Monthly Archives: January 2014

Feminism’s Achilles’ Heel

Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar (2013)


I picked up Spar’s book with trepidation: another white woman draped in pearls writing about women and power. What will she add, I wondered, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? In June 2013 I wrote about Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, who encourages young women to join the ranks of leadership and go for the great jobs. She says too many women hesitate, back off and don’t dive in. Sandberg assures us that there is a way to balance career, family, and joy. Some days (I’d say years) are exhausting, she says, but you have to get in there, take jobs and leadership roles.

In Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College President Debora Spar adds to Sandberg’s dialogue. Spar reevaluates the legacy of the Second Wave feminists so dismissed by the generation (including herself) of young women born to think they have everything. Today’s girls, says Spar, just assume access, are blithely entitled and clueless about the work it took to achieve such opportunities and about how vulnerable everything is.

I appreciate Spar debunking anti-feminism, and articulating the deeper values at the core of feminist efforts. She contributes to the reclamation of feminism as something not to fear and as important for men as for women. I’ve observed that feminism is the “F” word in multicultural social justice circles—at high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. It is one of Rush Limbaugh’s and other patriarchs’ favored taunts, severely misconstrued for their purposes. The burning bra myth is hard to dispel (it isn’t true– and can you image the toxins in the smoke?) because it is such a visual icon of the Seventies. Ironically, many girls and women have unwittingly assimilated this contempt and dismiss women’s issues as irrelevant.

Yet Spar blames the trouble women have today — as they try to be perfect in body, career and family — on those very feminist dreams of having access to sports, reproductive rights, careers, family, et al. Sadly, she says, too many women still want to be precisely Mattel’s Barbie even after seventy. An elder feminist activist says to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so that you could have Botox.”

Spar writes about the cost of weddings, procedures for women having difficulty getting pregnant, and plastic surgery. She examines these practices with some incredulousness: Americans spend 72 billion dollars a year on weddings, only 16 billion on books. She also writes about women hell-bent on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on conceiving babies or achieving impossible body proportions.

She observes that women lawyers and corporate executives leave their coveted positions in droves, especially once a baby arrives. Spar admits this ‘opting out is limited to the elite of the elite.’ She notes with interest that the women who continue to work (after the kids arrive) are in fields that sustain their interest and sense of meaning. She says jobs and desire need to match, not mismatch. This is a really important point, I think —philosophically and economically. What does this suggest about women’s sensibilities and definitions of success? Women want balance, to have family and meaningful work. Spar asserts that they want work that will add value to others, often over enormous salaries and benefit packages. It appears that conflict and constant one-upmanship doesn’t sustain many women for the long haul.

But does this analysis really apply to all women? Spar clearly addresses a challenge with feminism. But perhaps unwittingly, she reveals what I think is in danger of becoming feminism’s Achilles’ heel. At least as evidenced by Spar and Sandberg, feminism is still white, rich, and heterosexual with access to everything. Spar seems to be saying, ‘I know you are out there—all you other women—but I’m telling my story. This is a feminism that is so squeaky clean and privileged, it’s inaccessible to many, many women. And why would they be interested anyway?

In this version of feminism, the sparkle of everyday heroines is silenced.  There is a lot of wisdom about power in the lives of women from all parts of our society. Spar only nods in this direction. Sprinkled through the book are statements which are meant to be acknowledging but sound dismissive, if not defensive, saying she knows there are poor women, women of color, and even some lesbians out there considering these issues of sex, power and perfection, but her generalizations don’t include them, she says, because she hasn’t lived those experiences.  There are absolutely no trans folks in her realm, and physical agility and economic abundance is assumed.

She certainly misses my experience when she describes menopause as the trauma of the end of childbearing. The women of menopause that I know are not feeling tragic; they’re giddy with the freedom from all that blood and worry. Sex is fun. They are hot- flashing-power-surging-open the car windows and sing women, determined to lead with their most interesting selves. Diana Nyad just proved that 64 is a fine time to break world records for long-distance swimming.

Feminism, not just Spar’s version, has a history of inclusion and exclusion. Education level, class, race, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation and fads of moral acceptance or intolerance play into this. I agree with Spar when she says the problem is really the system, not women per se. Can we create a more fully human and humane society? Let’s encourage all efforts, and I agree with Spar when she asks to give busy women a break, let the Ring Dings slip on to the table at the bake sale, support each other in the decisions we make about our lives, and work together. We know too well that plenty of “Mean Girls” lurk in Chanel suits in high places. We know wonderful women are ready to lead and work with power in new ways. They are all ages, from all communities, they look all kinds of ways and they are wearing fancy heels to mud boots.  They are working on promoting equanimity and non-violence, teaching, farming, and living diversity, writing, dancing, and singing democracy. Despite my frustration with the heterosexual and class assumptions, and abounding white privilege underlying Spar’s assertions, I am grateful for her fundamental point; it is important to note that women in positions of power sure struggle with issues of gender, authority, perfection and the conformity these require.

But those assumptions are more than frustrating. They could be dangerous to feminism itself. During the Trojan War, according to Greek myth, Achilles’ body was unassailable, except for his heel. He was slayed by such a small vulnerability.

Feminism is a crucial gateway philosophy to human rights for women, children, and men to lead safe and meaningful lives. Unless we really do the work of inclusivity, it will be impossible to create the harmony and well being across all the divides we are born to, all the divisiveness reinforced daily by nations and individuals. We’ve just got to do this work or we too will be slayed by our supercilious heel.





Where the truth lies: Ariel Levy, writer for The New Yorker

On Ariel Levy,  Writer for  The New Yorker

Where the truth lies is somewhere, and Ariel Levy wants to find it. She is always searching for what is holding up the façade of normal. She builds her essays on a foundation carefully construed of complex legal, economic, or social information. Her craft is in the synthesizing she does with her research and insight. I think her feminist, lesbian, no-nonsense aesthetic guides her perceptions, hones her awareness; much like a master carpenter has the ability to see the way the pieces of a blueprint need to shift for alignment. Everything Levy approaches is stripped of the usual assumptions to reveal a streamlined description. She’s got attitude and pluck, but she never slips into the abyss of rhetoric or political correctness. She likes facts, but doesn’t allow them to hold her hostage. There’s room to find humor, even when she is at her most incredulous, as she was as she strode right into Spring Break in Florida with raucous vacationing college kids (her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs).  Nor did the wreckage of the 2013 rape scenario in Steubenville, Ohio (‘Trial By Twitter,’ August 5, 2013) daunt her. In that essay she hammers through the impact of social networking on Steubenville’s criminal justice endeavors. There is a lot of evidence for investigators now on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and Levy considers how bloggers can blow all kinds of things into and out of proportion. She suggests, “By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy.” I immediately thought of one of Levy’s predecessors, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, who wrote in 1936 of democracy moving at the pace of stagecoaches while fascism traveled at the speed of airplanes.

Flanner was writing about Adolf Hitler’s fascism vs. democracy, Levy about our legal system catching up with electronic communications. Both, it seems, consider social values and the speed of change. Flanner was a New Yorker foreign correspondent for fifty years. One of my favorite quotes for the prose and the perspective is, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it, watching where it is coming from and how it’s being made.”

Levy is a writer with a similar astute sensibility. Her essay The ‘Perfect Wife’ (September 30, 2013) is about Edith Windsor and the fight for justice for same sex couples. Our Rosa Parks if you will. Windsor is 84. She was in relationship with Thea Spyer for over forty years. Their life together began in the era when dancing closely or not wearing three items of clothing that matched their sex were illegal and same sex couples stayed in the closet if they wanted to stay employed.

Levy describes Ms. Windsor as the three dimensional woman she is: a glamorous eighty-four year old, irreverent, and –luckily for lesbian and gay couples– irrepressible in her pursuit of equality. Levy acknowledges the difficulties Windsor presented for the lesbian and gay rights organizations. As much as Ms. Windsor is adorable, her estate tax claim represents the upper echelon issues of LGBT folks. Windsor was an ideal plaintiff due to her femme appeal, intelligence, long-term relationship and status as widow. Her legal team did, however, want to keep her eloquence about the joys of lesbian sex from the justices of the Supreme Court. Beyond the publicity and the incredible risk Ms. Windsor took to pursue this case, it is the depth of Windsor’s loving relationship with Ms. Spyer that reverberates through Levy’s essay.

If love and the courage to break down legal and social barriers is the theme of “The Perfect Wife” then ‘Thanksgiving In Mongolia’ (November 18, 2013) is about the absolute audacity required to get through pain and demolished dreams. The prose here defies gravity, taking the reader from the very heights of the Gobi Desert into the depths of miscarriage and despair. The intimacy of this piece reveals yet another aspect of Levy’s commitment to writing truths often left unspoken. Sometimes there are no words for grief and utter sadness, but Levy discovers and articulates it all.

Levy ventured to Mongolia to write about the impact of mineral riches flowing into a nation of nomadic herders.  She describes the night she spent with two Americans who took her out to a bar, “I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.” The heartbreaking event at the core of her essay is underway, “I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory.” Her description of the placental abruption that caused the miscarriage is pounding, as intense as the little heartbeat that stopped.  The essay slaps overly sentimental visions of maternity right into the jarring reality of disappointment that many women experience. No cute cards or balloons, no flowers. Grief deserves this attention.

Levy’s craft opens a reader to witness new insight. She explains how her sorrow eased when other mothers (and one man) collapsed in tears hearing her story. Women have always had miscarriages and grief so deep, but this side of motherhood is silenced. Our society won’t have it. Such sadness is held alone. Levy’s grief unifies us all with her story of the lost dream, the lost marriage, and the resilience it takes to carry on. Nature, Levy notes, demands this of us.

On her fifth birthday Janet Flanner told her mother she wanted to be a writer.  Ariel Levy tells of being a little girl in her wooden fort, “…self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.” Two bold and curious New Yorker writers. One retired as the other is born. Luckily for us, the art and legacy of lesbians writing marvelous essays that search out truths behind the façade of facts and normal endures.

Janet Flanner (b.1892- d.1978). New Yorker foreign correspondent 1925-1975, pen name Genet.

Ariel Levy (b.1974- ). New Yorker staff writer, author Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005).

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