The Ugly Side of Feminism: Alice Walker
First, the editor’s introduction:
She’s revered as a trail-blazing feminist and author Alice Walker touched the lives of a generation of women. A champion of women’s rights, she has always argued that motherhood is a form of servitude. But one woman didn’t buy in to Alice’s beliefs - her daughter, Rebecca, 38.Now the younger Walker woman tells of her experiences.
Here the writer describes what it was like to grow up as the daughter of a cultural icon, and why she feels so blessed to be the sort of woman 64-year-old Alice despises - a mother.
The other day I was vacuuming when my son came bounding into the room. ‘Mummy, Mummy, let me help,’ he cried. His little hands were grabbing me around the knees and his huge brown eyes were looking up at me. I was overwhelmed by a huge surge of happiness.It is one of the more astounding notions of feminists: that a girl or woman is “in control of her body” if she is promiscuous. The common sense view would be just the opposite.
I love the way his head nestles in the crook of my neck. I love the way his face falls into a mask of eager concentration when I help him learn the alphabet. But most of all, I simply love hearing his little voice calling: ‘Mummy, Mummy.’
It reminds me of just how blessed I am. The truth is that I very nearly missed out on becoming a mother - thanks to being brought up by a rabid feminist who thought motherhood was about the worst thing that could happen to a woman.
You see, my mum taught me that children enslave women. I grew up believing that children are millstones around your neck, and the idea that motherhood can make you blissfully happy is a complete fairytale.
In fact, having a child has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Far from ‘enslaving’ me, three-and-a-half-year-old Tenzin has opened my world. My only regret is that I discovered the joys of motherhood so late - I have been trying for a second child for two years, but so far with no luck.
I was raised to believe that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle. But I strongly feel children need two parents and the thought of raising Tenzin without my partner, Glen, 52, would be terrifying.
As the child of divorced parents, I know only too well the painful consequences of being brought up in those circumstances. Feminism has much to answer for denigrating men and encouraging women to seek independence whatever the cost to their families.
My mother’s feminist principles coloured every aspect of my life. As a little girl, I wasn’t even allowed to play with dolls or stuffed toys in case they brought out a maternal instinct. It was drummed into me that being a mother, raising children and running a home were a form of slavery. Having a career, travelling the world and being independent were what really mattered according to her.
I love my mother very much, but I haven’t seen her or spoken to her since I became pregnant. She has never seen my son - her only grandchild. My crime? Daring to question her ideology.
Well, so be it. My mother may be revered by women around the world - goodness knows, many even have shrines to her. But I honestly believe it’s time to puncture the myth and to reveal what life was really like to grow up as a child of the feminist revolution.
My early childhood was very happy although my parents were terribly busy, encouraging me to grow up fast. I was only one when I was sent off to nursery school. I’m told they even made me walk down the street to the school.
When I was eight, my parents divorced. From then on I was shuttled between two worlds - my father’s very conservative, traditional, wealthy, white suburban community in New York, and my mother’s avant garde multi-racial community in California. I spent two years with each parent - a bizarre way of doing things.
I was 16 when I found a now-famous poem she wrote comparing me to various calamities that struck and impeded the lives of other women writers. Virginia Woolf was mentally ill and the Brontes died prematurely. My mother had me - a ‘delightful distraction’, but a calamity nevertheless. I found that a huge shock and very upsetting.
According to the strident feminist ideology of the Seventies, women were sisters first, and my mother chose to see me as a sister rather than a daughter. From the age of 13, I spent days at a time alone while my mother retreated to her writing studio - some 100 miles away. I was left with money to buy my own meals and lived on a diet of fast food.
But the truth was I was very lonely and, with my mother’s knowledge, started having sex at 13. I guess it was a relief for my mother as it meant I was less demanding. And she felt that being sexually active was empowering for me because it meant I was in control of my body.
Now I simply cannot understand how she could have been so permissive. I barely want my son to leave the house on a play-date, let alone start sleeping around while barely out of junior school.Read the entire piece, detailing how things went downhill after that.
A good mother is attentive, sets boundaries and makes the world safe for her child. But my mother did none of those things.
Although I was on the Pill - something I had arranged at 13, visiting the doctor with my best friend - I fell pregnant at 14. I organised an abortion myself. Now I shudder at the memory. I was only a little girl. I don’t remember my mother being shocked or upset. She tried to be supportive, accompanying me with her boyfriend.
Although I believe that an abortion was the right decision for me then, the aftermath haunted me for decades. It ate away at my self-confidence and, until I had Tenzin, I was terrified that I’d never be able to have a baby because of what I had done to the child I had destroyed. For feminists to say that abortion carries no consequences is simply wrong.
As a child, I was terribly confused, because while I was being fed a strong feminist message, 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, such as attending their school events, taking endless photos and telling her children at every opportunity how wonderful they were.
My mother was the polar opposite. She never came to a single school event, she didn’t buy me any clothes, she didn’t even help me buy my first bra - a friend was paid to go shopping with me. If I needed help with homework I asked my boyfriend’s mother.
Moving between the two homes was terrible. At my father’s home I felt much more taken care of. But, if I told my mother that I’d had a good time with Judy, she’d look bereft - making me feel I was choosing this white, privileged woman above her. I was made to feel that I had to choose one set of ideals above the other.
When I hit my 20s and first felt a longing to be a mother, I was totally confused. I could feel my biological clock ticking, but I felt if I listened to it, I would be betraying my mother and all she had taught me.
Although I knew what my mother felt about babies, I still hoped that when I told her I was pregnant, she would be excited for me.
‘Mum, I’m pregnant’
Instead, when I called her one morning in the spring of 2004, while I was at one of her homes housesitting, and told her my news and that I’d never been happier, she went very quiet. All she could say was that she was shocked. Then she asked 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. What loving mother would do that?
Worse was to follow. My mother took umbrage at an interview in which I’d mentioned that my parents didn’t protect or look out for me. She sent me an e-mail, threatening to undermine my reputation as a writer. I couldn’t believe she could be so hurtful - particularly when I was pregnant.