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Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Excerpts from Barnard President Debora Spar’s new book—personally candid and engrossing, well researched and often humorous—the work is a plea and a plan for a reassessed and more balanced approach to the well-lived life.

The day before Wonder Women hit the shelves of bookstores—real and virtual—President Debora Spar invited all Barnard students to a lunch-time “first look,” at the Event Oval in The Diana Center. She told an enthusiastic audience her reasons for writing the book and summarized its ideas. After Spar’s remarks, there was a Q&A session, and students received an autographed copy of Wonder Women.

In outlining the main ideas of the book, Spar described it as a hybrid of cultural history, social analysis, and personal story that asks, “How far have women really come since the feminist and sexual revolutions, and why do we appear to have such a long way to go?”

Students lined up to ask Spar a range of questions: Is being a working mom better than being a stayat-home mother? How do you get employers to support work-life balance? And, how does one know when a life decision is the correct one? (Tough question, that.) In explaining to one student why she had written the book at this time, Spar reflected a moment, then said she “realize[d]…perhaps too late, that my life as a woman and my friends’ lives as women had unfolded fundamentally differently than men’s, and I wanted to try to understand that.”

Tracing through the ages and stages of contemporary women, Wonder Women espouses a revised and somewhat reluctant feminism, one that desperately wishes we no longer needed a women’s movement but acknowledges that we still do. It argues that women of my generation got feminism wrong, seeing it as a route to personal perfection and a promise of all that we were now expected to be. Instead of seizing upon the liberation that had been handed to us, we twisted it somehow into a charge: because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything. And by following unwittingly along this path, we have condemned ourselves, if not to failure, then at least to the constantly nagging sense that something is wrong. That we are imposters. That we have failed.

Meanwhile, in exploring the nooks and crannies of a woman’s life, Wonder Women also advocates for a feminism based at least in part on difference. Put simply, it acknowledges (along with many earlier versions of feminism) that women are physiologically different from men and that biology is, if not quite destiny, nevertheless one of those details in life that should not be overlooked. Only women can bear children. In the state of nature, only women can feed those children through the most critical months of their lives. From these two unavoidable facts—wombs and breasts—come a vast series of perhaps unfortunate events. We can rue these events, or the gods who apparently predestined them, or we can come to terms with our differences and focus on ways of making them work. Wonder Women takes this latter tack. 

Let me be clear about the biases I bring to this work. I am a working mother of three children, so my viewof women is very much taken from this particular perspective. I therefore focus, perhaps overly, on the fates and fortunes of women juggling kids and jobs, the women who so infamously try to have it all. I have been very happily married for twenty-five years, so I write also as a contented wife and a woman who remains extremely fond of men. I believe that most men today want women to succeed; they want them in their firms and in their legislatures and even, generally, on their golf courses. They just don’t know quite how to make it work. And how can they, if women don’t help to figure it out?

When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was a commercial for Charlie perfume that appeared on all the network stations. I remember it vividly, as do many women of my generation. It showed a beautiful blond woman prancing elegantly down an urban street. She had long bouncy hair, a formfitting blue suit, and a perfect pair of stiletto heels. From one hand dangled a briefcase; from the other, a small, equally beautiful child, who gazed adoringly at her mom as they skipped along. The commercial never made clear, of course, just where Mama was going to leave her child on the way to work, or how they both managed to look so good that early in the morning. Instead it simply crooned seductively, in the way of most ads, promising something that was “kinda fresh, kinda now. Kinda new, kinda wow.”

All of which led to the massive schizophrenia of the Charlie complex. Before we had even reached puberty, women of my generation not only wanted it all, but firmly expected we would get it: the education, the sports, the jobs, the men, the sex and shoes and babies. And how could we not, when everything around us was screaming “yes”? Indeed, so strong were these cries that we may have been the first generation of girls who could truly imagine that our lives would unfold more or less like our brothers’….

In the end, of course, the myth of Charlie was just that: one silly commercial, capturing a particularly far-flung fantasy. It wasn’t true, and never was. But it left an indelible mark nevertheless on millions of women and girls, convincing us, seducing us with a dream of feminine perfection. We really thought we could have it all, and when reality proved otherwise we blamed—not the media, as it turned out, and not our mothers. We blamed ourselves….

Today, women and girls around the world have fallen headlong into this same embrace of blame and failure, into a stubborn pattern of believing that anything less than “all” in their lives is proof only of their own shortcomings. Rather than acknowledging that feminine perfection is a lie, we continue both to believe in the myth and to feel guilty when we—inevitably, inherently—fall short of it. The irony of this situation is that it is precisely the outcome that feminism fought to avoid. Because feminism, after all, was about removing a fixed set of expectations from women, freeing them to be what they wanted and behave as they desired. And yet, fifty years on, women find themselves laboring under an expanded and in many ways more cumbersome set of expectations: to be good wives and workers, sexy yet monogamous, devoted to their perfect children and their own perfect bodies. This is the unanticipated double whammy that confronts women today: the unexpected agglomeration of all the roles that society has historically heaped upon them plus the new roles and opportunities created by feminism.

So what’s a girl to do?

One possibility, of course, is to give it all up, to throw in the towel of feminism and retreat to an older and more traditional array of roles and values and norms. Under such a move (supported, not surprisingly, by a range of conservative groups), women would relinquish their career goals in favor of motherhood. They would be workers but not bosses, sexual inside marriage but nowhere else. They would, in other words, go back in time. At the other end of the spectrum, a second possibility would be to leap more radically ahead, urging women to strive for some of feminism’s more audacious goals—things like a wholesale destruction of the maledominated global power structure, or a communal approach to child care and rearing. Personally, though, as a creature of compromise, I find myself constantly attracted to the murky path of muddling through. I believe that women are entitled to be whatever they want, but that they can’t ever expect, any more than men, that they can have it all. I believe that childcare should be a joint endeavor, but I suspect that—so long as women carry the chromosomes for wombs and breasts and guilt—they will tend to bear a disproportionate share of their families’ needs. I believe that women, in general, enjoy their sexuality in different ways than men, with a higher premium placed on commitment and procreation.

And finally, I believe that the feminismof the ’60s and ’70s has a great deal to offer to today’s young women— particularly insofar as it urges them to focus at least a portion of their energies on common goals and struggles.

We can’t go back, of course, and undo the myth of Charlie…. What we can do, however, is examine how we got to thisplace: how the women of my generation managed to transform the collective goals of feminism into an individualized quest for perfection; how we have become confused over time by the dazzling array of choices now available to us; and how—slowly, carefully, and with equal measures of common sense and good humor—we can begin to plot a way forward.

From Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora L. Spar, published September 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. Copyright © 2013 by Debora L. Spar. All rights reserved.

—Deborah Spar

—Illustration by Niklas Asker