Dear Daughter: Popular Feminism, the Epistolary Form and the Limits of Generational Rhetoric


This essay offers a comparative textual analysis of Phyllis Chesler's Letters to a Young Feminist (1998) and Anne Summers' 'Letter to the Next Generation' (1994), works produced in the United States and Australia respectively. These feminist writers, positioning themselves as representative second-wave 'mothers', have both favoured the epistolary form to narrate their own histories and to articulate the perceived inadequacies of contemporary feminism. Both maternal texts invoke a particular 'daughter' and construct a homogenous second-wave feminism against which the daughter and her brand of feminism can be defined. Building on the work of a number of theorists who have recently analysed and critiqued the operations of generationalist discourse within feminism, I show here that these two epistolary texts offer evidence of the inherent limitations of generational tropes and maternal metaphors, including the accompanying logic of inheritance and debt, within popular feminist rhetoric. As Astrid Henry presciently remarks, in the 1990s—the decade in which these two polemical letters were produced—attempts at historicising feminism were marked by an over-reliance on the generational paradigm to figure relationships between different cohorts of feminists (Not My Mothers 3). Likewise, Elspeth Probyn observes that in Australia this period was characterised by the 'flowering of texts that in different ways pit the feminists of the early 1970s against those who are now presumably coming into their own' (130). And, as I suggest here, the public letter seems one of the favoured genres in which generationalism and its accompanying Oedipal anxieties have been located.

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Published 1 November 2009 in Manifesting Australian Literary Feminisms: Nexus and Faultlines. Subjects: Feminism.

Cite as: Taylor, Anthea. ‘Dear Daughter: Popular Feminism, the Epistolary Form and the Limits of Generational Rhetoric.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 24, no. 3-4, 2009, doi: 10.20314/als.16f71252db.