October 11, 2013

Ladies, listen up. Barnard College President Debora L. Spar has a message for you: Stop trying to be perfect. Nobody can have it all. Not even Wonder Woman.

This comes from a six-time author, mother of three, wife of 25 years and former Harvard Business School professor. But moving on . . .

In her new book, “Wonder Women,” Spar joins the ranks of ambitious, accomplished super-moms — including New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg — in the discussion of work-life balance, the future of feminism and the futile pursuit of “having it all.”

All three agree that having it all is a myth, but they package their ideas and solutions differently. Spar, late to the game, reflects notions from the other two authors. She urges young women to stop blaming themselves, think like Sandberg (be ambitious, make a game plan if you want a child, and be prepared for trade-offs) and address institutional barriers in the workplace, as Slaughter suggests. Spar’s approach of staking out a middle ground may offer wide appeal but ultimately packs less punch than the other two writers.

The feminist revolution of the 1960s expanded women’s choices and championed gender equality. We could have sex without commitment, children if and when we wanted them, and limitless career opportunities. But instead of being liberated by feminism’s gains, Spar argues, the new choices led women into a perfection trap. Overwhelmed by the abundance of possibilities, women started believing they should be not only as good as men but better — at everything, alone and at once.


’Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection’ by Debora L. Spar (Sarah Crichton)

“We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection,” she writes. “We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

Chairwoman of the board and Betty Crocker in the kitchen. Mom of the year and a vixen in the bedroom. If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything — right?

At least, that’s what many of us have been told since we were in diapers. Millennial women, like myself, have been assured that we can be attractive, smart and successful at the same time. Disney princesses and Barbie dolls dressed as presidential candidates reinforced the philosophy that physical perfection was attainable along with career and family fulfillment. Helicopter parents guided us to participate in multiple student organizations and sports, and gave us participation trophies when we failed.

Although a baby boomer, Spar empathizes with the millennial dilemma and warns that society’s destructive demands undermine progress. Let go of your guilt and fear and give in to moderation, she advises. While Spar offers comfort, she is short on solutions. She identifies the pressures and can only suggest how women like me can reduce them.

“Little girls want to be princesses,” Spar writes. “Big girls want to be superwomen. Old women want and fully expect to look young.” Yes, of course. And that’s not all, she says. “We want more sex, more love, more jobs, more perfect babies. The only thing we want less of, it seems, are wrinkles.”

Inevitably, women fall short of these unrealistic expectations, and as a result they feel guilty, frustrated and inadequate. The mounting pressure to work harder, to be better-faster-stronger in and out of the workplace, has taken a physical toll; research has shown that millennials are the most stressed of any existing generation. We often deprioritize happiness and health (not to mention sleep) to secure a job, a title and a paycheck. Plastic and cosmetic surgery, diets and eating disorders have become routine strategies to attain society’s impossible standard of beauty.

Part memoir, part feminist history and part cultural analysis, the book includes ample data and anecdotes about modern women and the workplace. Spar demonstrates humility by opening up about her insecurities (she reveals personal battles with anorexia and sexism in the office) and deficiencies in juggling parenting and work demands.

“Having it all” has become a generalized checklist of things every modern woman is supposed to want: career, marriage and family. The truth is that to many women, “it all” is much more subjective. For many of us, it is the ability to be independent and self-sufficient. Good health, friends, travel opportunities and community are other things not commonly discussed in the quest for the elusive all.

Spar argues that whatever the important “it” factor is to you, find it and pursue it. The feminist revolution afforded us opportunities but also gave us responsibilities. Make decisions and, if you can, make them early. Figure out how best to do what matters most to you and anticipate the trade-offs you must make along the way.

Once we realize we cannot be flawless, Spar argues, we’ll be healthier, happier and saner. Don’t be afraid to say no, she says, and embrace the economic concept of “satisficing” — i.e., cutting corners by settling for something that is second best or just good enough.

“Women need to go easier on themselves, to move from the Martha Stewart world of feminine perfection to a messier and more chaotic reality,” she writes. “They need to pick some area of their lives where they strive for greatness and others were they settle comfortably for less.”

Spar also highlights fundamental physiological, biological and cultural differences between the genders, particularly in the workplace. Men thrive in a hierarchical setting and seek to preserve status, while women value consensus, tend to be more cautious and empathetic, and promote collegiality. Finally, let’s not forget that women are the only ones who can bear children. Until medical science changes things, it is important for both genders to embrace their differences and focus on ways of making them work.

Spar’s proposed solutions are broad and mainly focus on advancing the collective good. She promotes expanding the availability and affordability of day care, workplace accommodations such as flexible work hours and paid maternity leave, and policies against sexual harassment.

The author also emphasizes the importance of welcoming men into the conversation, affirming that it’s less a “women’s problem” than a critical societal concern with economic consequences. Men, particularly those born since World War II who have seen their mothers, sisters and daughters participate in both parenting and breadwinning, are key allies to the future of this discussion.

Women have come a long way in the past 50 years but can do more, along with men, to achieve better, less stressful and more rewarding lives. As a millennial, I have heard mostly from white, accomplished baby boomers who profess to speak for the feminist movement. Where are the voices of my generation? Where are the feminist authors of color and sexual diversity? While “Wonder Woman” is not the revolutionary manifesto of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” it is an interesting and powerful observation on the evolution of feminism.

Megan McDonough is a news aide at The Washington Post.

WONDER WOMEN

Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

By Debora L. Spar

Sarah Crichton. 305 pp. $27