I Wonder…: A Review

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We had this crazy premonition that something like this might happen today. That’s right, it’s the first preview of  the November issue of The Blue and White magazine!!! With features on SWS, endangered languages in the Ivy League, and a conversation with Rick MacArthur, the new issue is sure to shock, awe, and amaze. We’ll whet your palette with a review of Barnard President Debora Spar’s new book Wonder Women by B&W‘s own managing editor, Anna Bahr. 

Debora Spar’s new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection is exactly what one expects: powerfully told, funny, empathetic, and, at this point, a bit stale.  A companion to the recent rebranding of contemporary feminism by white, wealthy women, it advises the younger generation of privilege to adopt realistic expectations when considering their futures.

It’s a story that has inundated the Internet this past year. The book repeats the call to challenge impossible standards of perfection for overworked, underappreciated women who struggle to be respected in the office, keep their sex lives sexy, and produce the immaculately frosted cupcake for their child’s birthday (competitive baking is Spar’s favorite symbol of the absurd standards for good parenting).

Barnard College President Spar builds on the philosophies of New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She couples the futility of “having it all” and the potential power of “leaning in” with a more critical perspective on American feminism: “We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection.”

Where her writing departs from that of her peers is in its vulnerability. Spar beautifully and bravely chronicles her personal struggles with anorexia; with miscarriage; with juggling her children, husband, and job; and with her role as the token representative of her sex at Harvard Business School.

I say brave because powerful women endure a catch-22: they must simultaneously maintain their femininity while demonstrating the impenetrable, aggressive, and unemotional drive traditionally expected of men. Ergo, exposing her weaknesses publicly is a dangerous game; frankly, it’s inspiring. By contrast, Sandberg and Slaughter allude to their useless quests for perfection, but address it more abstractly and inaccessibly.

Of course, the limited accessibility of this book is its greatest flaw. This is not Spar’s fault. In the prologue, she candidly acknowledges the narrowness of her book and her many personal blessings. Spar, as all good writers are taught, writes what she knows. Surely, speaking on behalf of women whose experiences she cannot imagine (read: women of color, gay women, women who are too busy trying to feed their families to give a damn about baking the perfect chocolate layer cake) would be not only patronizing but profoundly arrogant.

Hers cannot be the answer for women (plural). In an interview, Spar told me that she does not believe that a single feminist can attack all problems a women’s movement hopes to solve: ”There need to be a multiplicity of voices.” Of course, representation of those perspectives is contingent on access to time and support. As Spar herself put it, imagining that “an uneducated, single mother of three could write this book would be unbelievably hard. She’s not going to have the resources.” The same divisions along class and race and sexual identity that wilted the second wave feminist movement stand strong today. How far have we come if it is misleading to talk about women as if they are all part of the same group?

As a member of the target audience for this book–an educated white woman of privilege–I appreciated Spar’s honesty and humanity. She is a woman whom I deeply admire. I am fortunate enough to be able to take her advice seriously. But as a young feminist, I fear the continued dominance of this narrow narrative and the floundering sense of unity among all women. When the proceeds of this pop-feminist redux genre go toward exposing the challenges of a more typical American woman, perhaps I will feel more freely enthusiastic.

Illustration by Katharine Lin, CC ’16 .

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