By E.J. Graff

            There’s feminism, the movement—and then there’s “feminism,” the imaginary version. The first, as Women’s Review of Books readers know, is a broad and contentious political movement. Based on ongoing and constantly debated analyses of how women have been structurally disadvantaged in a host of ways, feminism aims to remove or ameliorate those disadvantages through various kinds of political action—pressuring colleges to respond differently to campus rapes, say, or helping women close the wage gap both by changing the workplace and changing our attitudes, to name two of my faves. “Feminism” is a media creation based on half-truths and misunderstandings, made up partly of caricatures invented by people hostile to the real thing, ad campaigns trying to sell something under the gauzy rubric of liberation, and lazy media commentary that assumes “feminism” is just the girls’ version of the American ideology of individual fulfillment and “having it all.” Maybe I shouldn’t call it “feminism,” even in quotes; we could call it “feminine-ism,” since it’s a ramped-up vision of femininity with a dollop of “career” on top, the idea that women merely need to add more public achievements and voila, we’ll be equal. Yeah, right.

            In writing Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Debora Spar, president of Barnard and former Harvard Business School professor, is mostly wrestling with “feminine-ism.” Let’s be clear: that media construction helped impose the absurd “having it all” imperative on upper-middle-class girls during several particularly fraught decades in US economic history. As we know, over these decades, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been widening into a chasm. Upper-middle-class young people—including girls, since everyone now knows that they must expect to support themselves and help support their families—have been increasingly pressured to perform at absurdly high levels both scholastically and personally. Anything less than perfection might mean slipping off the precariously small perch of the haves. At the same time, our increasingly visual culture has pressured girls to look as perfect as Scarlett Johansson (or the latest equivalent) and as sexual as porn stars. Spar correctly identifies the resulting problem:

Women find themselves laboring under an expanded and in many ways more cumbersome set of expectations: to be good wives and workers, sexy yet monogamous, devoted to their perfect children and their own perfect bodies.

True enough. But she interprets this in an odd way.

This is the unanticipated double whammy that confronts women today: the unexpected agglomeration of all the roles that society has historically heaped upon them plus the new roles and opportunities created by feminism.

            Wait—created by feminism? That’s right: Spar blames feminism for problems resulting from “feminine-ism,” for which feminism keeps trying to propose solutions. I am not sure that Spar knows the difference. As she confesses, she never engaged with the actual movement, only with the media cartoon; she thought feminism was Andrea Dworkin defining all sex as rape. (Which Dworkin didn’t, exactly, but let’s leave that alone for the moment.) Now that Spar has realized that She Was Wrong, and Things Aren’t Fair, she’s embarked on a research and analysis project to reframe and rebrand what she thought feminism was. That turns out to be all about the pressures she feels, and felt, to be, as she puts it, “Astronaut Barbie”—the brilliant bombshell babe who masters physics and goes to the moon with a stunning wardrobe. Spar’s conclusions include such shockers as these:

  • The “choice” framework is problematic.
  • Men should be involved in fixing both unequal pay and work-life conflicts.
  • America needs more early childhood education and better education generally.
  • Solutions need to be collective rather than personal.

She proposes, in other words, feminism—the real thing, not the cartoon.

            Here’s writer (I know, Bustle is problematic, but the writer is thoughtful) Elizabeth Nolan Brown on the problem with Spar’s diagnosis (and on Spar’s focus on saving younger women from her own errors):

According to Spar, the solution lies in feminists focusing less on personal fulfillment and more on societal issues—child care, pay equity, support for working moms and dads. Though Spar makes good points about feminism’s history, I think this is where she starts to go wrong.

Of course we should focus on these things, in fact, we always have! And they’re not just afterthoughts: social, political and cultural issues are at the top of young feminist agendas. Read any feminist blog, or talk to any young feminist activist, and you’ll hear about pay equity, workplace policies, childcare, rape prevention, reproductive rights, marriage equality, and the representation of women in media.

Gen X and Y women have watched Spar’s generation try—and fail—to be perfect leaders, employees, moms, wives, community members, and everything else…. We don’t think we can be “wonder women.”

The New York Times’s Patricia Cohen also dismisses the book nicely, writing:

Yet, despite [Spar’s] obvious intelligence, agile writing and sensible approach, Wonder Women … is a useful primer but offers few new ideas or information. An early warning comes in the opening chapter when Ms. Spar reveals that she came to realize only belatedly that feminists don’t necessarily have hairy legs and hate men. Why does this exemplar of feminism feel the need to offer such hoary clichés?

As far as I can tell, though, few others in the mainstream media have bothered to dissect Wonder Women.

Spar has had excerpts placed widely in places ranging from CNN to Glamour, and they may well reach the women to whom the book might be most useful: those who, like herself, believe “feminine-ism” is the real thing. But the book hasn’t sparked the brushfire of conversation that occurred when Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In ignited a much-publicized conversation between her and Anne-Marie Slaughter about “having it all” more than a year ago. Spar’s less provocative book missed its moment—if its moment ever existed.

            Because Spar is just plain wrong that young women are still mistaking “feminine-ism” for feminism. The women’s movement is having a truly exciting revival. Over the past decade, a younger generation has been reimagining feminism at sites like Feministing, Jezebel, Slate’s DoubleX, and Yes Means Yes. Real feminism has been infiltrating mainstream media—beyond the indispensable outpost that Katha Pollitt has long held at The Nation—in the persons of such thinkers as Rachel Maddow, Amanda Marcotte (Slate), Rebecca Traister ( and the New York Times Magazine), Garance Franke-Ruta (The Atlantic), Irin Carmon (now at MSNBC), Ariel Levy (New Yorker), and many more. From the antirape #DearJohn twitter campaign to The OpEd Project’s focus on increasing women’s representation in the media, we don’t have to settle for “feminine-ism” any more.

ejgraffE.J. Graff, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, is a journalist, author, and commentator who focuses on gender, sexuality, and human rights.



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