walker was writing to a certain population of daughters who were raised on a feminism with slogans like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” or who were instructed that motherhood was always submission to the patriarchy. If you have read Alice Walker’s essay in which she says that she did not know if she could love her own daughter because Rebecca was part white- you do get a sense of the type of ambivalence that RW must have experienced growing up. By the end of Baby Love AW had cut RW out of her will and they had ceased communicating. I do not believe that AW has contact with her daughter or grandchild.

    No, I do not think that feminism can be blamed for everything. When you look at the issues that women have to deal with in terms of labor and motherhood there must be a recognition that feminism is not the source of the problem. In fact I think that there are beautiful aspects to second wave feminism-such as the ethics of care- that speaks to a mode of being that counters the devaluing of women’s work and labor.

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  10. I have to agree with the original post, that it isn’t feminism so much as narcisism, even though in oour times, feminism has become identified with all those behaviors. It has in effect, killed US feminism, but Muslim women seem to be taking a different path, and we should pay attention.

    I am presently reading Rebecca’s autobiography, and am enormously touched by it as wel as by the comments here. My own mother, whose faulty conscience was informed by her incredible beauty, left me and my brother with my impoverished grandmother until I was five years old, then relocated me to the home of a stepfather, an Irish cop, with whom she shared an alcoholic lifestyle. From then on, my life was hell. My mother, anticipating a weekend binge, would often put me on a train to stay at my grandmother’s, a hundred miles away, at five years old. Once, already drunk, she forgot to tell the porter where to put me off, and I had to make the decision by myself, at midnight, and she had forgotten to tell them I was coming so no one met the train. I had to walk a long way into the town proper along a dark country road until my uncle, the town taxi driver, saw me walking. Then he cursed, and as always, I thought he was mad at me. I have never forgotten it, the utter misery of an abandoned daughter. There were long stretches at home of no food, no clean clothes. They drank downstairs from where we slept and I was afraid to go to the bathroom and often wore urine-soaked clothes to school the next day as a result. This also caused people to curse, and I always thought they were cursing at me. I had the good fortune, though, to go to Catholic school, and the nuns raised me and were very kind to me. They would wash my dirty face and feed me and even now and then slip me a little change so that I could do things with the other kids. (I don’t know where those ‘bad nun’ stories come from! These were Notre Dame sisters from St. Louis.). My stepfather, too far along in dissolution to continue to drink in bars with my mother, began to try to abuse me and I had to spend my time outside the house until they were asleep, no easy task for a girl of thirteen without a penny. Many adventures befell me, that’s the kindest thing one can report. Needless to say I began to work at an early age. And yet my mother, at the end of her life, congratulated herself on her parenting abilities, on the fact that she had made me ‘self-reliant.’ It brought home to me in a way nothing else ever could how capable we are of complete denial of the effects of our behavior on others. I don’t think there is any pain like the pain of a girl child neglected in this way, and I have no criticism of Rebecca for bringing it to our attention, especially as many ‘feminists’ use this kind of behavior as a model. By the way, this is a good blog but I find it almost impossible to read. The text is not bright or big enough against this dark background, in daylight. Could you enlarge or brighten the text? I think Ariel Bold might work.I have wordpress, too, and I think if I submit the text in a larger font initially, it pastes it bigger. In any case, because I can barely see it, I can’t proof-read my own post here, so please forgive any errors.

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  11. Janet,

    Thanks for sharing your story. You have been through a lot and it is courageous to put it in writing!

    I don’t blame feminism but I have (in certain feminist circles) seen bad parenting skills praised as revolutionary. For instance if a book describes a women leaving her child (because it is an act that goes against what is “natural” for a woman) it is celebrated as being the ultimate rejection of a strict gender role. I cannot embrace this just as I cannot embrace a motherhood that erases the identity of individual women or that encourages women to mutely take abuse from spouses and children.

    I am fond of obligation, love and responsibility to other human beings. My nephew was abandoned by his mother when he was a child and the pain has not yet healed after all these years. Of course, Allah is the ultimate healer and I pray that his life will brighten.

    The “me” stuff is sad but really a product of a lack of dedication to communal ideals. A very easy way out!

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  12. Walker’s article was interesting if nothing else. I’m not sure that would call her account of her childhood and yound adulthood narcicism though.

    At the end of the day, there are two sides to every story. Walker would definitely have a different perspective on how she raised her child, but that does not/should not take away from the way it made her daughter feel. It’s sad that she is airing her family’s dirty laundry like that, but it doesn’t mean that her claims are not true. And if they are, if she really felt that emotionally neglected/disconnected from her mother, then why should it be discounted as the “me generation” thing?

    This isn’t a petty case of slighting someone as Walker seems to make connections between her mother’s attitude towards her and life events like and abortion at 14.

    Feminism may not be fully to blame, but there definitely seems to be something to Walker’s arguments.

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  13. Pingback: Feminism & Bad Parenting « Religion, Politics, & Medicine

  14. Oh wow, thank you. I was so sure you were going to go on a tirade about feminism; I’m glad I read through to the end. Not because I know enough about you to say whether you have issues with feminism, but so many Muslimah bloggers seem to, and so many female writers in general seem to want to blame feminism for everything that goes wrong socially and culturally with women anymore. When I think about all the feminist resources I’ve read that discuss how we can make it easier for women to simultaneously have families and support them, and then read some yo-yo in the press blaming feminists that women have to wait until they’re infertile to try having kids, it just makes me want to scream. (I believe The Atlantic has run a piece like that recently, in fact.)

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  15. Salaam Alaikum Folks,

    I first want to start off by saying that I’m fed up with the tit for tat Feminisim/Womanism/Traditinalism- actually every “ism”. To reduce the struggles of humans-especially women and children- to such theories and labels is to dumb us down. Life is more complicated than that. Simple for simple minds.

    ( NOT implying anyone here is simple minded speaking of the emotional atmosphere this subject creates)

    When are black folks going to come clean about our community’s civil rights groups being infiltrated and even bogged down by communists? When are we going to wake up and get real about the role public schooling in our community? Any black person who feels that feminism what ever that is these days destroyed our family has got to be smoking crack. Forget our historical legacy here? Hunh? What?

    Africans all of us in this Diaspora have been everybody’s ideological dumping ground. We have allowed ourselves to be manipulated, especially by socialists groups. Black men have been replaced through the State: Foster care, public schools, adoptions, public assistance, and so on have replaced them.

    Can’t we see, by following socialists we are going to end up in a worse situation than we already are? You will loose your freedom, your property, your wealth, and YOUR family.

    So many of the “isms” are a direct response to injustice: namely the injustice within family systems.

    Speaking from one of the many Muslim perspectives Islam is the only religious system on this earth, to attempt to address justice within the family unlike Christendom and maybe Judaism. For me, feminism is a form of secular humanism. Like secular humanism, it is intolerant of all religion- this movement is not from the East nor is it from Islam. It is direct response to the repressions from the Church and the injustice within their family systems.

    As a Muslim ( and a very imperfect one) I’m not following feminism as a means to ascertaining justice within in the family, particularly the Muslim family, because it was already there.

    Many women of all religious traditions feel hostile toward feminism not only because it “appears” to degrade the physical, and emotional labor of child rearing but because it often attacks the supremacy of belief in God, and revelation. Until this movement deals with these two issues in a way that doesn’t demean and belittle both issues, it will continue to be associated with movements hell bint on destroying families.

    Salaam

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  16. Salam Alaicum

    Being a pioneer comes with a full extra packages. Most of pioneer feminists had to deal with the obliterations of men and their duties as mothers. Some of them did great _look Mrs. Mary Shelley’s mother, Lady Mary Wolfstonecraft, and she lived in XVIIIth Century! Some others… well, not.

    Feminism is just looking through women’s eyes and get a chance to hear women speaking by themselves. It’s still necessary, but it does need an urgent reform in XXIst Century. For me, that reform is coming from the Muslim Feminists.

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