I started Barnard President Debora Spar’s book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection” with a bit of apprehension. I had heard that it was an argument about “having it all,” and I really hate most arguments relating to women “having it all.” I generally find them insulting—discouraging, even. It’s as if people are telling us: Don’t even bother aspiring for a career and home life—you’ll fail. Stop before you even try.
But although Spar is arriving late to the “having it all” debate, she brings a nuanced approach to the table with “Wonder Women.”
Just as Betty Friedan identified the unnamed problem of the ’50s housewife as her lingering desire for life outside the home in “The Feminine Mystique,” Spar captures the exhaustion of the generations that followed second-wave feminists. Instead of asking, “Is this all?” they find themselves battling a different unspoken perception: “Because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything.” Broadening her scope from the working woman, Spar points to the dual expectations hoisted on girls in the earliest stages of development, as they are encouraged to be astronauts and doctors but given Barbie and Disney princesses as role models.
Spar argues that the women’s movement of the ’70s unintentionally expanded expectations for women in its liberation “to be good wives and workers, sexy yet monogamous, devoted to their perfect children and to their perfect bodies.”
As a reader, it’s almost uncomfortable—not just because the president of one of our undergraduate institutions is talking about hookup culture on our campus, but also because so much of what she writes hits so close to home. Structured similarly to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” the book weaves Spar’s own experiences as a young working mother and professional with statistical data, testimonials from other women, and historical narrative. But the story she tells is one of never being good enough and never living up to the expectations set for and by oneself.
It’s a guilt that any woman can identify with. I remember feeling as overwhelmed as Julie, a high schooler Spar focuses on, who explains, “You’re supposed to do well in your classes and still have time to go out. You’re supposed to do all these things and not go insane.” In that same vein, I imagine that many of my classmates would join me in sheepishly admitting that a big wedding is something we want, as described in chapter 5, even if it is an archaic and patriarchal event.
As the book shifts to marriage and menopause, it loses some of its relevance for young readers. But as Spar details the different cycles of a woman’s life—from childhood to old age—she demonstrates how these gender issues never cease to play a role.
“Unless biology truly undergoes a revolution, women will still be having babies rather than men,” she writes, somewhat cheekily.
“Wonder Women” deals independently with anorexia, in vitro fertilization, and plastic surgery, but ultimately it comes down to this: The availability of options hasn’t really made women more satisfied with their lives.
As I read the book, I kept thinking back to a mother-daughter panel I attended a few years ago at Barnard. Though the intended subject was simply motherhood, with a panel of alumnae and their Barnard student daughters, the Q-and-A discussion seemed to naturally turn to the loneliness of the life-work balance. One Barnard graduate, a Ph.D. candidate with a three-year-old daughter, sounded like she came straight out of Spar’s book as she described catching the train at 6:30 a.m. and barely making it back for dinner with her family. When I caught her after the panel, she said something that still strikes a chord with me: “The biggest disservice you can do to yourself is not considering stopping.”
It wouldn’t be an invalid critique to say that Spar isn’t telling her audience anything that they don’t already know. But to do so would underestimate the value of reflection—Spar forces her reader to confront her insecurities and think critically about her choices.