For the Memory of the Matriarch

Categories: ActivismIdentity

About a month ago, my paternal grandma passed away at the age of 91. And although the death was not unexpected, the sudden finality of the loss nonetheless gutted me. It was the second death I had experienced within the span of less than a year, with my maternal grandma having passed away during late May of 2018. Death has never been an easy thing for me to process. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been bad at goodbyes, or maybe it’s because I’m the type of person who gets easily attached. I don’t know. But what I do know—or rather, have learned through trial and error—is that the best way for me to process grief is to directly confront my feelings through writing.

I recognize that for some readers, the concept of working through my feelings with a blog post may come off as a narcissistic or indulgent exercise of self-promotion. Yet, by the same token, when I first agreed to contribute to this blog, I also agreed that I would provide readers with my own authentic thoughts about the various ways gender, politics, and society intersect and affect our lives. After all, a common feminist philosophy adopted during Second Wave Feminism is that “the personal is political.” And what can be more personal than the death of a loved one? For, during the past year, I have not only gone through the death of two great women who I loved and respected, but have watched my family undergo the healing process of losing their longtime matriarchs.

“During the past year, I have not only gone through the death of two great women who I loved and respected, but have watched my family undergo the healing process of losing their longtime matriarchs. “

Matriarchy. It’s strange how as feminists we consistently strive for female empowerment, yet so rarely the words “matriarch” or “matriarchy” pass our lips. Instead our conversational buzzword has become “patriarchy,” almost to the point of parody. And this dynamic is understandable. After all, how are we to overcome societal oppression unless we directly identify the very system and pathogen that is our oppressor?

Yet, by failing to engage in serious conversation about “matriarchs” and “matriarchy” even a fraction of the time that we devote to analyzing “patriarchs” and the “patriarchy,” we miss the opportunity to better understand the ways that concepts such as motherhood, intergenerational femininity, and female filial bonds can better aid and empower us. I fear that many feminists stray from examining matriarchal structures because of the many ways the patriarchy has historically framed the matriarch’s traditional role as antithetical to our movement’s ideals, forcing us to choose between a constructed dichotomy of domestic bliss and political awareness. Suffragettes (and many later feminists) lost custody of their children due to their support of women’s progress, working women have been framed as “lesser mothers” for maintaining careers in addition to motherhood (be it by choice or by circumstance), and the negative connotations of the subservient 1950s housewife have left scarring on feminists’ collective memory.

The fact that women have historically been subjugated by matriarchal gender roles of the mother, the housewife, the homemaker, cannot be ignored. But we must also acknowledge that much of this oppression was the result of the patriarchy weaponizing the matriarch against our own interests for their profit. She who should have been an honored model, a natural ally, a potential inspiration, became a source of fear, suspicion, and resentment.

Some more extreme schools of feminist thought frame motherhood as the carrier of continued oppression. For example, in Shadow Feminisms, Jack/Judith Halberstam notes, “radical forms of passivity and masochism step out of the easy model of a transfer of femininity from mother to daughter and actually seek to destroy the mother-daughter bond altogether.”  For, when a mother has a son, she may be sacrificing herself to raise yet another agent of the patriarchy who will ultimately grow to consciously or subconsciously contribute to her oppression. Yet, Halberstam notes, when a mother has a daughter, one may argue that she is selfishly perpetuating the patriarchy’s dominance by providing it with yet another female body to abuse, to break, to subjugate. According to this brand of feminism, the mother-daughter relationship is one of the most volatile bonds in existence and must be eradicated by some form of self-destruction in order for women to progress.

This form of self-destruction can occur in different iterations. The daughter can seek to sever the bond within the relationship to their mother by creating a vitriolic dynamic between the two parties, or by completely refusing to interact with their mother. Or, on an extreme level, the daughter can seek to sever the bond within themselves by repressing all acknowledgement of the mother’s heritage within their own personal identity, or directly engaging in behaviors that they know would be antithetical to their mother’s preferences (which in some dangerous cases may border on self-harm and masochism).  

One might argue that this type of perspective can be observed in the rift between Second and Third Wave feminists that continues to exist in contemporary activism. It’s no secret that there are stark delineations between Second Wave Feminism (the feminism of our mothers), and Third Wave Feminism (the feminism of many of today’s contemporary activists). Second Wave Feminism of the 1960s focused on efforts to advance women’s equality beyond the right to vote (the feminism of our great grandmothers). Through organized protests, litigation, and literature, Second Wave Feminists fought for and largely achieved advancements for women’s equality in the workplace, women’s reproductive rights, and raised awareness about the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence that women had far too long endured in silence.

Yet, despite these accomplishments, it has been difficult for the newest generation of feminists to ignore that these strides were oftentimes made by stepping on the backs of others. For these steps were largely made by white heterosexual upper and middle class women, at the expense of women of color, women of lower income, and women who identified as queer. Third Wave Feminism is, in many ways, a reflexive reaction to the sins of the  Second Wave, with an intentional emphasis on the importance of diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion in all aspects of activism. As a Third Wave Feminist of color myself, I often struggle to recognize the achievements from Second Wave Feminists without reservations, and have met several other feminists who seek to separate ourselves from the Second Wave’s older voices that many within the movement see as out-of- touch and insensitive. However, our progress as women has largely come from the labor of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and all of the matriarchs whose names we may never know. And while there have been clear intergenerational differences in the ways that we have approached our rights, our politics, our bodies, and our overall roles in society–at the end of the day, our foremothers acted in ways that they best thought would benefit us, their daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters, and countless yet to be born generations of women that would one day carry on their legacy.

“Our progress as women has largely come from the labor of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and all of the matriarchs whose names we may never know.”

I can vividly recall the time during high school when I was asked to interview a senior citizen with pre-written questions about the 1960s as a prompt for an American History class. And I remember I chose to interview my maternal grandma about the 1960s. I was so excited. I had already learned so much about all of the changes that took place during that decade in terms of the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, and the beginnings of anti-war protests surrounding the Vietnam War. I couldn’t wait to hear my grandma’s perspective. But with each question I asked her, I found myself confronted with the same frustrating refrain, “I really don’t remember much of any of that, dear. I was too busy raising a family.”

I can vividly recall the time during college when I traveled from Virginia to visit my paternal grandma in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, around the time that Black Lives Matter protests had erupted following the shooting of Eric Garner. And I remember I had my heart broken as I heard my grandma react to the protests with vitriolic words that were peppered with privilege and racial slurs. With each loaded comment, I was forced to confront the fact that the woman who had always been so nurturing towards me was so vehemently prejudiced against a community that I cared about and consistently allied with.

In both of these instances, I remember feeling a deep sense of betrayal. Almost defiantly, I remember myself thinking, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a different type of woman than you.” In my self-righteous teenage mind, I told myself that I would do better. That unlike them, I would always work to improve the politics of our country and never push aside the problems of others. But now that both of my grandmas are gone, I cannot help but recognize that it is because of these matriarchs and what I perceived to be their shortcomings—in some cases a matter of principle, and in many others a matter of politics—that I can strive to be a different woman.

While my maternal grandma may have never actively engaged in 1960s protests or marched on Washington, she formed her own revolution at home by raising my mom, my aunt, and my uncles during some of our country’s darkest hours. In the face of segregation, assassinations, and war, she taught them virtues such as tolerance, grit, self-reliance, and passion that my own mother has instilled in me, and are a driving force behind my interest in politics.

My paternal grandma also deserves some recognition for the woman I am today. In many ways, she held progressive views about women’s gender roles. During my dad’s upbringing, although she was married with children, she was also adamant about holding her own job to maintain a sense of financial independence. She was an avid reader and never once did she stereotypically pressure me about my romantic relationships (or, rather, lacktherof). Instead, whenever she’d hear I was single, she’d say something along the lines of, “She doesn’t have a boyfriend? Good. She’s too busy getting an education. She doesn’t have time for them.”

And while I must accept the fact that my paternal grandma held some bigoted opinions that are still difficult for me to reconcile, through her prejudice, she also taught me a valuable lesson—that people and politics are multifaceted beings, which are not always entirely right or entirely wrong in their perspectives. From my perspective, my maternal grandma was in the right for how she taught her children to face a tumultuous political landscape, but in the wrong for not getting as involved in the landscape herself. From my perspective, my paternal grandma was in the right for recognizing the importance of women’s fulfillment outside of the home, but in the wrong for her extreme discrimination against people who looked and acted differently than her. But from my perspective, I am also the product of the collective “rights” and “wrongs” that my grandmas enacted throughout their lifetimes, and for that I am grateful. I have tried to embody the qualities that made them mighty, and learn from the flaws that made them mortal.

“I am also the product of the collective “rights” and “wrongs” that my grandmas enacted throughout their lifetimes, and for that I am grateful.”

It is because of them that I am the woman I am today. I am my own woman of collective “rights” and “wrongs,” that I am certain one day my daughters and their daughters, and their daughter’s daughters will look upon from their own critical perspective. But like my grandmas, I can only hope that when I pass, those who remain on this Earth will keep the memory of the matriarch and use it to improve the lives of future generations.

Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders. Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.