August 23, 2013

A hard look at “having it all”

By Debora L. Spar
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Debora L. Spar is a wife and mother. She was also one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School, and is currently the president of Barnard College. She is, in many ways, an exemplar of the notion that women can “have it all,” yet for years she eschewed feminism as the province of hairy-legged cranks. In Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Spar dismantles her own resistance to the movement that arguably allowed her the life she has today, but also looks at the ways feminism created false expectations that have left many women too defeated to get out of bed, much less “lean in.”

Remember the early 1970s ads for Charlie perfume, which portrayed a gorgeous blond with a briefcase on one arm and toddler on the other walking a city street while a chorus sang about her being “kinda new, kinda now”? Spar argues that while feminism pushed for women to have it all—full equality and the ability to choose from several options—many women misread the handbook and instead felt forced to take it all on. To prioritize career over family was neglectful, while domesticity was capitulation to the patriarchy. And either way, we lose: Men still do a fraction of the housework even when they're at home more, and women still earn less money and possess far less wealth than men. Hear me roar, indeed.

Spar threads her personal story into this larger survey, from marriage to her wide-ranging career. As an educated, upper-class white heterosexual woman, she has little to say about the poor, people of color or lesbians. Those struggling to find bus fare in their couch cushions may find all this caterwauling about “having it all” a tad indulgent, but the book ends with suggestions that can help forge connections, from involving men in women's issues to removing the pressure to do everything in favor of making more conscious choices. Wonder Women doesn't have all the answers, but the questions it raises may lead to much-needed change.

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Wonder Women

Wonder Women

By Debora L. Spar
FSG/Sarah Crichton Books
ISBN 9780374298753

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