Like Mother, Like Daughter? Becoming The Feminist Your Mother Never Was
by Alex Quayle
I think it’s fair to assume that the majority of women have an unspoken understanding that there is a very unique, albeit complicated, relationship with our moms. They — whether directly or indirectly — influence many aspects of our life. From our relationships (or lack thereof) with fellow women, to the way we mother our own children should we decide to have them. Some of these influences are certainly positive and create new generations of fierce, loyal, brilliant women.
However, I think for a lot of millenial women, one of the factors that makes our relationships with our mothers so tense — or at the very least difficult — are those long-implemented gender stereotypes and expectations; specifically that our mothers uphold them and we reject them.
A New Age For Women (and Feminism)
Many millennial women are getting married later, putting off having kids, and outpacing men in higher education. In fact, as experts at Arizona State University explain, “The proportion of professional women with a college degree in the United States more than tripled from 1970 to 2013, from 11% to 39%. Today, women make up nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce and 51% of corporate professionals.”
This means that for many of us, we’ve received more education and participated more in the workforce than our mothers, which can certainly result in a strange power dynamic at times. Many of us are also identifying and participating more and more in intersectional feminism, meaning that even if your mother does consider herself a feminist, there is likely an apparent feminist generational gap.
Dealing With a Mother-Daughter Divide
There is something to be said for the women who evolve into feminists amongst mothers, sisters, or grandmothers who firmly renounce feminism. This is exactly the case for myself and my own mother. Navigating the world of feminism alone, so to speak, has been a challenging but rewarding journey. It also opens the door to a lot of interesting Thanksgiving dinners.
For me, it’s been difficult trying to reconcile my beliefs as a feminist with my mother’s expectations and views. My mother still doesn’t understand why I get so upset when my (mostly male) family members berat me for not having kids and refusing to let my fiance “take care of me.” She argues that they just want what’s best for me, I argue that they’re misogynistic jerks.
It’s also hard feeling as though your mother is not on your side, and moreover, not on the side of women in general. She calls women catty and cunning, I see them as driven and motivated. She firmly believes women should be skinny, like her, and scoffs at the mention of plus-sized. I argue that body-shaming women is a toxic, harmful problem within our society and her mindset is outdated. On our best days, we never talk about anything beyond surface level, it’s safer that way.
The Future (and Past) of Feminism
I, unfortunately, didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a feminist. Growing up in a small town, feminism wasn’t even in my vocabulary. However, I was well aware of sexism, misogyny, and rape culture throughout my life, despite not knowing the word for these issues. With that in mind, moving away and attending college I was introduced to an array of classes discussing those exact issues. It clicked immediately and I haven’t looked back.
It also meant that I became hyper-aware of my mom’s sexist, anti-feminist views. While it still upsets me that my mother doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she is of course completely allowed to make that choice, and it would be rather anti-feminist of me to force it upon her. But the disconnect is felt.
These days, as I’ve matured and become less defensive, I often wonder what exactly feminism means to my mother — and other anti-feminist women. I try to understand them, grasping for a connection. What do they picture when they hear that word: feminism? How do they define it? What did feminism look like 30 years ago? What does the history of women look like to them? Is this more than anti-feminism? Is it a fear of change? Is it the fear of losing control?
Perhaps our mothers cut their skirts shorter, or their hair, or slapped the men who touched them without consent, and perhaps, for them, that was enough. However, today’s feminism is definitely moving towards a more involved kind of advocacy and definitely more inclusive of marginalized groups. It’s also about bringing attention to the problematic holes in our society, for both men and women, such as the current need to get more women involved with STEM and the tech industry and opening up more dialogues about toxic masculinity.
It can be exhausting having to always defend your feminist beliefs to your mother and other important women in your life. However, having those conversations is one way to keep the discussion of intersectional feminism open and ongoing. Even if she never admits it, you definitely have made your mother think about feminism in a way she hadn’t before, and that’s certainly worth something. Stay strong and maybe one day our mothers will come to understand why feminism is so important — for everyone.