THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TALK on the internet in the past several weeks about “rebranding” feminism, sparked in part by a contest sponsored by advertising professionals and the women’s website Vitamin W seeking submissions that make feminism “relevant and meaningful to everyone.” Yet, despite numerous eye-rolls in response, one could argue that the past year has already seen a rebranding of feminism, in the form of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and her quest to get more women to assert themselves in their (presumably corporate, male-dominated) workplaces.
But that brand — Work hard! Don’t opt out! Smash that glass ceiling! — isn’t a new one. Even Sandberg’s chief spoiler, which came in the form of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story in the Atlantic on the impossibility of having it all, was simply a retread of the same mommy-war flavored debate that’s been headlining newpspapers and magazines for more than a decade — a debate that continues to focus on the choices of upper-middle-class women who are lucky enough to have choices to begin with. It could be called a rebrand, but it’s much more akin to a retread.
In terms of timing, now probably seemed as fertile a moment as any to publish Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College and former professor at Harvard Business School is, much like Sandberg and Slaughter, an incredibly successful woman who spent much of her professional life in competitive, hard-charging workplaces. Much like them, as well, she married a supportive partner, has children, and continued climbing to even greater heights in her career. But once her settled position as the president of a prestigious women’s college allowed her to look around and see the differences between her own young adulthood and those of the women around her, Spar began noticing some troubling things. These daughters of feminism’s second wave are just as insecure about their bodies as she herself was growing up, but now have a vast array of cosmetic and surgical interventions to buttress the idea that physical self-improvement is a lifelong project. They’re devoting less of their early adulthood to dating and more to their burgeoning careers, but they’re still mired in sexual double standards. And many of them are opting out of parenthood entirely, having looked warily at the legions of women who tried — and failed — to “have it all.” The real legacy of feminism Spar identifies isn’t bigger and better careers, more satisfying sexual lives, and more autonomy; rather, it’s an unrealistic drive to do anything, achieve everything, and do it all while looking perfect and never missing a beat. Women, Spar writes, “find themselves laboring under an expanded and in many ways more cumbersome set of expectations: to be good wives and mothers, sexy yet monogamous, devoted to their perfect children and their own perfect bodies”; this represents “the unexpected agglomeration of all the roles that society has historically heaped upon them plus the new roles and opportunities created by feminism.”
Wonder Women’s aim is to explore how this state of affairs came to be, and in chapters focusing on sex, beauty culture, motherhood, careers, and aging, among others, it builds the case that a movement that once collectively focused on the liberation of all has transmogrified into legions of individual women hell-bent on a personal success that stands in for that liberation. Her message, ultimately, is one that urges women to consider the damages and setbacks wrought by such relentless self-focus, and to suggest that a “softer, gentler” feminism — one with less protesting and agitation, fewer marches and loudmouthed slogans — is what we need now. (We’ll come back to that in a minute.)
It’s not totally clear how much Spar blames feminism for turning the daughters and granddaughters of its rabble-rousing marches and sit-ins into people for whom the personal isn’t political so much as it is really, really personal. On the one hand, she writes that “none of this [the Superwoman myth] can be blamed on feminism.” On the other, she declares two sentences later that feminism “lit the spark of my generation’s dreams” and, in doing so, “unintentionally raised the bar on women so high that mere mortals are condemned to fall below it.”
This kind of contradictory assertion, unfortunately, is consistent throughout Wonder Women. In the chapter on hookup culture, titled “Sex and the Social Contract,” she asserts, “Women today can enjoy their bodies without shame and have sex largely without fear of pregnancy. They face none of the stigmas that paralyzed women in the past and suffer, accordingly, from far fewer inhibitions” — a claim at which many women, whatever their age, would likely cock an “Oh really?” eyebrow. Less than 20 pages later, she agrees with them, stating that “the link between sex and relationship is stronger for women, as is the social penalty for promiscuity.”
There’s no question that Spar’s heart is in the right place, but the scope of Wonder Women’s concerns — Why are young women still struggling with the same entrenched issues of feminine perfection? What can be done to make sure they succeed in their careers and have families? — is firmly focused on a certain kind of women. They’re the Barnard students whom she gathers at her apartment for roundtable discussions where they reveal, to her dismay, that they’ve never had orgasms. They’re the former colleagues and business students who make the conscious decision — again, to Spar’s dismay — that motherhood simply isn’t a career trade-off they’re willing to make. It’s difficult to imagine that, at a college like Barnard, women who aren’t white, well-educated, upwardly mobile, would-be mothers never cross Spar’s path, but even if they really don’t, it’s still striking that Wonder Women doesn’t so much as acknowledge that they exist.
Spar herself cops to spending years dismissing feminism’s relevance to her own life. As a high-school student in 1977, she came to her formative political years with Helen Reddy on the charts and Title IX on the books, and presumed that the women’s movement had already achieved its goals. She felt no attraction to the radical theories of Shulamith Firestone and Ti-Grace Atkinson that peppered news media of the time. What she did connect with, ironically, was the branding of feminism in products like Charlie perfume, whose perky, gorgeous figurehead paired her suit and briefcase with a small child. But, Spar recalls, the two had nothing in common. “Feminists were loud and pushy, strident and unfeminine. Charlie, on the other hand, was gorgeous, ladylike, and successful, a working woman and a mom. Who needed feminism if you could have Charlie?”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Spar’s prescription for a new generation of women is that softer, gentler feminism — one that, as she puts it, is “less invested in proving women’s equality (since that battle has more or less been won) and less upset with men.” Just as Charlie put a sexy, fictional face to some of the rough real-life battles that feminism fought, so does the idea of a softer and gentler feminism skim lightly over the fact that there remains plenty of ugly, bristling realities that Spar’s book simply doesn’t engage with. The battle for equality has more or less been won, she contends? Tell that to the women who live in states mandating transvaginal ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy. Tell it to Marissa Alexander, on trial for firing a warning shot in self-defense against her estranged husband, or the girls who are branded sluts after being sexually assaulted by boys who then post smartphone evidence on social media. Delivering a message from a rarefied perch is one thing. Telling women they’re doing feminism wrong — when you’ve already spent a chapter recounting the retrograde way in which your own developed — is something more dangerous. And penning a sentence like, “It’s time now to go back, to channel the passion of our political foremothers and put it again to good use” — as though feminist activism simply stopped in 1977 — insults and undermines the decades of grassroots work that feminist activists have done in areas from reproductive justice to prison reform. It may be that Spar simply doesn’t know that such activism exists. But again, if she hasn’t bothered to take a cursory look, should she really writing a book addressed to righting the wrongs of feminism’s legacy?
Distilled down to its central point, Wonder Women offers a pretty common-sense plea: having options — for career, for love, for power — should be a blessing, not a burden, and it’s literally impossible to do everything perfectly. Spar could have stopped there, and while the book wouldn’t have been groundbreaking, it also wouldn’t have been patronizing. Like Sandberg’s Lean In, Wonder Women anticipates a particular set of issues facing a particular set of women and offers a guide to thinking more thoroughly about them. But it offers no cohesive reason why a “softer, gentler feminism” should be the focus of people who want to see change, success, and autonomy for all women.