In Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president Debora L. Spar questions the idea of “having it all.”
You write that, “By blessing women with so many options, feminism also…raised the bar on women’s lives and expectations.” How did this happen?
What I found in my research was that while feminism was creating opportunities, over the decades the original message got distorted, simplified, and mixed up with older aspirations, so that rather than liberating women from one set of expectations, instead they multiplied. What we have today is a “triple whammy.” Women are hearing not only, “Gee, you can be an astrophysicist,” but, “You should be an astrophysicist—and still be an excellent wife and mother.” And what I find particularly toxic is: “Oh, by the way, you should also look gorgeous until you’re 72, and never have a wrinkle, and be model-thin.” The feminist agenda had nothing to do with personal perfection. It was about fighting for social good, for community, about getting away from the adoration of women as physical objects. But what happened—and I don’t know if I can trace it to a single cause—is that women my age and younger took feminism as a set of personal aspirations rather than seeing the community piece, the political piece.
You explore how these expectations show up in every part of a woman’s life, from girlhood to maturity. What are some solutions?
Nobody, regardless of gender, age, or talent, can do it all. As women, we should be able to fully respect each other’s choices, but not feel guilty if we’ve made a different choice. A word that’s gotten lost is “liberation.” The irony is that today, women feel more constrained by these multiple sets of expectations. Also, women need to invite men into the conversation in a way that is not angry or polemical, but that shares their concerns. I love seeing my students coming to an event on women’s issues and bringing their boyfriends or male friends along.
What do you say to women who feel that feminism doesn’t impact them personally?
I think the words here are important. I see a number of women who don’t want to use the word “feminist,” but they’re very comfortable talking about women’s leadership. The issues may remain the same, but the words can change.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
A note of optimism. Nobody is perfect. We need to move away from this silly conversation about whether we can “have it all.” What is empowering is having what matters to you.