The Female Persuasion By Meg Wolitzer
New York, NY; Riverhead, 2018, 464 pp., $28, hardcoverr
Reviewed by Kate Schatz
In March of 2012, novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review titled “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” The title, of course, is a nod to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; the essay itself calls out the literary establishment for the sexism inherent in everything from book covers to word count. Wolitzer opens with a pointed question: “If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?”
As evidence, she pointed to “the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book.” Further in, Wolitzer contrasts wistful “women’s fiction” book covers featuring “a pair of shoes on the beach” with “the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, The Art of Fielding, or the jumbo lettering on The Corrections.” These latter covers, according to a book publicist Wolitzer spoke with, “tell the readers, ‘This book is an event.’”
The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer’s eleventh novel, is an event, with the jumbo lettering and bright, bold cover (nesting triangles that look somewhat like a Judy Chicago place setting) that a novelist like Wolitzer covets—and deserves. Female protagonist? Check. Graceful, nostalgic tone? Sure. Relation-heavy nature? Yes. Ambitious, sprawling, somewhat problematic attempt to incorporate the past six decades of the tumult and triumph of American feminism? Indeed. (Try that, Eugenides!)
The Female Persuasion is a kind of 21st century bildungsroman. We begin in 2006 and observe our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, a determined, bookish freshperson at an average East Coast liberal arts institution, as she transitions through her twenties: that complicated phase that many psychologists refer to as “emerging adulthood.” Greer and her best friend Zee have a chance encounter with Faith Frank, a famous seventies feminist, in a public restroom. Faith gives Greer her business card, and the trajectory for Greer ’s post-college life, and a complex mentor/mentee relationship, is set in motion. This small transaction and its ripple effect is something that Wolitzer does a great job with, as the book regularly comes back to the small encounters, actions, and choices that have outsized impacts on our lives. The book is at its best when exploring the power of these relationships, clicks, and connections: The “small realizations leading you first toward an important understanding and then toward doing something about it” and the “people you would meet who would affect you and turn you ever so slightly in a different direction.”
Faith Frank is that person for Greer—a glamorous figurehead, a publisher, a writer, and a public speaker. Faith’s now-classic feminist text is called, in fact, The Female Persuasion. Greer is enamored of Faith, and after graduation, she heads to New York City to work for her—but not for Faith’s long-suffering-but-beloved feminist magazine Bloomer (for Amelia Bloomer) as she’d anticipated. Bloomer has lost funding, going the way of so many print publications in a digital age. Faith is starting a new foundation, one that puts women’s issues at the forefront, and seeks to address everything from workplace harassment to pay inequity to gender-based violence by way of pricey “summits.” It’s called Loci (as in “the center”) and the devil isn’t just in the details—it’s in the funding. In one of many shrewdly contemporary plot developments that Wolitzer employs, we learn that Emmet Shrader, a widely loathed VC millionaire (billionaire?) is underwriting this new feminist enterprise. Though Shrader assures Faith—they go way back, we discover—that he supports her wildest feminist dreams, strings are attached.
Their relationship frames a core reality: the ways in which women must constantly compromise in order to get what they want—and need. Which compromises are O.K.—and which are betrayals? Faith is no stranger to hustling for good. In the 1970s she was trying to convince businessmen at Nabisco to buy ad space in Bloomer; in 2016 she’s getting rich white ladies to buy pricey tickets to luncheons where celebrities speak about equality. What, Wolitzer suggests, is really the difference? Under capitalism and under patriarchy, the tradeoffs and negotiations are constant. This may be old hat for Faith, but it’s new territory for the idealistic, wide-eyed Greer.
Another key question that the book examines— but doesn’t necessarily answer—concerns these intergenerational feminist dynamics. How women like Faith, who is a “strong, appealing, dignified, older feminist,” grapple with “the galloping changes in feminism” as they strive to work in the present. In the early 1970s, a journalist once asked Faith what she stands for, and she answered, “I stand for women.” This was a good enough answer back then, but “later it sometimes wouldn’t be.” At Loci, her young employees harbor a “sweet nostalgia” for those bygone days, but they—and many others—are also full of criticism for an approach that many see as dated at best, and racist, transphobic, and classist at worst. Greer is concerned about the judgments that Faith receives on “the newer feminist blogs” that call her out for “Corporate Feminism”—but these qualms are not enough to make her leave. Faith deflects, choosing not to look at the critiques and laying the burden on Greer, saying, “I hope you’ll tell me if I start being anachronistic.”
Instead, the quietly ambitious Greer studies Faith closely, and Faith rewards her with increased responsibility at Loci. Greer is an excellent listener and writer, so she is tasked with conducting interviews with women who’ve experienced workplace harassment, and then writing speeches for them to deliver at high-profile events. It is satisfying, energizing work for Greer—for a time. The bulk of the book tracks Greer’s growth both as an employee of Loci and also as a young woman who navigates challenging personal relationships— with her best friend Zee, with her high school boyfriend Cory, and of course, with Faith. As Greer grows more and more into her adult self, she navigates what it means to be seen by someone you admire, and how ambition, desire, and purpose can fluctuate over time.
Wolitzer is a confident writer, and readers will likely find it easy to get swept into the worlds she creates. The book feels light rather than labored, even when grappling with difficult topics. There is an effortlessness to the way she moves through story, casually dropping back several decades before returning to a present moment. Yet she is also precise, a master of closely observed detail as she explores everything from how history repeats, to how misogyny and power replicate and perpetuate. Wolitzer understands that women may make great strides and significant gains, only to be thrown backwards—sometimes by a single election.
And Wolitzer nails the zeitgeist: pop cultural markers ground the reader as we shift back and forth across the decades. A flashback to Zee’s early 90s Bat Mitzvah references her MySpace page, and the gifts of “Lucite picture frames and Barnes and Noble gift certificates.” A section on Faith’s upbringing marks 1965 with White Rain, Bobby Darin, and illegal abortion. A 21st century sandwich has a “stiff Elizabethan ruffle of kale.” We also get hashtags, both real and imagined: Faith’s efforts with Loci get called out on Twitter with the real-life hashtag #whiteladyfeminism as well as the delightfully made-up #fingersandwichfeminisms.
But hashtags develop overnight—novels develop over the course of years. Conspicuously missing is #Metoo, which while initiated more than a decade ago by Tarana Burke, came to social media prominence in October 2017, mere months before the book’s release. One can’t help but wonder how the book would’ve differed had it been written during, or just after, #metoo exploded on the scene, bringing with it the takedowns of high-powered men, as well as the complex and often brutal intrafeminist exchanges. The election of Donald Trump isn’t mentioned, but a doomed energy hangs over the book.
Wolitzer isn’t here to offer easy answers, nor is she trying to make a case for a particular kind of feminism. Her ideas don’t feel new, but the format does, and while I didn’t love the book, I love that the book is. This big mainstream novel is taking on the ideas, phrases, and concerns that have always felt isolated to feminist twitter, women’s studies courses, and contentious comment threads on feminist blogs. There were moments, while reading, when I felt a certain thrill at seeing a name or reference pop up. Because of this, I felt conflicted during the moments when I felt less than thrilled— the moments when, like contemporary feminism itself, the book is flawed. It makes missteps precisely because of its ambition—and isn’t that, well, a familiar feeling? It’s as if The Female Persuasion reached its long, charming arms into those siloed realms, and swept it all together, in one big, messy book. All of it—abortion, equal pay, celebrity feminism, GamerGate, the Women’s March, diversity, workplace harassment, pronouns, #whitefeminism. The end result is often exciting, but frustrating.
This is especially true in the way Wolitzer tries to navigate race, privilege, and whiteness. The book nods to the struggles and limitations of a feminism that is not “keeping up with the times”—but it does not go beyond peppered references to racism, classism, and trans inclusion. In fact, these complex realities are often treated dismissively or jokingly as narrative foils for white characters who are trying to do the right thing. Non-white characters exist peripherally, as do their valid, justified, and ultimately unexplored concerns. Just as Faith is not going to question her own sense of white superiority, Wolitzer is not here to interrogate white supremacy, to really examine the ways in which it’s operating either in her characters or in contemporary feminism.
Characters repeatedly get defensive when called out: neophyte teacher Zee completely misses signs of a serious issue with one of her troubled students, and then gets prickly when her older African- American coworker challenges her idealism. Faith seems exhausted at having to prove her “racial bonafides” and getting “gender pronouns right” during college visits. Both Faith and Greer are surprised when Loci doesn’t turn out to be as magnanimous as they both thought. As a reader, I wasn’t surprised by any of these twists—I saw them coming, and I also saw Wolitzer falling prey to the same naiveté that she develops in her characters. None of the characters truly have to reconcile with their privilege—they acknowledge it, but in a frustrated “I can’t help that I’m privileged!” way, or in the sly, ironic manner that allows one to name the bad thing without having to own the bad thing. Greer’s easy glide into post-college New York life (her Brooklyn apartment, her stylish wardrobe) goes wholly unexamined (especially since Greer ’s parents’ financial ineptitude is a major point of contention early on in the plot). Greer’s disdain for her standard-issue liberal arts college reeks of unexamined privilege, as does Zee’s indulgent anger at Greer for not helping her get a job at Loci.
In the unsatisfying end, it is 2019. Greer has achieved immense financial, professional, and domestic success (we’re clued in to this early on, so this is not a spoiler) when, at 31, she becomes the bestselling author of a “well-meaning feminist rallying cry” that “was not, she knew, original or brilliant.” Despite its enormous financial success, the book “was frequently criticized, of course” for failing to “speak for all women” who exist “so much farther outside of privilege and access than Greer Kadetsky.”
I clocked the dismissiveness of that of course, and how, in the next sentence, we are assured that “many others bought the book and loved it.” While not every book need be brilliant, it felt icky to end on this note of inherited white mediocrity. Greer has become Faith, and has nothing changed? How many Black and Brown women are brilliant, original, firebrands deserving of the spotlight? How many marginalized writers dream of getting published, let alone becoming bestsellers who buy Brooklyn brownstones with their enormous advances (as Greer predictably does)?
In a scene toward the very end, Greer is taken to task by her infant’s teenage babysitter (Kay Chung, 16, who is “small and fireplug-fierce”) who points out the outdated ideas in her brand new book—but it doesn’t feel like enough. Kay admits that she’s “a skeptic about feminism” and rejects “the white, cisgender, binary view of everything.” While this moment briefly decentralizes Greer ’s white feminist mediocrity and offers Greer a mildly destabilizing glimpse into a new generation of young feminists, Kay becomes just another fleeting moment of critique. Her youthful energy is used to undermine her potency: she offers her opinions “as if they were entirely new” and lines like “[a]nd anyway, Kay went on in a chatty voice of amazing confidence, it wasn’t so much about people as it was about ideas” feel condescending. The exchange between Greer and Kay can also be read as Wolitzer’s attempt to preempt this very criticism, by demonstrating the inevitability of tear-downs and call-outs that virtually all feminist writers face. True as this may be, I expected much more from Greer—and from Wolitzer as well.
The Female Persuasion is engaging. It’s compelling. It addresses power, histories, and the complexities of platonic female relationships in a way that is rarely, if ever, presented in mainstream fiction. Like Faith, it manages to feel a bit outdated, a bit lacking, but also warm, and engaging. I hesitated to even share my critique, worried about taking down a fellow female writer whom I truly respect, and who, like her characters, is clearly trying. Like Greer, I am younger, ambitious, and admiring of my feminist heroes. But like the often-dismissed critical voices in the book, I’m not interested in silence-as-solidarity. I can critique without condemning—this is a good novel, and Wolitzer fully deserves a top spot in the literary realm. But she—and other white women writers— can do better. Must do better.
Toward the end of her 2012 essay, Wolitzer quotes the novelist Mary Gordon, who told her “As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.” By that logic, what happens if you include the word ‘female’ in the title? Wolitzer is about to find out. I like to think that Gordon’s quote stuck with her as she settled on calling it The Female Persuasion—it feels like a strategic challenge to those who would try to deprive her a place in the “top tier of literary fiction—where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation.” This space, Wolitzer writes, “tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” The Female Persuasion is anything but, and I feel certain it will enter current and future cultural conversations. I hope those conversations can be as honest and nuanced as the ideas in the book deserve.
Kate Schatz is the New York Times bestselling author of author of Rad American Women A-Z, Rad Women Worldwide, and Rad Girls Can.