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Feminism Across Generations

Margaret Beetham

In this paper I want to bring together some of the theoretical work on generations of women, in particular on the relationship of mothers and daughters, and some reflections on a shared feminist politics committed to bringing about change. It comes out of reflection on my own history of working with women, many of them considerably younger than myself, both in academic projects and in developing an institutional feminist practice. In 1970s feminism a desire to celebrate the strong women who went before us co-existed with a determination that, whatever we were to become, we would not be like our own mothers. Celebrating and 'thinking back through mothers' in the abstract co-existed with what Adrienne Rich described as a characteristic matriphobia. Important feminist work on the relationship of mothers and daughters ranges from Rich's Of Woman Born (1976) to Kristeva's 'Stabat Mater' first published in 1974 and Irigaray's insistence on the importance and value of mother/daughter relationship. Some of this is still useful in thinking of intergenerational relationships between women who are broadly feminist but it may be that the maternal metaphors obscure rather than illuminate the inequalities of power, access to funding and other differences between women of different generations which now exist in the academy. Perhaps, as Linda Williams has argued, we should stop using familial metaphors just as we should rethink the traditional patterns of domestic and family life (Williams (1992) Happy Families? Feminist Reproduction and Matrilineal Thought, in Armstrong (ed) New Feminist Discourses). In an essay in Theresa Brennan's Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1989) Alice Jardine addresses the question of how the inheritance of '70s generation feminists was working through in the academy. She discussed this both in relation to psychoanalysis and to the material inequalities of power. In this paper I return to the questions she posed in the very different context of Britain in 2002. My main concern is how to understand and continue to create a feminist politics of change.

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