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January 25, 2008

Young Lecture details feminism’s history

Christine Stansell discussed the development of modern feminism in the late 20th century at the Iris Marion Young Distinguished Faculty Lecture. The lecture, entitled “The Revolt of the Daughters: Matrophobia and 1960s Feminism” began with a brief overview of the feminist movement instigated by Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication on the Rights of Women.

Stansell described how women in the post-Vietnam era banded together to illuminate gender-based differences in wages, abortion, and sexism. Feminists at that time were primarily middle-class white students.

Stansell also emphasized the role of mothers, especially in the nascent stage of the movement. Though unmarried, Susan B. Anthony was a unifying figure to her peers, referred to in early feminist literature as “The Mother of Us All.” Advocates for women’s suffrage originally argued that women should be able to participate in public matters because the decisions made directly affected their families.

But the standing of mothers changed in the 1980s, according to Stansell. An article entitled Revolt of the Daughters appeared in a popular British magazine and gave voice to a new, rebellious generation. “Women’s liberation was a political temper whose concern was not distant fathers but rather brothers and mothers, the immediate intimate,” said Stansell. Daughters dismissed the traditional duties of their mothers, instead pursuing liberal education and independence.

“The attack on motherhood was an attack on the bourgeois nuclear family. The project of disassembling the family came into being,” said Stansell. Some strains of the feminist movement grew more radical yet, as women began to reject the duty of childbearing. Sheila Firestone characterized the process as “the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species.”

Stansell mentioned that Latina and black women for the most part did not experience this disdain for mothers.

Aspects of the radical feminist wave incited a neo-Victorian expression of motherhood in its wake. “The Martha Stewart syndrome, hyper-motherhood that in some ways ruins this vacuum that was left by the brightest and most brilliant minds as the [political] Right began to step up [following the 1970s],” Stansell said.

Stansell ended with a review of the lasting effects of the radical feminist movements of the 1960s and 1980s. She lamented the lack of national policy change that reflected the insights of the feminist movement. “It was not a matter of whether motherhood was going to change anything,” she said. “The structural changes were already occurring; the issue was who was going to do it.”

The lecture was organized by the Center for Gender Studies.