Feminism would have us believe that in the old days it was difficult for all women to lead a meaningful life. The sexual niche into which they were born enslaved them to a harsh, harmful patriarchal system. Devoid of education, health and career and forced by religion, law and society to be little more than fodder for the marriage market, women toiled away in oppressed, abused lives. Of course, this assessment is mostly true. But feminism is a divisive issue, and often in its desire to depict the truth, it over-reaches. The feminist truths need to be restated for each generation, of course - but in ways that ring true to modern generations. Sisterhood is Forever is an anthology which details the importance, humanity and politics behind modern feminism. It is an important book, but it also falls into the age-old feminist rhetoric of depicting the female experience as a long series of victimization. To me, this seems unbalanced. Black and minority feminists might be suspicious of being included in the white feminist culture – the book has essays by Asian feminists, native-Americans, blacks and latinos -- simply to shore up feminist rhetoric of victimization.
The sixty essays in Sisterhood are always passionate. These are stories from the hearts of true soldiers. The anthologies are anecdotal ("Gen X Survivor: From Riot Grrl Rock Star to Feminist Artist") , academic ("Changing a Masculinist Culture: Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology") , self-referential (Anita Hill's "The Nature of the Beast: Sexual Harassment", informational ("U.S. Latinas: Active at the Intersections of Gender, Nationality, Race, and Class") and historical. The writers in this anthology are not thrilled about how male-controlled culture and patriarchal religion has affected the role of women. Their integrity is apparent, and their implication that being an enlightened feminist means engaging in a battlefield is true, if to put it mildly almost jingoistic at times. These gals are chauvinists of estrogen.
Gloria Steinem's "The Media and the Movement: A User's Guide" examines how the media has used and reflected women. And truly, coming to birth as it did just before the turn of the last century with the suffragettes, feminism is the first truly media-oriented struggle. What Steinem misses in her essay on "using" the media and "infiltration" is that as in all struggles, and as with all good media stories, there are villains, battles within battles, forays lost and victories won, the nature of language, outlying troops across the global arena and the need to communicate with those troops, international coalitions, guerilla feminism and, of course, the Enemy and the Enemy's God. Essays here include stories which show the important connection between feminist issues and the military, prison systems, wars, sciences, media, and in the many geographical and wealth status in society especially the poor. The struggle against patriarchal power is everywhere evident in these stories. But the struggle metaphor goes too far as usual and might ring hollow for minority or religious feminists. If there are good guys, there must of necessity be bad guys. That's what media stories are all about, and alas, that is what this collection of feminist essays is about.
As a feminist anthology of the new millennium, Sisterhood is well-rounded and, unlike its predecessors in the seventies and sixties, is more multicultural and more inclusive. But it tumbles over into unbalanced rhetoric that does not satisfy the new millennium the book was written for. After all, even many minority women who are feminists often follow traditional religion, and as we become more empowered in society we understand that modern white feminists are sometimes as oppressive as the larger patriarchal society.
The trouble with always claiming victim status is that victims have a hidden agenda to avoid dealing with the possibility that they have oppressed and that they are responsible for it. One of my favorite essays was Beverly Guy-Sheftall's "African-American Women: The Legacy of Black Feminism." I, for one, am always offended when white feminists refuse to acknowledge that it is possible that in addition to being victims, they have also been oppressors, benefitting from the patriarchal system they so often oppose. Certainly white slave mistresses benefitted from being queen of their own little fiefs. Or will all blame always be on the patriarchal? Will women –even the cruel ones– always be seen as guiltless because they are really victims of men? How many black feminists have rolled their eyes whenever a white feminist stupidly recites Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a woman?" speech? Kimberle Crenshaw's "Traffic at the Crossroads: Multiple Oppressions" partly confront this issue but once again sidesteps the main issue by talking about the subtle dynamics of racism and sexism. Nevertheless, it is a good essay.
The book is very dry, although Natalie Angier's "Biologically Correct," an essay on human sexuality, is pretty witty. The book is informative and full of facts but not particularly insightful. Wit is rare, as are the usual insights that made some earlier feminist works modern-day classics. A few essays that managed to enlighten me because they included insightful comments on linguistics, and opened my eyes to aspects of society and art I had not thought about, were Carol J Adams "Bitch, Chick, Cow: Women's and (Other) Animals' Rights" and Laura Hershey's "Rights, Realities, and Issues of Women with Disabilities." Another favorite was "Women and the Art World: Diary of the Feminist Masked Avengers: Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo, Founding Members of the Guerrilla Girls." I had not, for instance, realized how often women with disabilities were shown as victims in horror movies. Or, for that matter that Harriet Tubman was disabled.
The academic quality of the writing makes this book unsuitable for teenage women or for light reading, but this would make a good college textbook. This collection is recommended with a few caveats. The implication throughout the book and even in the introduction that traditional Christianity – unlike Paganism and Buddhism – are responsible for the oppression of women shows an imbalance almost akin to hatefulness at times. Feminists who are practicing Catholics or Bible-believers will be offended by the animosity and mockery shown towards their respective religions.