APRIL 12, 2018
DESPITE ITS MERITS, ambition can be corrosive. It can skew our judgment, luring us into moral equivocation and thin justifications for what we do in pursuit of our goals. It can also make us arrogant, dismissive of those we regard as aiming lower and striving less than we do. In her latest novel, The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer looks at personal ambition in the context of social activism and feminist identity. The book critiques the assumption that feminism is defined only by organized public acts and mobilized demonstrations and not by the quiet, humble, everyday acts of individuals. These themes are confidently articulated within the framework of a classic coming-of-age story: Greer, a bright, impressionable college freshman from a small town, meets Faith, a renowned and glamorous activist, and the encounter changes the course of Greer’s life.
The founding editor of a long-running women’s magazine and author of several books on female empowerment, Faith Frank is an icon of the feminist movement. To Greer’s generation Faith feels outdated — the doyenne of a soft brand of feminism that mostly appeals to wealthier women. Yet when Faith visits Greer’s college in 2006 to give a speech, the 63-year-old feminist wins over the audience with her elegance and compelling personality. A chance encounter with Faith provides Greer with the necessary hook to land a job at Faith’s foundation four years later.
Greer idolizes Faith and sees in her the traits — nurturing, attentive, sophisticated, and socially engaged — she always wished of her hippie parents, who spend their days smoking pot and selling protein bars from their home. Smart and driven, Greer chafes against her parents’ seeming apathy and detachment from everything, including her. She quietly resents them and grabs onto Faith as a role model and provider of the emotional support and encouragement that she craves. “I loved what she stood for,” Greer thinks,
I wanted to stand for those things too, because it made everything feel more hopeful. That you could work toward something important, and there would be this person there who actually took an interest in you, which was the best feeling.
Though revered for her beneficence, Faith is not always kindhearted. She can be calculating in her deft manipulation of those who would stand in her way. As Greer sees it, “Seduction was a power move to Faith, and maybe even a compulsion, but it seemed to happen effortlessly, and was in the service of a greater good.”
Faith does not hide her femininity; she makes it a strength. She exerts control by conveying softness, a caring, emotional intimacy that contrasts with the way men wield power:
The light touch of this powerful woman was profound. So too was her choice to use her power in this tender way. Maybe that’s what we want from women, Greer thought […] Maybe that’s what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us. When women got into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting.
Despite Faith’s charisma, Greer’s adulation, predictably, turns to disillusionment. This irrevocable shift occurs when Greer is confronted with Faith’s willingness to sacrifice the foundation’s integrity to protect her own reputation. It is a moment freighted with significance, the point when Greer comes into her own and establishes the ethical boundaries that will shape her future. As Faith aptly observes, “That’s what it’s about, this life. The weighing.”
The Female Persuasion examines what it means to be a feminist and a social activist in the broadest sense. Feminism is not a monolithic movement. It takes on many shades, and Wolitzer rejects the notion that effecting social change necessarily means joining an organized movement or participating in demonstrations and public forums. Instead, she privileges the quiet and quotidian — those unremarkable, private acts that have a direct, positive impact on individual lives. This is the most resonant and powerful theme of the novel, and Wolitzer illustrates it through the experiences of the two people closest to Greer: her boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee.
Cory abandons a promising consulting career to move home and take care of his mother following a family tragedy. Greer cannot understand his decision. It seems to her that he has given up on life, and she has contempt for the choice he has made. But Greer’s mother sees Cory’s sacrifice in a different light, telling her,
[H]ere’s this person who gave up his plans when his family fell apart. He moves back in with his mother and takes care of her. Oh, and he cleans his own house, and the ones she used to clean. I don’t know. But I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right?
In college, it was Zee who introduced Greer to the feminist movement, and for a time Zee, too, aspired to work for Faith. Instead, Zee takes a job as a high school teacher in a rough neighborhood, a position that serves as her entry to a career counseling trauma survivors: “Now her work life was political in some deep and consistent way, she thought, because she entered the homes of struggling people, and saw what their lives were like.”
Cory and Zee affect others daily, and the benefit is immediate. By contrast, the foundation carries out its mandate to organize events, but these too often serve only to generate more events or produce diffuse results that fall short of their intention. In this way, the novel emphasizes that the power to make positive change rests not with a celebrity but in the unassuming, collective acts of many. “[W]e don’t need to put people on a pedestal,” a young woman says of her brand of feminism. “Everyone can lead. Everyone can jump in.”
In the aftermath of her separation from Faith and the foundation, Greer considers the hubris of her ambition and how it led her astray. The need for public recognition, accolades, and the smug affirmation of group endeavor crippled her ability to find purpose and pursue fulfilling work. Over time Greer discovers how to use her ambition as a tool in shaping her identity rather than allowing it to control who she becomes.
The timing of The Female Persuasion is favorable since it coincides with our national discussion about sexual harassment, equal pay, and female empowerment — a dialogue reignited by the #MeToo movement. In less capable hands, a novel about feminism could be a caricature, either polemical or anodyne. Instead, Wolitzer’s narrative poses difficult questions about feminism using an approach that is direct, generous, and, most importantly, not presuming there is one correct answer. It is a work of imagination and intelligence that deserves a wide readership. Ours is a pivotal time in the progression of feminism, and with this engaging and perceptive novel Wolitzer reminds us of the fraught contexts and assumptions that weight the attainment and execution of female leadership.
Lori Feathers is a co-owner of Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas, and the store’s book buyer. She writes freelance book reviews, sits on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, and is a fiction judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. She can be found @lorifeathers.