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Mothers, Daughters, and Democratic Primaries

In “Not Their Mother’s Candidate,” in last Sunday’s New York Times, Susan Faludi purports to situate the difference between women who support Hillary Clinton and women who support Bernie Sanders in terms of the history of American feminism. According to Faludi, this conflict, which first appeared among feminists in the 1920s, is between “mothers” and “daughters.” The “mothers” of today (Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem) call for loyalty among women; the “daughters” (the flappers then; unnamed today) pursue personal liberation rather than group loyalty. One is almost finished with the article before one realizes that in fact it is another twisted pro-Clinton intervention, based on the assumption that Sanders is not electable.

I will not here explain why Sanders might prove more electable than Clinton. I will not discuss Clinton’s potentially devastating weaknesses, such as the underestimated email problem or her enabling of her husband’s rapacious sexual career, which will certainly be at the center of the election, should she prove to be the candidate. Nor will I argue the case that a defeat of Sanders, if accompanied by a renewal of the left, might prove preferable to a continuation of today’s regime of lies and falsehoods, just as the defeat of Goldwater in 1964 led to the right’s successful insurgency from that time on. Rather, I want to take up Faludi’s misuse of the history of feminism.

Faludi’s discussion of “mothers” and “daughters,” especially in regard to the 1920s, is lifted without acknowledgement from Ann Douglas’s magisterial 1996 work, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. What Douglas showed was that the 1920s gave birth to what we know today as cultural radicalism — African American nationalism, feminism, Jewish identity politics, sexual liberation, homosexual liberation, as well as artistic modernism, for example, the stream of consciousness novel and experimental theater. Douglas’s argument is that it was the mixture, an interweaving of different currents — which Manhattan made possible — that created what Lionel Trilling later called America’s “adversary culture” and which Christopher Lasch termed “the new radicalism in America.” Not accidentally, Sigmund Freud was at the center of this radicalism — not the Freud who created modern psychotherapy, but the sexual liberator and the crusader against hypocrisy. Douglas’s point is that radicals were able to create something new, based on a recognition of the new productive forces, which no single group could create by itself. That is the point of the term “mongrel” in her title.

There was an argument between mothers and daughters, as Douglas shows, but this was not an argument inside feminism. The “mothers” were hypocrites, racists, anti-immigrant, supporters of prohibition, Bowdlerizers, as well as nostalgic about the dual-sphere society and the cult of true womanhood. The “daughters” were not only believers in sexual liberation, but also socialists, anarchists, communitarians, “wets,” creators of and participants in the Harlem Renaissance, crusaders against lynching, and precursors of the Popular Front and the New Deal. As exemplified by young women like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who were both lesbians, these daughters were Freudians. The mothers banned such books as Ulysses by James Joyce, Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence, and the classic 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. The daughters read these works in pirated editions. Above all, the daughters, in a crucial quote from the 1925 New York Times, which Faludi took from Douglas but without credit, could “take a man’s view as her mother never could.”

What Douglas shows is that the issue in the 1920s was not men versus women; it was not even black versus white; it was progress versus reaction. It is the same today. Knowing which of the Democrats stands for progress is not always easy. Bill and Hillary Clinton are master manipulators — deceit is their DNA. But Faludi’s intervention — which is also not forthright — helps clarify the issue. People made progress in the 1920s because they had a common cause. They did not make progress because each single group claimed a slice of the pie. In her early campaign, Hillary Clinton tried to manipulate the issue of gender, but New Hampshire suggested that this wouldn’t work. In the last debate with Sanders, she shifted ground to the issue of race. If we recognize the extraordinary character of the American radical past, and note the “mongrel” contribution of the 1920s, then that won’t work either.

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Eli Zaretsky

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