Monday, May 26, 2008

Trials of a feminist daughter

Rebecca Walker was brought up by an American feminist icon, Alice Walker. Rebecca, though, does not share her mother's feminism and for obvious reasons.

Modernity makes individual autonomy the key good in life. Feminism insists that women receive an equal measure of autonomy. Where, though, does this leave motherhood? If you believe, above all, in "independence" - in being able to follow your own will in any direction - then motherhood will be thought of as an impediment.

And so it was in the Walker household. Rebecca was brought up to think that having children was the ultimate form of servitude, and Alice put motherhood low down in her priorities.

Rebecca found it impossible to adopt her mother's feminism: as a child she yearned for a more traditional mother and she found it difficult later in life to suppress her own maternal instincts. When she finally had a child of her own, and found it such a rewarding experience, the break with her mother's feminism was complete.

Here is Rebecca West's criticism of feminism in her own words:

The other day I was vacuuming when my son came bounding into the room. 'Mummy, Mummy, let me help,' he cried. His little hands were grabbing me around the knees and his huge brown eyes were looking up at me. I was overwhelmed by a huge surge of happiness ...

It reminds me of just how blessed I am. The truth is that I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother - thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman.

You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairytale.

In fact, having a child has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Far from 'enslaving' me, three-and-a-half-year-old Tenzin has opened my world. My only regret is that I discovered the joys of motherhood so late - I have been trying for a second child for two years, but so far with no luck.

I was raised to believe that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle. But I strongly feel children need two parents and the thought of raising Tenzin without my partner, Glen, 52, would be terrifying.

As the child of divorced parents, I know only too well the painful consequences of being brought up in those circumstances. Feminism has much to answer for denigrating men and encouraging women to seek independence whatever the cost to their families.

My mother's feminist principles coloured every aspect of my life. As a little girl, I wasn't even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.

... I came very low down in her priorities - after work, political integrity, self-fulfilment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel.

My mother would always do what she wanted - for example taking off to Greece for two months in the summer, leaving me with relatives when I was a teenager. Is that independent, or just plain selfish?

... the truth was I was very lonely and, with my mother's knowledge, started having sex at 13. I guess it was a relief for my mother as it meant I was less demanding. And she felt that being sexually active was empowering for me because it meant I was in control of my body.

Now I simply cannot understand how she could have been so permissive ... A good mother is attentive, sets boundaries and makes the world safe for her child. But my mother did none of those things ...

As a child, I was terribly confused, because while I was being fed a strong feminist message, I actually yearned for a traditional mother. My father's second wife, Judy, was a loving, maternal homemaker with five children she doted on ...

When I hit my 20s and first felt a longing to be a mother, I was totally confused. I could feel my biological clock ticking, but I felt if I listened to it, I would be betraying my mother and all she had taught me.

I tried to push it to the back of my mind, but over the next ten years the longing became more intense ...

I know many women are shocked by my views. They expect the daughter of Alice Walker to deliver a very different message. Yes, feminism has undoubtedly given women opportunities ... But what about the problems it's caused for my contemporaries?

... 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 made, you need to make alterations.


  1. 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.

  2. How to get "dirty laundry out in the open" without airing it...a paradox, to say the least!

  3. Just a little bit of justified resentment there, eh?

    "Is that independent, or just plain selfish?"

    This hits the mark. Unfortunately not just rabid feminists with this attitude either, plenty of couples ditching their (trophy) children at the slightest whim so they can have fun.

  4. Yes, a very interesting quote, but remember Rebecca Walker is no Conservative. She a lesbian, half-Black, half-Jewish, leftist feminist herself. She may be pointing out the failures of feminism and cultural leftism, but so did her mother.

  5. "Now I simply cannot understand how she could have been so permissive ... A good mother is attentive, sets boundaries and makes the world safe for her child. But my mother did none of those things ...
    Permissiveness goes hand in hand with the blank slate view of the human brain. If their is no biological gender, then one can pursue whatever course in life one wants with no consequences. Since this is a myth, and male and female thoughts, desires and emotions are very different pursuing the traditionally male model of self actualization through competitive achievement naturally leaves women miserable. Sure their are one or two women per century with that masculine drive for autonomy. But most do not have it. This is why you see women "underrepresented" in board rooms, leadership, the sciences etc.

    "Feminism has much to answer for denigrating men and encouraging women to seek independence whatever the cost to their families. "

    Amen sister! My mother and father also promoted this caustic ideology to me as a young girl. I was raised in a very "progressive" family and found that life to be meaningless and full of relative uncertainty. I figured it out (painfully) in my 20s luckily. When I tried to explain to other young women that feminism was setting them up to be used for sex and spend their lives as working automatons, they got mad at me.