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Mothers and Daughters: Feminism in Contemporary Literature

by Mikyah Henderson about a year ago in book reviews
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The relationship between a mother and daughter, in reality, can be complicated but how would it be through literature?

Mrs. Richardson and Isabella "Izzy" Richardson

The relationship between a mother and daughter can be more complicated than one can assume it to be. From the moment a child enters the world, the first person she makes contact with is her mother. The bond between mother and child then continues to strengthen while experiencing every milestone in both their lives, this evolution also serves as a test of how strong the bond is between them. Taking a closer look into the bond between a mother and her daughter, from a contemporary feminist approach, one might notice that the mother has high standards and expectations behind the choices that her daughter will make. The mother will even take the extra mile to ensure the daughter makes the right choices in her life from adolescence to rising adulthood. The perception of this type of relationship dynamic can be seen in two distinct contemporary literary works. Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice tells the story of a mother and daughter whose differences push them to realize that they are not as different as they think.

LaShay “Shay” Dixon, a stressed-out graduate student, decides to visit her Denver home after receiving a vision from her spiritual advisor, blues singer Nina Simone. While deciding to take a break from her academic endeavors, Shay is not looking forward to coming back to terms with facing the one person she has resentment for the most, her mother Nona. In Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, two contrasting families face the differences of race, parental style, and social class. While living in the suburbs of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson embodies the principles of becoming the ideal role model for not only her community but also grooming her children to follow suit by any means necessary. Mia Warren, on the other hand, arrives in Shaker Height as a single mother to her teenage daughter and freelance artist who then becomes Mrs. Richardson’s tenant. With both families intrigued by one another’s race and class, the allusions unfold thus putting them at the forefront of their own separate parental dynamics.

This relationship dynamic between mothers and daughters emerges in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Carleen Brice’s Orange, Mint, Honey, where it is influenced by second and third-wave feminism. These ideals take shape within the parental class and racial contexts. Feminism is not a movement but a “direct product of the women’s movement of the 1960s” (Barry 123). Developing into four stages or waves, thus giving feminists in the first, second, and third waves of feminism. As stated by Betty Friedan who has stated, “First-wave feminism promoted equal contract and property rights for women, opposing ownership of married women by their husbands” (Friedan).The efforts made by the women of the early 19th century leading the women’s rights movement during the early ‘20s is what is now referred to as first-wave feminism. These first-wave feminists focused primarily on the rights and equalities for women through a legal and political lens, specifically women’s voting rights.

The origins of the first-wave feminism movement date back to the late 1840s placing women at the forefront to determine their future int the world of politics(Friedan). Although the focus of first-wave feminism revolved around women’s voting rights, the movement was led primarily by white women like Elizabeth Cady Staton and Lucretia Mott. With this restriction being present the movement has then shifted to being filtered by race and the possibility of women owning property. The second wave of feminism focused on the advancement of the fight for women’s equality. The movement identified as being more with the inequality of the cultural and political struggle that has encouraged women to become one with their inner strength both sexually and personally.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the movement was greatly influenced by the events of the Civil Rights Movement thus leading women to go above and beyond in search of a higher position in society. The movement centered around the second wave feminists advocating for issues or reproductive and sexual rights to a more political lens during the Civil Right Movement (Georgetown). The roles of a second-wave feminist included the traditional housewife, mother, caregiver, or any role that involved any domestic activities. The most common characteristic of the second-wave feminist mother is her vivacious living through her daughter. This can occur when the mother includes her daughter in certain activities or raising the daughter with a lifestyle that the daughter may not be accustomed to.

A second-wave feminist mother through her daughter’s perspective could see these characteristics of the mother being strict when it comes to parenting as the mother would do more than keep her daughter grounded. Possible reasons for this vivacious parenting could only be from the mother’s past experiences when she was the same age as her daughter. Certain issues, like not achieving higher education, teen pregnancy, or addiction could be possible mistakes that the mother would not want her daughter to experience. The second-wave feminist mother would also ensure that her daughter is raised in a more grounded environment. That way, she can have guaranteed success. Within Ng’s novel, Mrs. Elena Richardson can be seen as a prime example of a second-wave feminist mother.

Even as a mother of four, Mrs. Richardson was also able to rent out her second home to Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl. The narrator describes Mia Warren as “ A single mother, well-spoken, artistic, raising a daughter who was polite and fairly pretty and possibly brilliant”(Ng p14). Every aspect of Mrs. Richardson’s life has been planned out precisely because she wants to have a prosperous life by complying with the world around her as the narrator states, “ She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them- and believe- she did'' (Ng p. 69). Mrs. Richardson also holds both of her daughters, Lexie and Izzy, to very high standards as they are raised in a modern yet luxurious lifestyle that their parents (mainly their mother)has worked hard for and would see that as a means to going the exact same path.

With Mrs. Richardson having two daughters, the differences of how Lexie and Izzy adapt to their mother’s second-wave feminism as she is determined to groom her daughters into the same image. As the eldest daughter, Lexie is the prime example of being the “golden child” with a very prominent future as the narrator reveals, “ Her SAT scores were strong, her GPA was over 4.0 thanks to her AP classes, and she could already picture herself on Yale’s campus” (Ng 58). As a role model in her community in Shaker Heights and her family, she does have a few skeletons in her closet. From having unprotected sex with her boyfriend that led to an abortion, Lexie has to constantly put herself higher above her mother’s expectations as she is seen as the definition of the “hardworking and accomplished woman” in her mother’s eyes.

This type of foundation can’t be said for the daughter who has had to groom herself as she has gotten older and become her own woman, but that is only because her mother has not taken on that responsibility fully. Within Orange, Mint, Honey, Shay has spent the majority of her childhood under the care of herself due to her own mother falling into a downward spiral which involved her alcoholism and a very toxic relationship that later turned abusive with her ex-boyfriend Bill as the narrator states, “I could hear every word. Bill called Nona a slut and a bitch. She screamed at him to shut the hell up, then started crying and whimpering that he was hurting her…I asked Nona if she was okay and she whispered yes, I went back to my bedroom. Later that day, while Bill was at work, we moved out”(Brice 20-21). The foundation of second-wave feminism can also be proven as a challenge when there is more than one daughter that the mother has to raise and both are polar opposites. While having a sister who is seen as the gold in Little Fires Everywhere, Izzy (Isabella) was seen as the “trouble child” in which her behavior includes her actions having no reasoning or outcome that she expects to make her feel accomplished as the narrator defines, “ freak out for no reason, do something crazy, learn nothing from it” (Ng 74).

Although Mrs. Richardson finds it difficult to put up with the poor behavior displayed by Izzy, Mia reassures Izzy that her mother may not understand Izzy’s internal battle to finding her self-identity as the narrator insinuates “A lot of times, parents are not the best at seeing their children clearly” (Ng 91). Having a rough start in life from being born premature and her mother having difficulty properly nurturing her, Izzy being labeled as the “problem child” also considers her actions in the novel as she refuses to let her mother dictate how she would live her life just like her oldest sister. Mrs. Richardson could see her actions as a temporary teenage phase while her siblings see it as comical. The narrator explains, “ Mom thought she wore too much black and bought her all the cute dresses. And Izzy just rolled them up in a grocery bag and took the bus downtown and gave them to some person on the street. Mom grounded her for a month” ( Ng 41).

Izzy’s defiant activities from being blamed for allegedly burning down her house, hiding her sexuality, and branching out to The Warrens in an attempt to evade her mother's strict and overprotective nature in hopes of finding a maternal figure that's willing to acknowledge her as she is. Within Brice’s novel, Shay struggles to come to terms with her mother building a whole different life while recovering from her alcohol addiction. The mother she once knew would leave in the middle of the night just to sneak in a drink, but now she's recreated her life as an administrative assistant at a local clinic, a sponsor to other recovering addicts, and starting over for motherhood as a mother to a three-year-old daughter named Sunny. In the midst of Nona's forgetfulness of her oldest daughter, this is what fueled Shay's resentment until she comes to the realization that she is her own woman as the narrator states, "Forget about comparing myself to my mother, forget about WWNSD. I asked myself out loud, “What do you want?” …Instead of pretending to be a grown-up, I actually wanted to grow up. I wanted to be more than just not-Nona. I wanted to be myself, whoever that might be. I wanted to stop being angry and resentful all the time. I wanted to be part of a family with my mother and my sister.” (Brice 294). Lastly comes the final phase in the feminist movement, third-wave feminism.

Within the third wave feminism movement comes with the focus on sexual identity and intersectionality. Beginning in the mid-90s, third-wave feminism was commonly known as the “grrrl” feminism as it adhered to the characteristics of women from wearing bolder lip colors to becoming more accepting of their physical appearance as a means of going against the standards of women that were male oppressed (Georgetown). Many who were considered third-wave feminists would not even consider themselves feminists as they believe the movement itself has its restrictions and is limited by women of different classes and races. Originating from the evolution from the accomplishments and failures of both first and second-wave feminism. Third-wave feminism looks into the intersectionality of the race, self-identity, and gender dynamics behind feminism.

Although both first and second-wave feminism revolved around advocacy for the rights and equality of women, it was actually third-wave feminism that dealt with the generational aspect in the feminist movement. The advocacy of third-wave feminism focused on the emphasis of the sexual representation and manifestation of women that were oppressed heavily in second-wave feminism. A third-wave feminist would also focus mainly on actions that involve intersectionality or having the choice to live life through their perspective without having to feel attacked by second-wave feminists. Intersectionality, a term that was introduced by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 is defined as the basis on which all women recognize and face different aspects of self-identity as she states, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things”(Crenshaw).Through Crenshaw’s analysis of the oppressions of both race and gender in the legal and ethical stances are of means to proving that there is a separation that comes from the racial, sexual and social standings of women.

The lives and experiences of women that dealt with various forms of gender marginalization and oppression may or may not understand the complications, this results in women being unable to divide the common injustices that are involved with intersectionality. The general marginalization of the intersectionality in the relationship between a mother and daughter relationship can also be referred to as the metaphorical term, Mommy Wars (Abetz, Moore). The generalization behind the Mommy Wars is based on the competition of different mothering to determine which type of mothering is the most effective for the approval of society. during the third wave feminism movement. The advocation of these Mommy wars within the third-wave feminism movement looks deeper into the complexity within the racial and social experiences of women, specifically for African-American women. The mentions of intersectionality within Ng’s novel involve the topics of both race and class. On one hand, Mrs. Richarson doesn't seem to understand why Mia has chosen to deny her generous gestures while Mia Warren challenges Mrs. Richardson by claiming her acts of generosity are only out of ignorance.

The feud between the two mothers further intensifies to a point to which their own children are included in the growing tension towards one another. Mrs. Richardson is unable to accept the differences between herself and Mia due to the fear of being considered a racist. Although her intentions with the Warrens may be pure, the ignorance that Mia brings to light in the novel leads to her denial to evolve even more. The intersectional relationship between the two mothers doesn’t solely relying on race, but social class as well. While Mrs. Richardson settles for the domestic mundane lifestyle with little to no risks being taken, Mia takes every chance to pursue her passion for art no matter the risks that are brought to her doorstep. Their different lifestyles are too who are in their parenting as they also judge how they raise their own daughters along with the shifting bond between them.

The intersectionality can also be seen with how the daughters of different mothers have aspirations of how they wanted to bond with their mothers. Withing Brice’s novel, Shay crosses paths with a good friend of Nona, Stephanie, who sees her mother as a maternal figure she wished she had as a child. As a child, Stephanie was unable to have a bond with her mother because her mother passed away when she was younger. With knowing this, Shay was able to bond with Stephanie because she too did not have a bond with her mother as the narrator states, “It came to me then that the connection Stephanie and I shared was that we both grew up missing our mothers.” (Brice 301). Within Ng’s novel, Mia Warren can be seen as a third-wave feminist mother as she understands that her daughter has to experience certain things that a normal teenager her age should as well as gender like going out to parties with girlfriends and the typical high school crush. However, this kind of insight takes an emotional toll on Mia. As the narrator reveals, “You [Mia] wanted Pearl to have a more normal life, she reminded herself; well this is what teens do” (Ng 65). The emotional rollercoaster that Mia endures from Pearl experiencing the joys of being a “normal teenage girl” also entails the dynamics of the third-wave feminist mother by searching for an emotional balance as her daughter grows into her self-identity and womanhood (Rowntree). Within Brice’s novel, Shay comes into her own not from the guidance of Nona, but from the guidance of female singers, specifically blue singer Nina Simone who becomes a figment of Shay’s imagination as the narrator insinuates, “At 3:33 A.M. I opened my eyes and Nina Simone was there, as if I had conjured her, standing in front of my bedroom window…I had been asking myself for days WWNSD (What would Nina Simone do?) and now she had come to tell me. ( Brice 4-5). Shay’s reliance on the blue singer to guide her through womanhood due to not having that foundation with her mother through specific songs as the narrator states, “One of Nina Simone’s most famous songs is “Four Women”. When you first hear it, it sounds like a dirge about four African American women, struggling and abused, and how their different skin tones dictate their status in life” (Brice 211). Once Shay finds her own self-identity and lets go of her long-term resentment towards her mother, she also lets go of the fact that she no longer has to rely on the guidance of female singers like Nina Simone because she finally has what she long for, a family as the narrator states, “ All those women singers I loved so much, they weren’t just role models, they were the mothers I never had. They comforted me educated me and lifted me up high enough over my life to know more than just an alcoholic’s daughter. They sustained me. And I would always be grateful.” (Brice 301).

Withing Ng’s novel, As a younger generation, both Pearl Warren and Izzy Richardson are on the paths of intersectionality with the third-wave feminism movement. However, both daughters are breaching towards becoming third-wave feminists through their decisions made for their own lives. Both accomplish this by interacting with the opposite family, specifically the opposite mother. With only interacting with her after settling into Shaker Heights, Mrs. Richardson approves of Pearl and hopes Pearl could be a more positive influence on Izzy. Mia, on the other hand, hopes that Pearl would be able to make friends that are her gender and age. To say that both Mia and Izzy represent the element of intersectionality found in third-wave feminism can be seen as a positive to Mia, a third-wave feminist mother.

This can also be negative in the eye of a second-wave feminist mother, like Mrs. Richardson. Izzy’s main desire is to not be treated as her own mother’s “puppet” and if that would mean spending more time with another family or even just spending more time with a single mother like Mia “She was too fascinated by Mia to care” (Ng 89). For both Pearl and Izzy the fascination between how their lifestyles were very different turned more into a fixation that neither of their mothers ignored as time went by. Although there is a correlation within how both second and third-wave feminism is seen in the relationship between mothers and daughters, the drawback of how both race and social class can also have a direct effect on the waves of feminism involved as well as stated by Catherine Harnois, “Gender certainly matters, but gender segregation is neither as ubiquitous nor as comprehensive as is racial segregation and this, as Hill Collins suggest may have important consequences for the development of race- and gender-based standpoints”(Harnois). One major giveaway from the entirety of the novel would have to be that the representation of the mothers of second and third-wave feminism are from different races.

Within Ng’s novel, Mia Warren represents the third-wave feminists lens of African American parenting that can be classified under Black Feminism as stated by Patricia Hill Collins, “The assumptions that mothering occurs within the confines of a private, nuclear family household where the mother has almost total responsibility for child-rearing is less capable to Black families” (Collins). Mrs. Richardson, a white woman, can be seen as an example of how many women from the timeframe of second-wave feminism and even go to lengths to opening her home Mia (who is African American) while also offering her additional job as a housekeeper or in Izzy Richardson’s eyes as the narrator states, “The indentured servant. I mean, the tenant-slash-cleaning lady” (Ng 75). Although Mia does not see having another job as an issue (especially one with higher pay), her daughter was far from pleased about the additional job as Pearl feels more comfortable with the Richardson’s and see the house as her special haven as the narrator insinuates,“ Inside she was furious as she thought Mia was invading what she thought of as her space- the Richardson house” (Ng p. 71). Looking back into how Izzy even described how Mia is seen as a housekeeper in the Richardson’s home, can also implement that she as a third wave feminist mother is still affected by the negative views that are from the second wave feminist mother. Although Mrs. Richardson may think that opening her home and offering Mia a job as a housekeeper is another one of her “good deeds” as a second wave-feminist, the drawback of offering a housekeeping position puts a strain on the strong bond between Mia and Pearl as they Pearl interacted more with the Richardsons and Mia with Izzy.

The divide between both classes is also very evident well among the waves of feminism in the novel. The social class values can have an impact the mother-daughter relationship as stated by Amy Wharton and Deborah Thorne, “Daughters’ relations with mothers may be less a function of daughter’ current social class, however, and more influenced by their social class of origin…Thus in this scenario, daughters’ class background plays a more important role in shaping daughters relations with mothers than daughters’ present social location” (Wharton and Throne) If a mother and daughter are seen within the timeframe of second-wave feminism, then they would have no conflict of having to adapt to society as they are seen to have a strong bond just by living in a more well-off environment. Looking into how The Richardsons are seen in the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, it can be clear to the reader that although Mrs. Richardson is seen as the typical contemporary housewife while inhabiting the elements of second-wave feminism like being involved in community politics to masking signs of racism with what she would consider as offering opportunities to those deserving of them. The relationship between both Mia and Pearl can be seen as how third-wave feminism has more effect on those bonds that are categorized in the middle or lower class. Throughout the majority of Brice’s novel, the relationship between Shay and Nona starts to evolve, however, there is a starting bond within one character that may become a potential third-wave feminist and that happens to be Shay’s youngest sister, Sunny.

Although at just three years old, Sunny has spends more time with the clean Nona and also has the chance to create a bond with her older sister without having any knowledge of the tension between Shay and Nona. Within raising and taking care of Sunny this actually can be a renewal for Nona to have a second chance to become the mother for Sunny that Shay longed for in her childhood. However, with little Sunny evolving into the third wave feminism movement, there is drawback in which Nona did make the same mistake of having domestic issues with Sunny’s father as she did with Shay’s causing her to relapse as the narrator insinuates, “ I relapsed. When a certain someone left me” – she tilted her head toward Sunny so I would know she meant Sunny’s father-“he stole some things: a gold chain, my stereo and TV, a little bit of money I had on my dresser. It broke my heart, and I sank into a bottle of Seagram’s like it was a bubble bath” (Brice 191).Not fault trying to strengthen their bond while also being a minority in the novel, the pair also defy the odds of second-wave feminism while also branching out into their intersectionality that is prominent as both mother and daughter third-wave feminists.

The same type of bonding can’t be said for both Shay and Nona in Orange Mint Honey. Even after giving a second chance to bond with a clean Nona, Shay becomes angry at her mother for having the time to bond with her new daughter Sunny, her sponsor Ivy, and not changing for Shay as the narrator states “This is what I got for giving her another chance? What about the fact that she didn’t get sober for me? Even after all she did, Ivy got a call for prayers. Sonny got credit for keeping Nona alive. And I got nothing. Like always” (Brice 227). To even ask the question if both second or third-wave feminism has any effect or is still visible within the relationship between a mother and daughter in a more contemporary setting can be seen more as an understatement. Every relationship between a mother and her daughter is different from the rest. From having to view how different relationships are differentiated between one relationship that revolves more around having the mother live through her daughter as a dictator, to another relationship where the mother has to push her daughter into becoming her person while having the stand up to the obscurities behind a form of feminism that looks down upon having the choice of self-identity and intersectionality in feminism.

The dynamics behind the relationship between mothers and daughters have their complications. As the bond does come with the compassion, resentment, and even the over protective nature in the relationship, the emulation of the bond is shown through different aspect that have shifted with the involvement in the feminist movement. Incorporating second and third wave feminism movements into contemporary pieces that are centered around the mother and daughter relationships can be a benefit but also a detriment to how the movement can define the dynamics of the relationship as a whole. The presence of these particular waves of feminism within Ng and Brice novels demonstrates the bias behind the relationships while also taking a more critical approach to further determine which waves of feminism fit the dynamic behind the female characters in their contemporary pieces. Having the presence of second wave feminism in contemporary literature tests the political stance to determine if the cultural and political oppression of women have a connection that is seen in society. Although the second-wave feminism movement thrived to advocate for the rights for women during the timeframe it was introduced, it was third wave feminism that corrected the failures and flaws that were in the second wave. Within Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, the approach on the usage of second and third-wave feminism was determined by how different mothers raised their daughters. Within this aspect came a competitive nature between the two mother which lead to the metaphorical analysis of mommy wars to been seen in a contemporary approach as well.

Within looking into Carleen Brice’s Orange Mint Honey, the determination of which wave of feminism relied on the singular broken relationshi[ between a mother and her daughter. The presentation of the second wave feminism movement relied on the past experiences in which have led to the resentment as well as the possibility of the relationship not moving into the third wave feminism movement. Although this was the current dilemma, it wasn’t until the introduction of a younger daughter created a silver lining to which the daughters evolving relationship with her mother resulted in her being prospective into the third wave feminist movement.

The women that are impacted in these types of relationships participate the search to find their own identity while also dealing with the obstacle that are set within race, gender, and social class. While the second and third wave feminism movements focus on the main goals of women’s rights and equality within their gender, the complex nature behind the relationship of a mother and daughter are also effected by the combination of discrimination within the feminism movement as a whole which could hinder the progress of their relationship.

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About the author

Mikyah Henderson

Mikyah Henderson is a young collegiette woman who isn’t hesitant to take her creativity to newer limits. Being a rising junior at Norfolk State, Lyman Beecher Brooks Library, becomes her new home where her creativity on paper takes flight.

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