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Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam

The front page of Harper’s October 2010 issue says it all: “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” by Susan Faludi.

Apparently, according to Faludi, American feminism has a mother-daughter problem: daughters keep fighting with mothers, mothers keep undercutting daughters, and this, ladies and gentlemen and everyone else, is the real reason that feminism never quite gets its revolutionary interventions right! Trotting through some rather predictable and tame histories of feminism (first, second, third waves; sex wars; women’s suffrage; temperance movements; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch as founding mothers; the Miss American Beauty pageant of 1968 etc.), Susan Faludi remarkably, ends up somewhere in the vicinity of our contemporary moment and winds down to a drearily pessimistic conclusion—feminism is dead, we killed it—and punctuates this sad insight with a kind of amusing send up of yours truly, bullyblogger and professor, Jack Halberstam! Well, I have kept my weapon in its holster until now but upon receiving a few emails wondering what I thought of the Faludi piece, I thought I would respond with a bit of matricidal anger – actually, though, Faludi, though she may sound like your grandmother, is actually my age, so I guess this is sibling rivalry if one must stick to familiar metaphors…

How did I come to be the bad guy in “feminism’s ritual matricide”? Well, after drifting around various feminist venues like a NOW convention for example, Faludi ended up at a conference at the New School where both she and I were speaking. The conference, “No Longer In Exile” consisted of huge panels (sometimes with 8 or 9 speakers), a couple of on point presentations (by Ann Stoler, Nancy Fraser, Val Smith and others), and a lot of slightly random talks which failed to add up to any kind of state of the union event on feminism. Susan Faludi spoke on the mother-daughter dynamic and how it undermines feminism but I honestly cannot remember much of what she said other than that she seemed to have missed several generations of theoretical works by feminist theorists. She clearly felt no need to comment on the instability of gender norms, the precarious condition of the family itself nor upon the many challenges made to generational logics within a recent wave of queer theory on temporality. Instead, as I recall and as she does in this article, Faludi cast conflict in the mother-daughter bond as transhistorical, transcultural, universal and she situated its toxicity as the reason for internal rifts in the feminist project. She never once mentioned Freud or the Oedipal, she did not differentiate by class or race, she made no mention of queer challenges to the normativity of the family and of generational thinking. Faludi had clearly missed all the other big feminist conferences in the last few decades on the theme of generationality and she thought the mother-daughter thing was big news when in fact feminists have moved on and are more likely to speak of rhizomatic schemes of association, assemblages, ruptures, and performativity than about passing the torch of knowledge from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter on into perpetuity.

The event at which Faludi and I appeared seemed loosely organized around questions about generationality, institutionalization and activist and theoretical legacies and it celebrated some institutional milestones at the New School, many pioneered by Ann Snitow, the conference organizer, herself. Like many such events, there were good talks, bad talks, indifferent talks – there was the obvious, the painfully obvious, and that was just the social science stuff…and so when I had my turn to speak, on one of the last panels of the day, I tried to mix it up a little, try a bit of humor, try a bit of provocation, make some comments about what we had heard and make a bridge to the many young people who were in attendance but seemed bored out of their skulls.

While Faludi characterizes me as a glib twit who proposed Lady Gaga as the answer to what ails feminism, I actually had tried to show that Lady Gaga’s duet with Beyoncé in “Telephone” provides an exciting and infectious model of Sapphic sisterhood that moves beyond sentimental models of romantic friendship and references a different kind of feminism, one more in line with the imaginary bonds that animate violence in Set It Off and Thelma and Louise

While no one is proposing that there is some kind of clear feminist program for social change in the world of Gaga, activists of all stripes have looked to popular culture for inspiration and have refused facile distinctions between culture and reality. The Gaga piece of my talk was just a humorous ending to a lecture that covered changing notions of gender, evolving models of institutional relevance and argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.

Why is Faludi so insistent on beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict? First, Faludi seems to be stuck in a pre-1990’s understanding of feminism and moreover her world is a resolutely white world of middle-class women who just want the recognition they deserve. While very few academic feminists would characterize NOW as the bastion of contemporary feminist action and definition, Faludi is committed to a reform model of feminism, to the idea of feminism as a politics built around stable definitions of (white) womanhood and as a ladies club of influence and moral dignity. The mother-daughter bond, which for her is exemplified in the dynamic between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her daughter Harriet, allows for the gains of one age to be passed on to the next. But never does Faludi question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next, or whether the goals of white middle class women reflect anything beyond their class interests.

Faludi’s blindness to race is on display in the Harper’s article in the section where she reports on a shift in leadership at NOW while attending their annual conference. As she herself puts it, the leading candidate for president of NOW at the annual meeting she attends is a young Black woman, Latifa Lyles who is a “charismatic speaker attuned to a youthful sensibility, a black woman who insisted on a more diverse constituency, a technologically savvy strategist who had doubled the organization’s Internet fund-raising and engaged the enthusiasm of a host of feminist bloggers.” Lyles’ opponent is Terry O’Neill, a fifties something old style feminist who embodies the frustrations and fears of a group of older white women who see younger feminists as ungrateful, apolitical and unresponsive to the generation who came before them. While Faludi implies that this presidential contest may have something to do with race, ultimately she seems to think that racial struggles always give way to generational rifts and when the young woman loses the election and charges that O’Neill had “recruited older Hillary Clinton turned-Sarah Palin supporters to throw the vote at the last minute,” Faludi quickly shifts the blame back onto Lyles and her supporters and implies that their lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women had led to Lyles’ defeat.

Even though the defeat of Lyles is a filicide and not a matricide, suggesting that if generational struggle is the real problem with feminism then it goes both ways, Faludi doggedly pursues her thesis that “a generational breakdown underlies so many of the pathologies that have long disturbed American feminism.” Billing me, in the article’s final section, as the butch matricidal maniac who casually dismisses early models of feminism and then blithely offers up Lady Gaga in exchange, Faludi tidily but not very convincingly wraps up her vapid take on “ritual matricide” with an apocalyptic image of an older woman sitting in the emptied conference room wondering what happened to feminism. Depicting this woman as the last living feminist at the New School and characterizing her as “knowledgeable and enthusiastic about recent developments in critical feminist theory” (which is more than one can say for Faludi), but still rendered redundant by the recent moves against gender studies at The New School, Faludi gives the misleading impression that a) there are no gender studies professors at The New School and b) that the expulsion of this lone older woman was the main chapter in a story of institutional erasure. Anyone who has read Jacqui Alexander’s excellent chapter in Pedagogies of Crossing, however, about a coalition of faculty, staff, students and security guards who led a political protest at the New School in NYC in the mid 1990’s, knows that there have long been struggles at the New School about politics, practice and theory. Jacqui Alexander was at the heart of the mobilization to protest the contradictions between the New School’s rhetoric of diversity and its practice of creating and supporting structural inequalities. The decision made by the New School not to hire Alexander as permanent faculty after employing her as an adjunct professor sparked the creation of a protest movement and allowed the protesters to make structural and historical links between the New School’s employment practices in regards to service employees, its past history of radicalism and its current failed promises of diversity. These are precisely the connections that Faludi fails to investigate, probably does not know about, probably does not want to know about and with their omission, she is able to clear the ground of all distractions from the big event of the momma-daughter fight that bloodies the daughter, slays the mother and brings all of feminism down with it.

If I hadn’t taught work by Faludi in the past and found her insights into gender often illuminating, I wouldn’t be so annoyed by the complacency and myopia of this article in Harper’s. I did try to talk to Faludi at the end of the New School conference to explain why I thought the mother-daughter conflict was a red herring but she just takes one piece of this interaction (where we discuss rumors of Lady Gaga’s hermaphroditism) and leaves the rest (where we discuss the redundancy of familial metaphors, the chaos of all generational transmission and the need for better models of both change and consistency). Mainstream feminism deserves better spokespeople than it currently has  – the Camille Paglia’s and Susan Faludi’s, the over-paid, under-experienced phalanx of elite ladies to whom the press returns again and again. Honestly, if these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable.

22 replies on “Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi By Jack Halberstam”

Great work, Jack. Radical feminists (like Snitow) broke with NOW generations ago, and not as any sort of matricidally induced movement, but as an ideological one. Never having thought of NOW-feminists as my-feminists, I happily never looked back at or to that mainstream when I was told that “feminism” aligned with Clinton, rather than my own feminist commitment to my ill-founded hope in Obama’s possible progressivism linked to his race, age, and stance on the Iraq war. Having just finished a few years of research and writing on the LA Woman’s Building of the 1970s, and “The Owls” project that you also worked on, I am painfully aware of the powerful effect of generational difference between feminists, but not characterized by the simplistic antagonisms of Faludi. Beyond the real respect, mentoring, and learning between generations that I have experienced over and over again, I note that feminists’ differences flow between and among race, class, profession, age, sexuality, gender identity, ideology, intellect and desire. If anything, Faludi’s issue with you in the piece seem to demonstrate her anti-intellectualism, which you note in this blog in relation to her cavalier and embarrassing tour of feminist “theory.” This split, too, occurred in the seventies, and has continued, and has little to do with anyone’s age or metaphoric biological issues and everything to do with carefully chosen tactics, subjects, actions, bedfellows, and politics. I do not mind the simple and stupid things that happen in feminism’s name—we’ve always been split a million ways ideologically, and this I like actually—my choice has been to do things in the name of feminism (and join with others there) that model those possibilities of intellect, affect, and impact that resonate for me and are well housed under its mutable umbrella.

This is right on, and by the way, the talk at the New School is fantastic (just watched the video-I wasn’t there). The icky feeling I get from Faludi’s essay- and it really is icky- comes from my feeling that she is really confusing her tropes of motherhood and emancipation and enslavement. And she’s doing it in a way that disappears race from her essay entirely. Early on in the essay she says that abolition’s main trope was one of bereaved motherhood, and she says this to prove that early feminism has a strong mother-daughter component. Ok, fine. But then later she talks about the 1920s, with those damned ungrateful flappers, and says, “never before had mothers given their daughters so much. but the bequest would be renounced. To the daughters, emancipation wasn’t something girls attained with a mother’s aid, because now your mother was unmasked as your oppressor.”

I know she’s using “emancipation” here in the sense of mother-daughter bonds, but it has a creepy way of recalling the stuff she said earlier about slavery. And at the same time that it recalls it, it makes it disappear completely, because the only lineage/family tree and emancipation worth discussing is white women’s.

About 4 paragraphs in to the essay, when she bemoans feminism’s inability to make an “enduring birthright, an unbroken line of descent,” I said, Oh boy, this is going to be a good one. The way she uses this metaphor, completely uncritically, is just a big problem. I think this is where JJH is really right (in the New School talk) about how this notion of longevity and reproduction is heteronormative- and as Faludi makes clear, pretty exclusively a white enterprise. Maybe Faludi needs to read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark again, because the way this language of “birthright” and “emancipation” lurks in her essay while only pertaining to white abolitionists and feminists just made me squirm.

Thanks for this and for following through on some of the language on “brithright” and “emancipation” in the piece…did you see Faludi’s response? above…Jack

and part of the problem shows up in the very idea that an “enduring birthright, an unbroken line of descent” is somehow a Good Thing. as if there weren’t centuries of hideous history built into the idea of a pure bloodline that she’s appealing to. and as if we can’t see the basic problems of fetishizing the notion of One Eternal Truth every time a leader of the religious right (christian. jewish, muslim, hindu, whatevah) opens his (okay, sometimes her) mouth in public.

last time i noticed, the strengths of radical political movements – anti-capitalist, feminist, queer, what have you – were in the internal arguments and critiques that lead to new ideas, strategies, and tactics. and provide the folks who come after with a wide range of resources to draw on, not an official lineage of Inherited Truth.


Dear Judith,
Thank you for your response to my Harper’s piece. I’d like to respond to your thoughts.
First, let me emphasize that my objective in writing this piece was not to name call (I don’t think you sound like, as you put it, a “matricidal maniac,” any more than I sound like “your grandmother”) but to open a debate, on an important subject, that is warranted and long overdue. The many decades of generational divisiveness in feminist activism and academia have caused a great deal of damage not only to the women’s movement but to the status of women in society more generally. Generational animus is not the cause of feminism’s troubles, as I state quite plainly, and early on, in the piece. But it’s a significant and overlooked one, and worthy of examination in its own right.
Your response to my piece chooses to misrepresent my points rather than to confront them. In doing so, it curiously bears out my argument. As I noted in the article, repeating gender studies scholar Astrid Henry’s observation, “many of the cur­rent fights in feminism—over race, sexual orien tation, and sex in general—also operate as coded expressions of generational acrimony.” But to my charge that academicians use accusations of ignorance, racism, and elitism as intergenerational concealed weapons, you respond by calling me ignorant, elitist, and racist. And to support that, you rampantly misrepresent my article.
First of all, I don’t believe that generational attacks are levied only by daughters at mothers, as you contend. My article, fairly read, puts a pox on both houses, old and young. (By the way, as surely you know, authors don’t pick their headlines and their articles shouldn’t be judged by them.) The whole point of the NOW section was to demonstrate that the generational crack-ups have gone both ways. You utterly misread my NOW account when you conclude that I am saying that the young women’s “lack of insight and the callous indifference to the concerns of older women” caused the defeat of their candidate. Huh? I was saying just the opposite, as the women I’ve heard from in NOW, on both sides of the contest, clearly understood.
Your charge, that by mentioning Latifa Lyles’ race I was being blind to race, is perplexing, as is your suggestion that the piece, and my talk at the New School, failed to take race into account. Again, huh? Let me note—since you say in your blog that you don’t remember what I said at the New School–that I discussed the historic role of race in the mother-daughter divide and, in fact, ended my talk with a story about how generational relationships played out very differently in two radical feminist groups of the ’60s, one predominately white, one all black, and concluded that we could glean some important lessons from these two models.
These days, the accusation that “you haven’t considered race and class in your analysis” has too often become a reflexive, boiler-plate response to feminist papers—to the point where a legitimate and useful critique has been transformed, sometimes, into a technique for not grappling with issues, rather than as a way of dealing. Again, as I said in the Harper’s article, referencing Astrid Henry, “By billing only their wave as ‘interracial,’ third-wave femi nists square off against a supposedly all-white second-wave movement—a stance that, ironically, erases many black feminist foremothers.” When you say that I never “question whether the gains of white women in one era actually benefit women of color in the next” and try to tie me to a white-and-middle-class “ladies club,” you are trading egregiously in this currency. It’s worse than silly. (I have reported on race issues in the real world; I know that the real bourgeois media game is to concentrate on multimillionaire entertainers who can portray prison experience as a sex lark, and call it integration.)
Also off base is your speculation that I’m unaware of various vogues of feminist theoretical writings and ignorant of the current crop of feminist academics and their arguments and out of tune with gender “ruptures,” “performativity,” “normativity,” yadda, yadda, concepts I’m all too familiar with. And then there are the points I’m at a loss to respond to: how do I answer to the charge of having “never once mentioned the Oedipal” when I’m simultaneously being accused of “beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict”?
So what does our disagreement boil down to? Pretty much the worldview divide I outlined at the end of the Harper’s article. I do stand guilty, as accused, of believing that feminism must be political in the good old sense of challenging the culture rather than celebrating it. I don’t believe that repartee on the pleasures of pop music videos, no matter how clever, is the route to revolutionary change. You say that your New School lecture “argued for an improvisational feminism that kept up with the winds of political change.” But what winds are we talking about? They are hardly blowing in a radical direction in this country, unless we’re talking radical right. What you seem to be arguing for is a kind of feminist style that keeps up with the winds of cultural hipness. I have nothing against hipness. But we shouldn’t confuse it with a meaningful vision or strategy for transforming society.
Best wishes,


Susan Faludi writes: “And then there are the points I’m at a loss to respond to: how do I answer to the charge of having “never once mentioned the Oedipal” when I’m simultaneously being accused of “beating the dead horse of Oedipal conflict”?”

I think it’s pretty clear that what Jack was saying was that, by mobilizing the concepts of mother-daughter struggle as somehow essentially characterizing conflict in the feminist movement, you are surreptitiously framing the conflict in Oedipal terms. You did not explicitl mention the Oedipal: doing so would have allowed you to take a step back from the Oedipal narrative itself and call it into question.

Perhaps women do not inevitably conceive of themselves as “mothers” and “daughters” in a struggle for female supremacy — any more than “sons” invariably seek to sleep with their “mothers,” or than “daughters” invariably develop penis envy. Perhaps we can find alternative models of kinship through which to understand our relationships, and perhaps the very act of radically restructuring kinship is what feminism needs, among other things, to accomplish.


I value your response to Faludi. I remember thinking that the terms Faludi sets up move force her into a problematic characterization of the feminist movement. It’s nice to see two intelligent people talk unabashedly about their work. I think i will have my students read this;o)

On a side note, since your visit to U of Minnesota last semester, I have my first-year writing students read the PMLA forum from 2005 with you, Edelman, Munoz, Dean and Caserio. I have a bunch of 18 year olds talking about expanding the gay male archive in ways that allow for greater affective responses. You’ve given them and me a great “in” to understanding queer negativity.

Keep on keepin’ on!

[…] A retrospective of filmmaker Vivienne Dick at Artists Space– and the conversations that surrounded the show– speak unfalteringly to the generational zeitgeist.  Amy Taubin began the discussion after Dick’s first three films, Guerrillere Talks; Staten Island; and She Had Her Gun Already (each made in 1978), by noting that half the people in the room were here in 1978 and the other half weren’t even born. She suggested that with the passage of time, the documentary element of the films had only become more powerful. Fair enough, but for some of us who weren’t there in 1978, the most striking aspect of the films was the way in which they spoke to unresolved questions about gender, spectacle, and power. These questions are evident today in Cheryl Dunye’s The Owls (2010), in Harper’s Magazine’s October 2010 article by Susan Faludi: “American Electra: Feminism’s ritual matricide”, and in Jack Halberstam’s October 19th response on the website Bully Bloggers, “Justifiable Matricide: Backlashing Faludi.” […]

This is embarrassing. “If these are the contemporary “mothers” of feminism, then matricide might be justifiable”? I’m a “young feminist” and this is atrocious. I mean, Faludi definitely had some major problems in her article, we aren’t all obsessed with sex and shopping, but I think she has a point. If we can’t pull together and unify, what the fuck are we doing? These ladies were important. I know I, at least, have always looked up to Sixties feminists. And now, yes, some of them are super behind-the-times and extremely transphobic, but that doesn’t mean they are suddenly the enemy. We ALL have learning to do. And if it’s not a tenet of feminism to encourage those (non-antagonistic, petty) conversations, then your version of feminism is not for me.

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