Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion”

The need for public recognition, accolades, and the smug affirmation of group endeavor crippled her ability to find purpose and pursue fulfilling work. These themes are confidently articulated within the framework of a classic coming-of-age story: Greer, a bright, impressionable college freshman from a small town, meets Faith, a renowned and glamorous activist, and the encounter changes the course of Greer’s life. “[W]e don’t need to put people on a pedestal,” a young woman says of her brand of feminism. “Everyone can lead. Maybe that’s what we want from women, Greer thought […] Maybe that’s what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us. In her latest novel, The Female Persuasion, Meg Wolitzer looks at personal ambition in the context of social activism and feminist identity. She quietly resents them and grabs onto Faith as a role model and provider of the emotional support and encouragement that she craves. But I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right? She writes freelance book reviews, sits on the Board of the National Book Critics Circle, and is a fiction judge for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. By contrast, the foundation carries out its mandate to organize events, but these too often serve only to generate more events or produce diffuse results that fall short of their intention. To Greer’s generation Faith feels outdated — the doyenne of a soft brand of feminism that mostly appeals to wealthier women. Despite Faith’s charisma, Greer’s adulation, predictably, turns to disillusionment. But Greer’s mother sees Cory’s sacrifice in a different light, telling her,
[H]ere’s this person who gave up his plans when his family fell apart. APRIL 12, 2018
DESPITE ITS MERITS, ambition can be corrosive. Feminism is not a monolithic movement. Instead, she privileges the quiet and quotidian — those unremarkable, private acts that have a direct, positive impact on individual lives. Though revered for her beneficence, Faith is not always kindhearted. Cory abandons a promising consulting career to move home and take care of his mother following a family tragedy. “I loved what she stood for,” Greer thinks,
I wanted to stand for those things too, because it made everything feel more hopeful. Greer cannot understand his decision. Everyone can jump in.”
In the aftermath of her separation from Faith and the foundation, Greer considers the hubris of her ambition and how it led her astray. She exerts control by conveying softness, a caring, emotional intimacy that contrasts with the way men wield power:
The light touch of this powerful woman was profound. It is a moment freighted with significance, the point when Greer comes into her own and establishes the ethical boundaries that will shape her future. In less capable hands, a novel about feminism could be a caricature, either polemical or anodyne. This is the most resonant and powerful theme of the novel, and Wolitzer illustrates it through the experiences of the two people closest to Greer: her boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee. It can also make us arrogant, dismissive of those we regard as aiming lower and striving less than we do. The timing of The Female Persuasion is favorable since it coincides with our national discussion about sexual harassment, equal pay, and female empowerment — a dialogue reignited by the #MeToo movement. Oh, and he cleans his own house, and the ones she used to clean. Instead, Wolitzer’s narrative poses difficult questions about feminism using an approach that is direct, generous, and, most importantly, not presuming there is one correct answer. It is a work of imagination and intelligence that deserves a wide readership. Ours is a pivotal time in the progression of feminism, and with this engaging and perceptive novel Wolitzer reminds us of the fraught contexts and assumptions that weight the attainment and execution of female leadership. Over time Greer discovers how to use her ambition as a tool in shaping her identity rather than allowing it to control who she becomes. She can be calculating in her deft manipulation of those who would stand in her way. Yet when Faith visits Greer’s college in 2006 to give a speech, the 63-year-old feminist wins over the audience with her elegance and compelling personality. It can skew our judgment, luring us into moral equivocation and thin justifications for what we do in pursuit of our goals. As Greer sees it, “Seduction was a power move to Faith, and maybe even a compulsion, but it seemed to happen effortlessly, and was in the service of a greater good.”
Faith does not hide her femininity; she makes it a strength. ¤
Lori Feathers is a co-owner of Interabang Books in Dallas, Texas, and the store’s book buyer. Greer idolizes Faith and sees in her the traits — nurturing, attentive, sophisticated, and socially engaged — she always wished of her hippie parents, who spend their days smoking pot and selling protein bars from their home. In college, it was Zee who introduced Greer to the feminist movement, and for a time Zee, too, aspired to work for Faith. He moves back in with his mother and takes care of her. It seems to her that he has given up on life, and she has contempt for the choice he has made. The weighing.”
The Female Persuasion examines what it means to be a feminist and a social activist in the broadest sense. She can be found @lorifeathers. As Faith aptly observes, “That’s what it’s about, this life. The founding editor of a long-running women’s magazine and author of several books on female empowerment, Faith Frank is an icon of the feminist movement. When women got into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting. Instead, Zee takes a job as a high school teacher in a rough neighborhood, a position that serves as her entry to a career counseling trauma survivors: “Now her work life was political in some deep and consistent way, she thought, because she entered the homes of struggling people, and saw what their lives were like.”
Cory and Zee affect others daily, and the benefit is immediate. The book critiques the assumption that feminism is defined only by organized public acts and mobilized demonstrations and not by the quiet, humble, everyday acts of individuals. So too was her choice to use her power in this tender way. In this way, the novel emphasizes that the power to make positive change rests not with a celebrity but in the unassuming, collective acts of many. Smart and driven, Greer chafes against her parents’ seeming apathy and detachment from everything, including her. This irrevocable shift occurs when Greer is confronted with Faith’s willingness to sacrifice the foundation’s integrity to protect her own reputation. That you could work toward something important, and there would be this person there who actually took an interest in you, which was the best feeling. It takes on many shades, and Wolitzer rejects the notion that effecting social change necessarily means joining an organized movement or participating in demonstrations and public forums. I don’t know. A chance encounter with Faith provides Greer with the necessary hook to land a job at Faith’s foundation four years later.