Barnard College’s Debora L. Spar on ‘Wonder Women’ and leaning in just enough

September 24, 2013

In 2011, Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College, gave Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg the platform, in the form of a commencement address at the college, to encourage a generation of young women to “lean in” to their careers. That exhortation has since become a bestselling book. Spar has just published a book of her own, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” about how the hard-won freedoms for women in the 1960s and 1970s have morphed into impossible expectations for women to be beautiful, smart, economically independent, loving mothers, sexy wives and PTA presidents, all while keeping gracious homes and making nutritious, organic meals every night. Spar, who will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore at 7 p.m. Wednesday, talked with The Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

You open your book with the image of the woman in the Charlie perfume commercial from the 1970s. Why was that image so powerful for you?

That commercial has been somehow stuck in my mind for all of these years. I’ve found that pretty much every woman who is roughly my age remembers that commercial. . . .

I do!

That image somehow crept into everyone’s mind. There was another commercial that was on at the same time for Enjoli perfume. And that had the tag line, “She can bring home the bacon. Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.”


Debora L. Spar's Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (Debora L. Spar/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

[These ads] created, perhaps unknowingly, a really seductive mythology of what life was supposed to be like for women in the new era: Looking beautiful. Having a job. Having men. Having love. Having great shoes. Having a family. Who wouldn’t fall in love with an image like that?

You write about, Sheryl Sandberg has written about it, I’ve written about it, this notion in the 1970s, when these commercials were airing, that feminism was done. How did we go from the big fights of the women’s movement to Charlie, and thinking the battles were over and women were supposed to have these perfect lives?

It’s important to realize that the generations at that period in time moved really quickly. And when you were born made a big difference. I was born in 1963. So by the time Charlie came on air in 1973, the big feminist struggles had already happened. And if you’re a 10-year-old kid, you’re not particularly interested in a fairly abstract political struggle.

When I was growing up, feminism was out there, but I didn’t see it as being particularly attractive. I’m sure I felt some sense of gratitude that I could go out and go to any college I wanted and have a career, but as a kid, you don’t feel the sense of historical change. By the time my generation became sexually active, Roe v. Wade had been won. If you grow up with birth control easily accessible, you’re not inclined to fight for reproductive rights, even if you should.

Instead, women my age grew up surrounded not just with the perfume commercials but very powerful and seductive images of women in the media: Charlie’s Angels. Wonder Woman. The Bionic Woman. It wasn’t “The Brady Bunch” anymore. We are heavily influenced by the cultural images we pick up, and that’s what I picked up.

Instead of having perfect Charlie lives, you write about the double and triple whammy today. What are those?

It’s the sense that you’re so busy you’re overwhelmed, you feel inadequate and like you’re drowning. What I see as the double or triple whammy is that women inherited all these wonderful expectations. For the first time, they could go out and be journalists, astrophysicists, anything they wanted. But while we were adding these new expectations, we never got rid of the old ones. Women my age grew up somehow without thinking, just assuming we would have careers and families and husbands and beautiful homes. So we’ve actually added to the list of things that women are expected to do and to be good at. That’s the double whammy.

What makes it a triple whammy is, if you buy into the media culture that surrounds us, we’re supposed to do all these things easily. There’s no sense that it’s actually a struggle to build a career. It’s a struggle to build a family, to maintain a marriage.

Why is it women who are still expected to solve the juggle?

I think part of it is that women’s roles have changed much more dramatically than men’s have over the last half-century. Those expectations are starting to shift. There’s a general sense that men will do more housework and child care. But they haven’t turned their lives upside down to the extent that women have. . . . But women are much more constantly and consistently dealing with a sense of guilt, that somehow, if they don’t figure out how to build these perfect lives, it’s their fault. Men tend to feel less guilty when things don’t go right. Psychological research has found they tend to blame others. Women tend to blame themselves.

Is that something we can change?

God, I hope so. One of the things I’m trying to do in my book is to tell a lot of messy stories of my own life — like one ordinary day when my husband was in Buffalo stuck in a snowstorm, and I had three different kids who needed to be three different places. My son had driven over his cellphone with the car, so I couldn’t reach him, the cat brought in a half-dead chipmunk, and I had to give a speech that night. And I have days like that . . . once a week. I think there’s an obligation of women my age, who’ve had a degree of success, to be more forthright in saying: “This is the messiness I live in everyday. It may look like I’m juggling perfectly, but balls are falling everywhere.” I think if we get the message out that nobody’s figured this out, we may go a little way toward ridding the guilt.

You talk about “satisficing” [or accepting good enough instead of perfect]. Is settling for less the message you’re trying to get out?

It’s not. I’m not in any way urging women to be less ambitious. I’m saying if you have ambition, if you want to pursue your dreams, which you should, just realize you’re going to have to “satisfice” in other parts of your life. ‘Satisficing’ is not giving up. It’s saying you may not always be able to get exactly what you want, so figure out what your next best option is.

What about expectations in the workplace? Americans work among the longest hours of any developed country. Do workplaces need to “satisfice” what they expect of their workers?

That’s absolutely a piece of it. This can’t all fall on women. The workplace has to adapt. There’s some really interesting work coming out of consulting firms, about how you can find whole different reward structures and more flexible organizational structures. So it is possible. It’s just going to take us a little while.

Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty for The Post and is the author of “Overwhelmed,” a book on time pressure, frenetic families and the search for an elusive moment of peace, forthcoming in March from Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, which is also the publisher of “Wonder Women.”

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