The mother-daughter wars

Rebecca Walker's denunciation of feminism and her mother Alice Walker has a lot to teach us about the choices women make and the daughters who judge them.

By Phyllis Chesler

Published June 10, 2008 11:08AM (EDT)

Recently, London's Daily Mail ran an article based on an interview with writer Rebecca Walker, daughter of greatly beloved "Color Purple" author Alice Walker, about her relationship with her mother that saddened me enormously.

In effect, Rebecca accuses her mother of being a cold, selfish, child-hating feminist, who wanted nothing to do with Rebecca (or, really, with motherhood) while Rebecca was growing up, even less to do with her when Rebecca became pregnant, and then, nothing to do with Rebecca's son, who is Alice's only grandchild. According to Rebecca, her mother even cut her out of her will. Rebecca guesses that her "crime" was "daring to question her [mother's feminist] ideology."

Rebecca (who is, herself, one of the most prominent faces of third-wave feminism) describes a neglectful, overly permissive and mainly absent mother, and she describes a joint custody arrangement in which she spent two years with each parent -- in Rebecca's view, a "bizarre way of doing things." I agree. According to Rebecca, when she first called her mother to tell her that she was pregnant and that "she'd never been happier, [Alice] went very quiet. All she could say was that she was shocked. Then she asked me if I could check on her garden. I put the phone down and sobbed -- she had deliberately withheld her approval with the intention of hurting me."

Ah, Rebecca. My mother, a traditional stay-at-home mother, also withheld her approval when I told her I was pregnant. Hallmark greeting cards aside, this is not an uncommon dynamic between mothers and daughters, and it can get a lot worse: For example, mothers can savagely criticize their daughters' child-care practices, sue for custody of their grandchildren or testify against their daughters in court on behalf of ex-sons-in-law. They can also refuse to relate to their daughter and their grandchild.

Still, Rebecca's interview is too sad to bear, and although I, too, have written about my troubled relationship with my mother, I did not have the heart to do so in a major way while she was alive. I waited until after her death to do so -- and still I feared that I was both committing a sin and tempting fate. Exposing your mother's nakedness in public, breaking publicly with the only woman who ever gave birth to you, is a tabooed, ungrateful, desperate, perhaps dangerous and always complicated act.

The mythic Electra did so, and she is our model for matricide, at least psychologically. And fairy tales that feature cruel and evil stepmothers are, in reality, only history lessons in fanciful disguise. Many biological mothers died in childbirth, and their children were raised by strangers. Obviously, the experience was not always delightful. But also, in fairy tales, as in life, the very same mother, whether biological or adoptive, plays the role of both Fairy Godmother and Evil Stepmother.

In this interview, not only does Rebecca denounce her mother, she indicts the entire second-wave feminist movement for having betrayed women by minimizing or rejecting the importance of motherhood in women's lives.

Well, she definitely has a point, and it is one that I have made many times. Still, given her age, Rebecca could never have experienced how odiously motherhood was once forced upon women and how all other options were closed and what courage it took to reject the commandment to marry and mother.

While most second-wave feminist leaders and thinkers emphasized abortion rather than motherhood, job equity rather than child support, sexual violence rather than the importance of family building, there were many second-wave feminist leaders (I am one) who consistently valued and wrote extensively about motherhood. For example, it was my subject in three books ("Child: A Diary of Motherhood," "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody" and "Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M"). And I was not alone. Second wavers who also wrestled with and embraced the themes of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and nonsexist child rearing include Judy Chicago, Nancy Chodorow, Betty Friedan, Joanne Haggerty, Jane Lazarre, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Adrienne Rich, Sarah Ruddick, Alice Kates Shulman, Merlin Stone -- and Alice Walker ("In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens"). And this is not a comprehensive list.

Still, many of the most glamorized, iconic and sexually and intellectually radical of second-wave feminist leaders did not become mothers or had become mothers long before they became feminist leaders. Many had also suffered the drudgery, the poverty, the utter absence of support or recognition that often accompanies mothering, and finally, paradoxically, they had also suffered the "empty nest syndrome." Most second-wave feminists therefore either condemned or feared motherhood.

I know Alice, who is a world-class talent, and I have met Rebecca, a beautiful and talented woman in her own right. Assuming every line in Rebecca's interview is true -- and it may not be entirely objective -- I must remind anyone who's shocked by the interview, or saddened by it as I am, that a rift between a talented and successful mother and her talented and (differently) successful daughter is routine, not unusual.

I've written in the past about the mother-daughter relationship -- about mothers who envy, compete with and seek to psychologically punish, even destroy, their daughters and about daughters who reject and abandon their mothers and who rebel by preferring their fathers and boldly choosing whatever path their mother has not taken. A career mother's daughter might have five children and glory in stay-at-home motherhood; a stay-at-home mother's daughter might choose the cold, corporate career, etc. None of this is surprising. It exemplifies historical pendulum swings and the ways in which daughters attempt to differentiate themselves from mothers whose shadows loom large.

I've also written about how many well-known (white) women writers were routinely mistreated as children by "good enough" mothers, and how their mothers mocked and minimized their talents and adult success (Florence Nightingale, Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Agnes Smedley -- I could go on).

Let me give just one example here. It is apt, since it describes the relationship between a trailblazing feminist and abolitionist mother and a daughter who not only became quite traditional but also broke with her mother (something Rebecca has not done -- something, in fact, Rebecca alleges Alice has done). However, like Rebecca, the daughter in this 18th-century case publicly attacked her mother's views. Please be patient with all the details. They are important.

Frances (Fanny) Wright was born in Scotland in 1794 to wealthy parents. In 1825, Fanny established a commune in Tennessee to educate emancipated slaves. In 1828, she became the first nonpreacher woman to lecture in public in the United States. In 1830, Fanny quietly left America. Early in 1831, in Paris, she gave birth to her (and William S. Phiquepal D'Arusmont's) daughter, Sylva.

Fanny was the friend and confidante of the Marquis de Lafayette, Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen -- and yet she married Phiquepal, who was 16 years her senior, in order to protect her child from "stigma." By 1836, Fanny Wright and William S. Phiquepal were seriously "estranged"; by 1838, Phiquepal took Sylva to Cincinnati, leaving Fanny alone and very ill in New York. Phiquepal then began his legal appropriation of Fanny's fortune.

In 1848, Fanny capitulated and granted Phiquepal her inheritance and property. He promptly announced that he and Sylva were "independent of her, and [can] do without her." He put Fanny on a small "allowance." In 1850, Fanny filed for divorce in an attempt to recover some part of her estate. She claimed that Phiquepal had married her for her money and had "alienated their daughter's affections." Phiquepal retaliated with an open letter to the newspapers.

He wrote: "Your life was essentially an external life. You loved virtue deeply, but you loved grandeur and glory [even more]. Your husband and child ranked only as mere appendages to your personal existence. [I] imposed on [myself] the sacrifice of attending your lectures but could not impose it on [my] child. Sylva's education has been the main object of [my] life, while [you] have often interrupted that education by the life [you] led traveling from one land to another."

In 1851, Fanny was granted a divorce as an "abandoned" wife. Part of her fortune was restored to her. However, she lost Sylva forever.

Sylva never visited her mother in Fanny's last illness. And Sylva became an ardent Christian. In 1874, she testified before a congressional committee against female suffrage. "As the daughter of Frances Wright, whom the Female Suffragists are pleased to consider as having opened the door to their pretensions," Sylva begged the speaker and the members of the House committee "to shut it forever, from the strongest convictions that they can only bring misery and degradation upon the whole sex, and thereby wreck human happiness in America!"

Rebecca conflates feminist views of motherhood (as she perceives them to be) with her own personal experience of Alice's choice or inability to mother in a traditional way. In her interview, Rebecca admits that she prefers her white, Jewish father's second wife, Judy, who bore five children and found meaning as a stay-at-home or ever-available mother. Here is how Rebecca sounds about Judy: "I actually yearned for a traditional mother. My father's second wife, Judy, was a loving, maternal homemaker with five children she doted on. There was always food in the fridge and she did all the things my mother didn't."

Yes, and Alice did all the things that women like Judy don't want to do and can't do: Write great poems and novels, devote oneself to world work, crusade for human and women's rights. Rebecca: Trust me, a woman really cannot do both. The myth that we can is a dangerous one.

I can only imagine the pain of being an artist in thrall to her muse and an activist in service to the world's pain rejected for the more traditional mother/stepmother. Choosing the white over the black family -- come on, this has gotta hurt. It doesn't matter that this is a choice that Alice herself made long ago when she married Rebecca's white father.

The children of greatly talented public figures, as Alice surely is, are often sacrificed to the Great Work. The children can barely breathe in the shadow of -- usually it's the Great Man; in this case, it's the Great Woman. However, great men are allowed every excess and failure; great women are never forgiven for making a single mistake. Great men are allowed their female mistresses, male lovers, wife-secretaries, binges -- and they rarely see their children. Or they exploit and abuse them.

One is commanded to honor one's mother and father. But what if one's parents have been abusive, abandoning, treacherous? If so, it might be important to say so even if it means tearing this ancient religious guideline asunder.

Clearly, Rebecca wants to "talk" to her mother. She has just done so here: publicly, painfully and in a way that is bound to hurt. I wish that I could gentle these two women into repairing their breach. It is one that they will regret forever.

Phyllis Chesler

Dr. Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies and the author of 13 books including the landmark "Women and Madness." She is a co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology and the National Women's Health Network. Her website is

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