Yo Mamma

Hillary Clinton as the battleground in the war between mothers and daughters.

The next president of the United States will be at the helm of the largest and most powerful military and economy in the world, literally holding the power over life and death, wielding the legislative veto, administering the bureaucracy, and selecting life-tenured federal judges. Here’s how young feminist writer Courtney Martin is selecting her candidate: “I have a dirty little political secret. I hate to admit it, because it makes me feel unfeminist and silly and a little bit irrational. But it’s true and I have to get it off my chest. I’m not backing Hillary Clinton—and that’s at least in part because she reminds me of being scolded by my mother.”

Yo mamma.

In an interview on PBS’s NOW with Maria Hinojosa *, Ms. magazine founding editor Letty Cotton Pogrebin and her Obama-supporting author daughter, Abigail, discussed their personal quarrel over the election. The fortysomething daughter of one of the most famous feminists in the country explained to the camera that she had finally been forced to implore her mother to stop trying to convince her to vote for Hillary: “Mom, mom, mommmeeeeeee,” the segment ends, as Abigail gets in touch with her inner child.

It’s not just their mothers these young women are defying; it’s all those women who had the effrontery to start the feminist movement in the 1960s. This week by an amazing coincidence, Slate contributor Amanda Fortini in New York magazine and Salon’s Rebecca Traister published courageous, conversation-altering essays about the rabid anti-feminism alienating even Obama’s own female supporters. But Traister still began her analysis with the caveat that:

The exhortations from [famed old feminist activist] Robin Morgan have not exactly been lyrical, or tuned to ears of women younger than 50. Assertions from Obama-maniacs that a woman who votes for Hillary must be doing so only because she is a woman may be bad, but it’s just as bad for older feminists to instruct women that they have some kind of ovarian, fallopian responsibility to do the same.

One of Traister’s sources, Rebecca Wiegand, is quoted saying, “Those editorials by Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan I was appalled by, and I felt completely alienated from second-wave feminism.” Amy Tiemann, * a blogger who calls herself Mojo Mom, recently told readers of Women’s eNews * that she and the women of the second wave are indeed engaged in “an overdue ‘Mother-Daughter’ power struggle that we need to examine. [T]he Mothers have the upper hand. They control the largest established organizations, the purse strings of foundation grants.” 

These stereotypes of second-wave feminists as overbearing, selfish mothers resemble nothing so much as WASP avatar and ‘50s icon Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers, which coined the term momism. Wylie’s book sold 180,000 copies. His mother was “the murderess, the habitual divorcee, the weeper, the weak sister, the rubbery sex experimentist, the quarreler, the woman forever displeased, the nagger, the female miser, and so on and so on and so on, to the outermost lengths of the puerile, rusting, raging creature we know as mom and sis.” An entire generation of ‘50s-era child psychiatrists blamed illnesses we now know to be chemical on the baleful influence of domineering momism.

We old ‘60s feminists thought that by standing up for women as rational creatures, opening up the public world to them, and ending their dependence on men for their support, we would put to an end this image of the scolding, selfish older woman. After all, one of Wylie’s central arguments was that “Satan finds work for idle hands to do. … Never before has a great nation of brave and dreaming men absent-mindedly created a huge class of idle, middle-aged women. Satan himself has been taxed to dig up enterprises enough for them.”

Despite our best efforts, yo-mamma feminists contend that even gainfully employed, productive, and liberated women were selfish dominatrices who must be rejected. Not until the Hillary-bashing liberal male establishment went so over the top with their attacks that it could not be ignored did the feminist oldsters start to seem sensible. How self-destructive is this?

And how untruthful. I am hard-pressed to find feminist proponents of Hillary Clinton suggesting a “vagina litmus test”—the original phrase the youngsters used against feminists like Robin Morgan. (By changing vagina to ovaries, Traister robs this crucial locution of its real sexism. Ick, a vagina,”would not want to dip my litmus paper in that!) If you actually read Robin Morgan’s manifesto, “Good-Bye to All That No. 2” she says explicitly that we must not resort to any such silly standard: “And goodbye to some feminists so famished for a female president they were even willing to abandon women’s rights in backing Elizabeth Dole.”

Morgan’s recitation of the practices she’s hoping to end included much of the evidence that Traister and Fortini invoked against Hillary-bashers as well: the nutcracker (“Goodbye to the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs”), the T-shirts, the Chris Matthews. Most important of all, Morgan anticipated the intimidation Traister and Fortini report—intimidation so frightening that most of Fortini’s sources would speak only on condition of anonymity. Morgan foreshadowed just this when she wrote, “Goodbye to some young women … who fear their boyfriends might look at them funny if they say something good about her.” In her attack on the mammas in the Guardian recently, youthful feminist author Michelle Goldberg described Morgan’s warning about the silencing as “hysterical,” meaning driven insane by your uterus. Does Goldberg now think Traister and Fortini have been infected with the women’s disease?

Self-destructive, untruthful, and unnecessary. Deborah Siegel has written a very important book, Sisterhood Interrupted, about the fractious relationships between the ‘60s feminists and their filial successors, to show, as she put it, that “we are more alike than we are different.” The manifesto Full Frontal Feminism by the icon of young feminism—Jessica Valenti—actually sounds a lot like Betty Friedan (except perhaps that Betty didn’t say fuck so much). What is the origin of the idea that because your mama or a member of your mother’s generation recommended something, that’s sufficient reason not to do it? In this “Mother-Daughter power struggle” that Mojo Mom seeks to ignite, the feminist movement would just replicate the endless division of the feminists within the generations by dividing the generations themselves into interest groups so small that no politician in the world will ever pay them the slightest heed.

Psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow famously speculated that since women raise children, men form their moral psychology by separating from their mothers while women identify with their mothers and so are caught in a web of relationships. The campaign actually contains a nifty example of this. In a little-noticed video, when NBC’s Brian Williams once prompted Sen. Obama to say if the first picture of himself on the cover of Newsweek made him think of a “loved one,” Obama said he thought of his mother. “I think she would have been proud, and she would have cried. Her chin would tremble, and she would get all weepy,” he said, with his usual composure.

I’ve never been much for pop-psychologizing, but perhaps the yo-mamma feminist rebellion is an attempt by young women to similarly free themselves from their identification with the mother. If so, it’s a great argument for shared childrearing, but it still makes for lousy politics. Following Chodorow’s reasoning, just for argument, men are free to stand on the shoulders of their fathers, who weren’t around all that much, without psychological consequence. And so they do. Liberal and conservative. Al Gore and Al Gore, the Bushes, unto the fourth generation, the Harold Ickes, the unbreakable Kristols, Norman and John (“Normanson”) Podhoretz. Only women seem to need to separate and destroy in order to start all over again with each generation.

Before all the commentators reach for their macro buttons to accuse me of shilling for the Clinton campaign, I suppose I must offer the obligatory reassurance that neither all women nor even all feminists need to march in lockstep to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton. But I want to amplify that with the additional caution that just because your mother did it does not make it wrong. After all, she had you, didn’t she?

Corrections, April 18, 2008: Amy Tiemann’s name was originally misspelled as Tiemanns. Women’s eNews was misspelled as Women’s e-news. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

Correction, April 21, 2008: Maria Hinojosa’s name was originally misspelled as Hinajosa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)