The Female Persuasion: A Radiant Exploration of the Flaws in Second-Wave Feminism
Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.” In her latest novel, The Female Persuasion (Penguin Publishing, 2018), Meg Wolitzer’s characters wrestle their way out of adolescence and into the workforce, but most importantly, Wolitzer explores feminism as a layered role marking differences in generations.
The book offers a critique of feminist activism and points out where earlier feminists have failed to ensure equality. Wolitzer takes every chance to point out Faith’s flaws as a feminist. She regularly mentions Faith’s lack of intersectionality and teases her reputation as a second wave feminist whose greatest accomplishments have only served upper-middle-class white women.
The novel opens as Greer Kadetsky begins college she never wanted to attend. Her plans to attend Yale blew away along with her sense of purpose. But a chance meeting with influential feminist lecturer Faith Frank puts her on a new track to self-discovery.
Greer is pensive, thoughtful, and has a lot of anxiety. Her new best friend, Zee, is outgoing and troubled with her own identity. While the two young women have different impressions and interactions with Frank in the school auditorium, they both learn to fight their demons.
Greer attends a lecture within the first few weeks of college where Faith is the keynote speaker. She is mesmerized by Faith’s work. When the time for questions opens up, Greer begins to ask questions, but instead gives her own speech. She recaps the story of being casually assaulted by a boy on campus, how she confided to other girls and discovered he had assaulted many others, how the group of girls wore t-shirts warning the rest of campus to beware of him and their campaign to get him kicked out of school. But, to their surprise and dismay, he is allowed to continue his education with little more than a slap on the wrist and an empty apology.
Faith empathizes with her and commends her bravery and activism. It leaves Greer feeling light-headed and inspired to be a better feminist.
Faith’s words were elating at first. Years later, when Greer is employed at Faith’s new non-profit, which is funded by an infamous millionaire and operates with clear ethical breaches, she is devastated.
Wolitzer illustrates the importance of mentorship, but the need for discretion.
Greer believed she was the non-profit was aiding South American women escape poverty and sexual predators. She believed she was helping women.
While the charity does truly help some women, the project Greer helped fundraise and advertise for, she realizes too late, collapsed when the South American arm of the project disappears with funding. Faith never reveals the true picture, but still takes funding while trying to resolve the situation without discrediting her non-profit.
Faith undoubtedly had a huge influence over Greer’s academic and professional career. Her job at the non-profit opened the door for other opportunities and connections. So can Greer still be grateful to Faith?
Faith is not made out to be a monster, but she does represent the pragmatic approach to gaining ground with activism.
"'I do it for women,” Faith says. “Not everyone agrees with the way I do it. Women in powerful positions are never safe from criticism. The kind of feminism I've practiced is one way to go about it. There are plenty of others, and that's great. There are impassioned and radical young women out there, telling multiple stories. I applaud them. We need them. We need as many women fighting as possible. I learned that early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem — the world is big enough for different kinds of feminists to coexist, people who want to emphasize different aspects of the fight for equality. God knows the injustices are endless, and I am going to use whatever resources are at my disposal to fight in the way I know how.'"
Faith defends her actions as necessary, but the ugly truth is evident: top-tier feminists often shatter glass ceilings for wealthy, well-connected white women first. Diversity is an afterthought pioneered by others.
Separately, Greer and Zee answer her own question.
"I think there are two kinds of feminists," Zee tells Greer. "The famous ones, and everyone else."
Wolitzer, at times, tries too hard to impress to her young adult fiction audience by using kitschy phrases and makes characters hyperbolize their lives’ milestones.
For example, Wolitzer writes: "'So it's all starting for you,' said Zee. 'Remember this moment. Take a snapshot of it in your brain.'
'What moment is that?'
'The moment before it all begins. The moment before you start, you know, your life.’"
However, she does not shy away from compelling issues such as rape, the death of a family member, depression, and sexual identity: Cory loses his little brother and reckons with his parents’ subsequent absence and depression; Zee begins her first meaningful relationship with another woman.
While illustrating the central characters’ education and entrance into the workforce, Wolitzer offers insight into the reality coming of age - it is confusing, disappointing, and, at times, tragic. Does Greer really want to continue working for Faith after learning more about the charity’s operations? Can Zee heal her own emotional wounds by helping low-income youth or should she go back and get a job at her mother’s firm? After Cory’s loss, should he stay at his high-paying job or return home to help his parents piece their lives back together?
Although Wolitzer is nearing 60 years old, her ability to write from a multigenerational perspective shows a keen attention to today’s women and the world around her. She captures the experience of freshly minted college students deftly and brilliantly. Most any recent college graduate can empathize with the main youthful characters actualizing their futures.
The prose is highly readable, almost conversational as the narration switches between the main characters.
Although the novel may come off like a young adult novel, within the first chapter a reader of any age is immediately drawn into a tumultuous freshman year. Wolitzer captures and enlivens her youthful characters in a colorful, yet believable way. It would be difficult for any reader to not relate in one way or another.
The Female Persuasion was named a most-anticipated book of the year by Time Magazine, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine. And for good reasons.
Wolitzer has simultaneously written a book about being young and mature, hopeful and regretful. It is a multigenerational story for anyone who has struggled for identity and guidance post-high school.