– “I’m not a feminist, but I want equal pay, and I want to have equal relationships with men, and of course I want to have equal right to sexual pleasure. I want to have a fair and good life. I don’t want to be held back because I’m a woman.”
I finished Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion this morning and while I started reading it as a “what happens after white kids finish their Ivy-league education” -campus-novel, it turned out to be much more. What I actually had in my hands was a surgically poignant description of the gender politics of our time, in a novel form. Do read this book if you haven’t yet!
Who is a real feminist? – “You know what? I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else.” This comment to me sums up so much in the book. The protagonist Greer falls hard and heavy on a superstar feminist icon, Faith Frank, who recruits her fresh from college to work in her new feminist foundation in New York. Greer, in the middle of the usual tangle of college-graduate angst (long-distance boyfriend, urgency to make it while fitting in) combined with a nothing short of hero worship for her fabulous new boss Faith, takes up on the offer and sets up to make a difference in the Big City.
Faith’s Loci -foundation is bankrolled by her former one night stand turned billionaire venture capitalist. Faith’s task is to somehow make feminism/the foundation profitable by organising summits, talks and events, and eventually setting up mentoring programmes for girls in places like Ecuador. Loci gets good publicity, but is soon criticised on social media for being #whiteladyfeminism, #richladies and #fingersandwichfeminism, and eventually shallowness creeps in the foundation activities.
Eventually Greer also finds out that the venture capitalist had somewhat overlooked certain crucial financing details and that Loci’s Ecuador mentoring programme was actually bogus. What follows is Greer quitting Loci and mucho soul-searching and reaching out to long-lost friends (including the bygone long-distance boyfriend and her bestie whom she had betrayed).
Again, who are the real feminists? The Female Persuasion makes a nod to one of the male characters, Cory, a Princeton-educated programmer who drops his promising career following a family tragedy and starts taking care of his mother as well as takes up the housecleaning gigs she used to do before her depression. Greer’s mother at one point quips at her daughter that Cory is “kind of a big feminist” for dropping his plans when his family fell apart. Also Greer’s friend Zee was from the beginning on a more outspoken activist than Greer – yet Greer blocked her any possibility to work for Loci with her. And how about the venture capitalist? Is he a feminist for coughing up money on a feminist non-profit, or does he just want to get back into the rather glamorous Faith’s pants?
Can feminism be a business? While the novel does not exactly deal with this, I cannot help but think about the various trendy t-shirts headquarters where decisions on designs are being made: “Feminism is shit-hot these days, how about we print some feminist stuff and take it from there? I don’t know, maybe some feminist book titles or whatever “we can do it” -crap you can think of, no?” Aside from concrete objects that have feminist logos and witty slogans, can you sell a movement? And if you’re taking people’s money for it, would you then need to define better what you are, in fact, selling?
I’m not a feminist because we first need to define what feminism means. I hear this a lot. To me it’s a claim similar to “Sorry, I’ll just have a glass of H2O – I don’t really want to call it water because it’s so undefined. I’m more comfortable calling it H2O.” So yes, call it whatever you want, but does today’s feminism need to be defined more? Would it help the sceptics if we talked about “gender equality” instead? Are we as adamant for defining everything else in the world as well, or is it just feminism? I’m thinking concepts such as corruption, sexual violence, federalism, liberal economy, data protection.
All of the above, The Female Persuasion is also about female mentorship and the importance of role models to young people. There is a poignant paragraph in the end about mentorship when Greer, frustrated at her idol, leaves the foundation: There was always going to have been a moment like this one at the end, at least if Greer was ever going to be able to do something on her own instead of being a perennial extra-credit-doer, a handmaiden, a good girl who thought that what she had for herself was good enough. Good girls could go far, but they could rarely go to the distance.
The book is also about friendships, betrayal, power and loyalty. Impossible to read without putting it in the context of the current debate (will #metoo be mentioned?!?! SPOILER ALERT: No, it will not) it is a very witty, sharp, 450-page observation of feminism today. I’m sure bell hooks would have a thing or two to say about the rather exclusively white East-coast approach to feminism in the novel, but I read it to be part of the general observations and subtly criticised as well: #whiteladyfeminism that we read in The Female Persuasionand see in fashion magazines of the real world has mainstreamed and claimed public ownership of much of today’s feminism (see expensive t-shirts).
If you have any interest in today’s gender politics, do read the book. The only slight disappointment to me was the cookie-cutter ending, also because I didn’t fully make my mind up whether I liked Greer or not.
The quotes in cursive are from the book.