Anyone who’s watched “Mad Men” can attest that advertising can have a major effect on a large amount of people. Barnard President Debora Spar credits a series of ads by Revlon—which largely featured pretty young women walking briskly in professional attire—as being partly responsible for her generation’s more individualistic brand of feminism.
“We were the ones who made it about having it all,” she said Monday at an event promoting her new book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” which comes out Tuesday.
The lecture she gave mirrored her description of the book’s arc, traveling somewhat chronologically from girlhood to single life and then to married life as she described how the myth of “having it all” has led many women to set unrealistic expectations for themselves.
“We took it inward,” she said in the Diana Event Oval. “We made it about a personal quest for perfection rather than being about social goals. That’s not what the early feminists were saying, but that’s what we heard, and that’s what we interpreted it as.”
Spar has been working on the book, a mixture of cultural history, statistics, and personal anecdotes, since before she came to Barnard. Exploring standards of beauty, marriage, and housework, Spar said expectations for women have only become higher since her youth. They have escalated to the point where women are not only expected to do everything men do, but they’re also expected to cook, clean, look beautiful, and raise children—all while fighting against the discrimination that still exists in many sectors of the professional world.
“One thing women do a bad job at is not legitimizing other women’s choices,” she said.
For Spar, “having it all” has become a shield, and women must accept that having the opportunity to do anything means having the responsibility to choose something.
This is a theme Spar echoes often, especially when speaking to Barnard students.
At last year’s convocation, she told students, “You cannot have everything in life, but you can have the things that are important to you.”
Spar said that these are not choices women must make at age 20, and they are often not all-or-nothing, but that all women, especially young women, should work on “learning to say ‘no.’”
“Maybe you’d love to get straight As, but it would come at the expense of your social life,” she said. “B-pluses are okay. ”