Brilliant Together: On Feminist Memoirs

Collective feminist narratives can acknowledge, to differing degrees, the stories that are missing from them.

During my first year of college, in 1991, I experienced a feminist awakening, in my horror at the spectacle of Anita Hill’s public humiliation in front of the Senate and the nation. But I didn’t stop to consider how the compound factor of race made her situation both different and worse. The stories we heard from second-wave feminists—our mothers’ generation—were likely to include Gloria Steinem and Take Back the Night. They were less likely to mention Audre Lorde and the Combahee River Collective.

My cohort of women was born between 1965 and 1980, the Pew Research Center’s parameters for Generation X. We grew up with the advances won by first-wave feminists (the right to vote, for example) and by the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s (widespread access to contraception, civil rights legislation that extended affirmative action to women, legal abortion, and large-scale public conversations about violence against women). The lazy, clichéd view of Gen Xers presumes us to be slackers, cynics, and reflexive ironists; we don’t even merit our own dismissive “OK, boomer” meme.

But we are also women in our 40s and 50s, the inheritors of feminism’s second wave and instigators of the third wave, and we are now in positions of power. With a fourth wave of feminism upon us, what should my generation of activists preserve from earlier stages of the movement, and what should we discard? How should feminist stories be told, and by whom? In particular, what elements of our foremothers’ second-wave feminism still feel essential to us in the 21st century, and how might we consider and address their failures, especially their failures of inclusion? How can we redefine the collective aspects of the feminist movement in a way that will endure?

One of the most important outcomes of the racial reckonings of 2020 is an influx of new feminist memoirs that reexamine the women’s movement from nonwhite perspectives—memoirs that deal explicitly with race and the failings of mainstream white feminism. And even before the events of last year, white second-wave feminists were beginning to engage more meaningfully with these issues, although an enormous amount of work remains.

Recent memoirs by Nancy K. Miller and Honor Moore, white women who are both public intellectuals and active participants in feminism’s second wave, make clear how the gains of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s enabled some women to rewrite their narratives. Instead of stories of birth, marriage, and death, they tell stories about friendship, intellectual and artistic development, relationships between mothers and daughters, political and cultural movements, and, above all, the struggle for women’s voices to be heard (and their bodies protected) in a patriarchal society.

Reading these stories now feels like tapping into a larger ongoing narrative, one that celebrates gains made while reminding us how fragile those gains are. Notably, both memoirs take on more than one woman’s story, suggesting that another way to rewrite women’s narratives is to bring them together, to see the power in what is shared. There is no single narrative of a woman’s life, no universal set of markers that defines women’s experience, and no one retrospection that can answer what feminism will become.

In her foundational Writing a Woman’s Life (1988), feminist literary critic and scholar Carolyn Heilbrun observes that writing the lives of notable women poses a challenge because their narratives don’t fit a heroic masculine mode of storytelling. Heilbrun argues that women can’t emulate or draw inspiration from biographies and memoirs that don’t exist:“Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. … Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”1 In the same way, feminist biographies and memoirs—and scholarship, journalism, and novels, too—can only make sense of their subjects by changing the way the story is told.

Feminism itself has never been an uncontested narrative. Debates over the definition of “feminist,” including the right to use this word regardless of political ideology, or the ability of women to support other women while distancing themselves from the label, take up a lot of space in public discourse. In a 2015 piece for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert suggests that:

Whatever the history, whatever the nuances, whatever the charged sentiments associated with political activism, being a feminist is very simple: It means believing that women are and should be equal to men in matters political, social, and economic. They should be able to vote. They should have equal protection under the law and equal access to healthcare and education. They should be paid as much as their male counterparts are for doing exactly the same job. Do you believe in these things? Then, you are a feminist.2

In 2021, it is hard not to notice that Gilbert’s definition does not explicitly mention race as a factor in discrimination against women. Those of us who are both white and feminist have historically struggled to perceive the intersection between gender and race (and between gender and other markers, such as social class, economic status, age, ability, and gender identity), identified and named as “intersectionality” in a 1989 article by Black legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

Crenshaw notes that: “When feminist theory attempts to describe women’s experiences through analyzing patriarchy, sexuality, or separate spheres ideology, it often overlooks the role of race. Feminists thus ignore how their own race functions to mitigate some aspects of sexism and, moreover, how it often privileges them over and contributes to the domination of other women.”3 For a long time, it has been too easy for white feminists to avoid confronting our own responsibility for the ways in which so many women have been left behind or left out of mainstream feminist discourse, or the ways in which the effects of living in a patriarchal society are compounded by what Crenshaw categorizes as multiple burdens.

What should my generation of activists preserve from earlier stages of the movement, and what should we discard?

Heilbrun’s conviction that “the ‘untold story of friendship between women’ was key to uncovering the emotional patterns in women’s lives that biographers tend to miss” anchors CUNY professor Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives in Feminism (2019). Miller tells four connected stories about the experience of feminist literary critics in academia: her own and those of her friends Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Wood Middlebrook. She draws on Elena Ferrante’s iconic novel My Brilliant Friend (2012) and its sequels for language about the particular beauties and uglinesses of female friendships, writing about academic careers that both fostered and challenged the connections she forged with these women between the 1970s and the early 2000s.

Miller characterizes these friendships as collaborative, competitive, nurturing, and occasionally confounding. She notes, “The hardest friendship lesson to learn” is that “there will always be something about your friend that remains unknowable, including her deepest feelings about you.” This memoir depicts her struggle to accept that fact while trying to do justice to the stories of a group of women.

Miller presents herself and her friends as women who sought to make sense of the world through words; their identities as writers and scholars were central to their feminism, although they did not necessarily agree on what form the scholarly work of feminists should take. They faced endemic, brutal sexism at the universities where they worked. They searched, often fruitlessly, for lovers or partners who would allow them to live the lives they wanted to live. They wrestled with whether and how the stereotypical narrative markers of women’s lives—like marriage, children, and the performance of beauty and femininity—could ever fit those expanding ideas of self.
Recalling a Sunday morning in January 1971, when she spotted a New York Times Magazine article by Vivian Gornick about women’s consciousness-raising groups, Miller remarks that the appeal of those then-radical gatherings was in part their ability to foster a sense of community based on gender identification: “Women would meet to analyze their lives in intimate detail—including their doubts and fears. That part wasn’t hard to understand. What was different was the notion that you would look at your own history not solely in personal terms (though obviously your story belonged to you), but also in relation to other women and other women’s experiences.”

Miller reproduces the list of topics proposed for the first meeting of her own group:

Love, sex, physical appearance.

Images other people have of us, bullshitting: honesty with our friends.

Abortion, femininity, aging, motherhood, coming to the group.

Our mothers, marriage, money.

Work, competition with women, competition with men.

Do we exist?

This list functions nicely as a catalog of feminist concerns that are both of the period and timeless—as Miller recognizes, however, it’s also limited in scope by the homogeneous participants in her consciousness-raising group. She observes: “We imagined ourselves as part of a new kind of history … created by telling our stories and documenting them. … Each woman’s narrative would illuminate the larger pattern of women’s lives, our collective oppression under patriarchy,” while wryly noting that the group’s members “were thinking mostly of ourselves, nice, middle-class, mostly Jewish young women.” Given this limitation, the “collective oppression” she describes is necessarily a narrow one.

In an earlier memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past (2011), Miller uses the material contents of her father’s drawer, inherited after his death, to investigate her family’s history. In My Brilliant Friends, she explicitly states that “objects lead memory,” using physical things to invoke the past: elegant tchotchkes for her desk from Heilbrun, letters from Schor, a pair of shoes given to her by Middlebrook.

Middlebrook offers Miller the shoes—“strappy, red, faux alligator, high-heeled pumps”—after the former’s cancer diagnosis, when mobility issues prevent her from wearing them. Miller puts the pumps on that same day for a party: “The shoes fit perfectly (how did she know?), and I wore them without teetering, a drink in hand, for several hours. I felt ridiculous but pleasurably tall. Taller. Towering. Followed by a week of shin splints.”

Miller explores the ramifications of women’s mundane choices about body, dress, and self-presentation, big and small: What should a feminist wear? How should a feminist feel about her body, especially as it ages? What happens when a feminist chooses to put on a gendered item of clothing that both empowers and hurts her?

The mood of Miller’s memoir is necessarily elegiac: her own cancer diagnosis frames the stories she tells in My Brilliant Friends, and all three of the friends she writes about are dead. She recounts the pain caused by Schor’s cerebral hemorrhage, in 2001, Heilbrun’s suicide, in 2003, and Middlebrook’s death from cancer, in 2007.

Miller posits that Heilbrun’s decision to end her life might have seemed—at least to her friend—like one final way to exercise choice, “an expression of feminist autonomy, a bookend, as it were, to the demand for reproductive rights.” Ultimately, as Miller acknowledges, Heilbrun’s choice allows her to enact her own idea about changing the nature of women’s narratives by deciding when hers would end, although this memoir also exposes death as only one marker of a narrative’s end, by taking up the stories of friends who are not present to object. As Middlebrook once remarked, referring to her work on a dual biography of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, “the dead … have no wishes; they only have wills.”


The Feminist Press at 50: An Interview with...

By Jeffrey J. Williams

In Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury (2020), poet, biographer, and memoirist Honor Moore uses a different kind of material legacy: the “yellow legal pads, stories or fragments written on them; multiple copies of memoir fragments in typescript; an almost finished play, but also handwritten college short stories, broken binders of course notes from college” bequeathed to her by her mother, Jenny.

These objects become a lens through which Moore tells both her mother’s largely untold life story and her own. One of the central concerns of both stories is the fight for social justice during the 20th century. Although feminism isn’t explicitly at the center of Jenny’s narrative until late in her life, it’s central to her daughter’s understanding of her and of their relationship. Mother and daughter reach their feminist consciousness in parallel with each other, although their experiences of the movement are colored by their different generations, and their shared involvement is cut short by Jenny’s death, at the age of 50, in 1973.

Early in her memoir, Moore introduces the image of a “[relic] of the female past”—an 1850 Currier and Ives print called Life and Age of Woman, part of a prized semi-ironic collection of similar objects that hung in Jenny’s house at the time of her death. Like the four “flat, dead, pale, and formal” paintings of life stages in La vie d’une femme that so disgust Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), the representations of women in this print leave Moore alienated and uncomfortable. She knows she is supposed to identify with them, but she can’t:

Woman’s life begins in her mother’s arms, and one step up the arch with stairs, she’s a girl with a doll, two steps and she’s marriageable, holding an embroidery hoop. Next she’s a bride, hair streaming to her waist, then a young mother with an infant. At the apex stands the matron in her prime, wearing black, a white tea towel over her arm. This is the last we see of woman standing fully upright and the last of her “crowning glory,” as all four women on the descent—holding keys on a ring, bending over a cane, knitting, rocking—wear white ruffled caps that cover their hair.

Moore observes that “this life cycle had nothing to do with me.” As a young woman swept up in feminism’s second wave, she was looking for versions of womanhood to emulate and finding few. As the story of Jenny Moore unfolds in tandem with her daughter’s, however, we begin to see that the markers of Jenny’s narrative don’t match the stairs in the Currier and Ives print, either.

Born Jenny McKean in a privileged family from Boston’s North Shore, Moore’s mother had a life that appeared idyllic from some angles but deeply problematic from others. Jenny’s mother, Margarett McKean (the subject of Moore’s 1996 book, The White Blackbird), suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder; her patrician father’s hatred of Franklin Roosevelt and Irish Catholics paved the way for a political awakening that came early in Jenny’s life. Moore notes, “By the time my mother was writing about her childhood, she knew firmly where she stood in the struggle for social justice.”

The first woman in her family to go to college, Jenny married Paul Moore (who would become an Episcopal bishop), had nine children, and published one memoir, The People on Second Street (1968), about her experiences as a clergyman’s wife, mother, and civil rights activist in a largely Black Jersey City parish in the 1950s.

In response to a novelist friend’s slightly dismissive question about Jenny—“Why did she have so many children?”—Moore struggles to find an answer: perhaps “motherhood was an arena in which to excel as a competitor,” or Jenny was “making the ideal family she had not grown up in.” Moore notes that Jenny “was pregnant fully half the seventeen years between my birth in late 1945 and when I went to college in 1963,” but emphasizes that her mother’s pregnancies were all planned, while Moore herself “never wanted to be a mother—I didn’t exactly not want a child, but having one was never a desire.”

Pregnancy and childbirth operate as metaphors for a sometimes stunted or painful female creativity: pregnant with Honor, her first child, Jenny begins to keep a scrapbook (“a traditionally female and domestic medium”) that told everyone’s stories but her own. Although she doesn’t know what it feels like to be pregnant, Moore describes a “kind of stealth tension” produced by working on her book, weaving it into a scene in which she sympathetically imagines herself inside her mother’s body just before birth.

Moore is aware of her own racial and economic privilege and their impact on her developing political consciousness. She acknowledges this privilege throughout the text, whether she is writing about her own educational opportunities (“For me … college was simply what a girl did after high school”) or the limitations of her youthful perceptions of race. Her parents were the first white people to work towards integrating Grace Church, their base in Jersey City, and she witnessed racism but didn’t understand its prevalence and magnitude—or the unusual, almost radical nature of her parents’ work to combat it—until she was an adult.

Reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life, Moore becomes aware of the chasm between Goldman’s “reading of the twentieth century” and her own—and realizes, to her fascination and horror, that she is “a daughter of what my friends called the ruling class.” Already a committed feminist, she recalls working for the release of imprisoned Black Panthers in the early 1970s as part of the efforts to “integrate more consciousness of racism into the growing women’s movement.” But she observes ruefully that, although she “wanted so much for it to be true that the movement I was part of was opening up,” she sees as an older woman that she “too often conformed what I said and thought to a particular ‘line’,” even when she believed that “collectivity might not mean that all of us should believe the same thing.”

By 1973, Moore and Jenny—that is, daughter and mother—appear finally to be on complementary, harmonious journeys towards their feminist selves: both of them are in consciousness-raising groups, and both are seeing themselves reflected in the pages of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Like that of Miller and her friends, Moore and her mother’s feminism is intrinsically linked to an idea of writing as vocation. But Jenny dies of liver and colon cancer just as she is beginning to write again.

Moore says that she first began to look at the Currier and Ives Life and Age of Woman closely when her mother was in the hospital for the last time, wondering “where in woman’s passage would you place Jenny Moore?” Her story, ultimately, defies easy categorization; rather than conforming to those “static” stages of a woman’s traditional narrative, Jenny “kept changing.”

Miller and Moore are not generic everywomen, nor are the other 20th-century feminists whose lives they seek to tell in their memoirs. They are all exceptional: educated, accomplished women whose successes were shaped by the privileged worlds they came from, and whose ability to embrace activism grew out of the wider range of opportunities available to them.

These collective feminist narratives acknowledge, to differing degrees, the stories that are missing from them. Rather than dismissing or discarding all of second-wave feminism for its undeniable failures of inclusion, its whiteness and reliance on economic advantages, we might take them as they are and continue striving to redress the balance.

“Lifelong learning” has become a somewhat suspect 21st-century trope, made useful in the service of capitalism rather than education. But what if we reclaim that phrase while reimagining an inclusive feminist collective, making intersectionality a reflex?


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (Norton, 1988), p. 37.
  2. Sophie Gilbert, “Are You a Feminist?Atlantic, September 29, 2015.
  3. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, no. 1 (1989), p. 154.
Featured image: Rest Hour (Columbia Teacher's College) by Clarence H. White, 1912. / Smithsonian American Art Museum (CC0 1.0).