Wonder women, all alone: where feminism went wrong


I read Deborah Spar’s article Where Feminism Went Wrong (sent to me by HWM, of course, thank you!) eagerly.  The first time I read it, I wept, though I wasn’t sure why.  Once again I was reminded that this subject, this lumpy, hard-to-define tangle of emotions, expectations, and raw desires touches a deep vein of inchoate emotion in me.  Then I read it again.

“Yet it was feminism that lit the spark of my generation’s dreams—feminism that, ironically and unintentionally, raised the bar for women so high that mere mortals are condemned to fall below it.”

This line rang so true that I sent it to HWM with exclamation marks.  Yes.  I relate to every word of this.  Am I a perfectionist?  Yes.  Are a great many of us?  Yes.  I imagine this is something we can all relate to.  And I do sometimes stumble, overwhelmed, exhausted.  More than once I’ve leaned my forehead onto the marble of my kitchen island, tears in my eyes, feeling angry and insufficient, disappointed in myself for being unable to do everything while simultaneously unclear on how it came to be that I felt I had to.  Spar writes that even as new professional opportunities opened to women, “none of society’s earlier expectations … disappeared. The result is a force field of highly unrealistic expectations.”  I live in this forcefield, and I know that it has equal power to seduce (we can do it all) and to destroy (oh my God I really can’t.)

And I’ve written before of how conscious I am of my mother’s and grandmothers’ struggles.  Of knowing how hard the generations who came before me – those who actually had to battle for rights and equal opportunity – fought, and of not wanting to squander that.  I call myself a feminist, enthusiastically and without apology.  This awareness underscores certain decisions I’ve made, and contributes to my deep desire to do what Spar would call “it all.”

Spar’s article’s main point (and I’m about to read her book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, so I don’t yet know if it’s the central theme there as well – see my favorite wonder woman at the top of this post) is that because women have realized how difficult it is to effect change on these topics in the broad theater of society they have turned the laser beam of that intention onto themselves.  Instead of focusing on the many, and all the women who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, women instead pour their prodigious energies into perfecting their individual selves.  This makes a great deal of sense to me.

“Yet because these women are grappling with so many expectations—because they are struggling more than they care to admit with the sea of choices that now confronts them—most of them are devoting whatever energies they have to controlling whatever is closest to them. Their kids’ homework, for example. Their firm’s diversity program. Their weight.”

Narrowing the lens to the entirely personal and controlling our own lives rather than focusing on the larger picture has enormous ramifications, of course.  One of them is the pressure many of us feel to be perfect, to be superwoman, which I’ve described as hugely, uncomfortably familiar for me.  Another is a pervasive, insidious feeling of loneliness which is ameliorated, at least for me, only in those rare conversations with a kindred spirit in which we can say: “You too? I thought I was the only one” (CS Lewis).  The much-discussed, much-maligned over-investment of many mothers in the lives of their children must also come from this retraining of our energies into the sphere that we can control.

In my view this behavior has another result, perhaps the most complex and charged one. Though Spar doesn’t say it point-blank in her article, I couldn’t help wondering if the judgement and negativity that so many women feel from each other has its roots here.  Doesn’t the kind of ferocious internal focus that Spar describes breed a brittle solipsism and a certain inability to empathetically cooperate?  In our quest to justify our own choices, which are paramount in a world where we too-tightly focus on our own selves, don’t we have to at least implicitly deride those of others? (I use the royal we here, because this is something I don’t believe, and try not to do, though I’m sure I sometimes fail)

I don’t have any answers here, but I am grateful for continued thoughtful discussion of the topic (see my friend Kathryn’s wonderfully interesting and intelligent take here).  The only thing I’m certain of is that there’s no single answer, and that at the end of the day all we can do is make the best decisions we can at any given moment with the information we have.  As Spar says, “women’s paths to success may be different and more complicated than men’s, and … it is better to recognize these complications than to wish them away.”  This is hard for many of us, and I’ll admit that I’m among them.  I often wonder how things would be different had I “leaned in” to my career upon graduation from business school, for example.  I don’t talk often about my professional life here, but I did write about these particular tensions for a website targeted at MBAs last month.  Spar’s piece reminded me of my own difficulty identifying the vanishingly narrow border between not trying hard enough and being realistic.

It does feel like something essential, something shiny, has been lost, though, if all we can say is we did the best we can.  I appreciate Kathryn’s acknowledgement that working full-time with children is difficult, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that (and I’m not commenting on other models here; I haven’t lived them, and I’m certain each has its own difficulties).  I wish we could recapture the joyful, hopeful feminism that Spar mourns in her article: “the feminism … about expanding women’s choices, not constraining them. About making women’s lives richer and more fulfilling. About freeing their sexuality and the range of their loves.”

Spar ends her piece with a call to action and to arms, an invocation of all that we can be together (her use of “we” is powerful) if we released our stranglehold on our individual selves.  I’m not entirely clear on the path from here to there, but I wholeheartedly agree with and embrace her vision of where we should go:

“We need to struggle. We need to organize. And we need to dance with joy.”



43 thoughts on “Wonder women, all alone: where feminism went wrong”

  1. To be honest, I’m not sure what she means by dancing with joy in the context of discussing feminism and women’s choices. In a way, it almost seems like adding yet another obligation men don’t have: it’s a struggle! organize! find a balance! also dance with joy, because women need to be in touch with their feelings!

    Maybe the point is that we shouldn’t get wrapped up in complaining or feeling hard-done-by, which is valid. But imagine a line like that in an article about unemployed auto workers.

  2. I hear you on that. I interpreted it as feminism had its origin on an expansion of possibilities, which should have been an inherently joyful thing … also maybe if we all stopped focusing on ourselves so much maybe we could remember that. But I understand your ambivalent reaction, and I had it too.

  3. Thanks for sharing this article, Lindsey. I have often thought about how much more women of my generation have to face/cope/struggle/celebrate than did my mother’s generation. With increased choice comes increased pressure, to be sure. Being a working mom myself, I connect with you feelings of overwhelm, of not being able to be everything to everyone who needs it, least of all myself. Looking forward to reading more!

  4. I find this whole conversation so much more interesting than the usual free-for-all on work/life balance and women (and WHY IS THIS A WOMEN’S ISSUE ALONE?!).

    I wish I could write more about it, but I’m too busy trying to balance a part-time job with raising four children — and feeling like I am failing miserably at all of it. On top of everything else, it saps my joy from writing. Awesome.

    But I had to comment and tell you — that picture of your kids makes ME want to weep. And find the joy again.

  5. I am not currently employed and have always been able to stay home with my kids. I really wanted this, and my husband had a very demanding job where he was gone most weeks and he could focus on that. This always worked for us. There were tons of feelings of overwhelmedness (i guess I made up that word) but I knew it would be that way sometimes with any path we chose. I wonder if the tide has turned a bit towards men too. I think they are pressured to do it all also. To be at games and all the school events and conferences… and play in the backyard with them and help cook and…. the list goes on. I wonder if there is too much pressure on all of us to do it all.

  6. I agree with Allison – I think this moves beyond “Balance” to “Why do we feel this way”? And I also agree with her that THIS IS NOT A WOMEN’s ISSUE — a point I know Spar will make in her book (Childcare childcare childcare!) What you highlight is a point I think I glossed over, but one I take from this as well: why are we turning inward when we should be turning to each other or, at least, the collective experience? When you write “All we can do is make the best we can at any given moment with the information we have” this goes back to our many conversations about how “Balance” is a myth. There is none. There is only prioritizing. I guess I am just grateful for the conversation because admitting that “it’s hard” no longer means, for me, somehow feeling as if I’m doing the “wrong” thing (even if I feel I’m doing the right thing badly!) xo

  7. Thanks so much for this. I’m glad to know that you relate and that your life is full, as mine is, with all of the marvelous and messy circus of working motherhood.

  8. I am a mother of three, 17, 15, 12 and have worked full time, part time, and stayed at home throughout the years. I have never felt like I could do it all on my own and have always asked for help. I truly believe “it takes a village.” Looking outward is a key piece in this struggle. Reaching out to others establishes the foundation of a community that we all need to thrive. Our mothers, and grandmother lived within a close knit community. We need to demand and expect that our children, family, and us as individuals belong to a community that takes care of each other.

  9. This weekend, cleaning out my garage, I tumbled into a box of college memorabilia. In with the party pictures and such were copies of articles I’d written for my university’s newspaper. I was able to see clearly, from this vantage point, what I couldn’t see then: I had some chops. I didn’t know then that writing was what I was made to do. There were so many choices I might have made; picking among them was as overwhelming then as the responsibilities I juggle now.

    I chose a career (education) that I thought would allow me to be connected to the thing I loved but feared I wasn’t good enough at (writing) and the thing I wanted to love (raising children). It was a career that I thought would provide what I wanted/needed economically as well. I think I chose incorrectly, but how can I really know? And what does that mean for the rest of the life I get to live?

    I am talking about myself because, yes, it is in the particulars of each of our lives that the dilemmas (and their implications) play out. I think we are each so busy trying to keep our heads above water and be OK with whatever choices we made that it is very difficult to see the larger picture in which each of us is no more significant than a single dab in an Impressionist painting.

  10. Very thoughtful and insightful post (and I learned a new word solipsism). Your comment re. looking inward struck me because it wasn’t until I worked on a Women’s Reunion at my law school that I understood the comment, “The personal is political.” Individually, we may not see the importance of things that occur to us, but when we discuss these events and incidents, a pattern could be revealed. And that pattern may not be great and may need to change, but we won’t know unless we start talking.

  11. Such an important discussion. Thank you, Lindsey. For me, this discussion often becomes so disconnected from the real experiences of most women and can quickly become a conversation between educated women of a particular class and privilege talking to each other about issues that are critical to their lives. This in itself is not bad at all, but feminism will not be for millions of women in the near future about joy or finding balance. I’ve been engrossed for several years in my dissertation research on the educational trajectories of low-income, high-achieving young women of color, almost all of whom grew up with single, teenage mothers. For them, they talked about motherhood and jugging family as outright obstacles, something to be avoided as much as or as long as possible because of the cautionary tales of their own mothers. Because we as a society have so few structural supports for women and girls like them, their thoughts about achievement had nothing to do with family life or perfection or balance. It was about avoidance, which made me so profoundly sad.

  12. Lord, how do I put a lifetime of thinking into this comment box? I think I might be an avowed Imperfectionist–I have a deep and meaningful connection to the wabi sabi of living. And yet, still, that constant nagging sense that I should be more, do more. But as you know, Lindsey, I am OBSESSED with what this article defines: the privileged, educated white woman’s experience of how life doesn’t work. We keep soaking up all the media airwaves in our endless-mirrored prison, unintentionally taking the public’s — AND OUR OWN — eyeballs off how the failure of feminism and failure of modern society have left more and more and more people in our population at terrific risk, with no chance in hell of resting their head on a granite countertop before stepping back into the fray. I say this not to kick of any new waves of guilt, but rather to offer some solace completely in step with that article: If we women who struggle so hard, we who have all the lucky breaks, what could we change in the world if we gathered up our strength and linked arms with all our sisters and told the stories of THEIR lives and not just our own? What if we made it IMPOSSIBLE for the government to hide behind ideas of our “choices” and instead showed them the impossibility of it all, through those who struggle even more than we do? As research shows again and again, doing good for others pays the strongest reward to the doer. Double whammy! As always, the challenge is, how to organize? How to meet women outside our own homogenous circles (not racially; incomely)? How to be a part of changing the story? These are questions we will spend our energy answering the rest of our lives. May our children see the struggle, and see our efforts to do the good work and to let the little things go. Letting the little things go is certainly the quickest pathway I know to dancing with joy in the everyday. I don’t always remember, but that’s why life is a “practice.” xo

  13. Well, to be fair, the insight was Debora Spar’s. I do the same thing, TKW (as I think you know). The very same thing. xox

  14. I need some wabi sabi in my life. But thank you so much for this and for the reminder that it serves of all those whose lives are enormously different. Consider my arm linked with yours. xox

  15. I love this. It’s such a fine line, and such an intricate dance, between the personal and the universal, between our own stories and the greater story. xoxo

  16. I wanted to reply to Martha’s comment but was having technical trouble 🙂 Anyway, I’ve been thinking SO much about the “it takes a village” sentiment, and I’ve noticed with friends with kids (and with myself!) that we all WANT to be that village for each other, and we all want to help and be there for each other… but often, we CAN’T. We’re all so burned out and busy and running on empty that it’s not especially realistic to say, hey, I know you’re having a rough week — send your toddler over here for a couple of hours! (Or whatever). I feel like we’ve really gotten away from that community feeling, and that’s too bad… because thinking about our families and careers and lives on such an individual level probably isn’t the best way. Not at all. But how do we change this?

  17. I just heard Spar on NPR before opening up this post. I think the Universe is speaking to me today… I intend to write a full post on this so my thoughts are still percolating. I have worked for the past 5 years with my mother-in-law on issues of Reproductive Justice. In the beginning, I felt empowered to bring all the choices that I have to women everywhere. And then, my girls got older, I got busier and the problems seemed to be ever expanding. Lately, I have stopped doing any work in this field because I have felt overwhelmed by it all. I think this is what I may take from this piece. This reminder that the ‘solution’ is to look outward and to band together. More on this I’m sure.

  18. It’s not easy for us Type A’s, is it? We don’t want to ask for help and yet set ourselves the impossible task of excelling at home and at work consistently. I’ve met people who come close–and they’re miserable to be around. As much as Lean In can be a cliche, I’m hoping true partnership the way she describes it comes about in more enlightened, up-and-coming generations.

  19. So many interesting ideas here! I am also an unabashed, unashamed feminist, and I agree that the women’s movement was all about allowing women options and choices. But, as many commenters have mentioned, we tend to view the issues of work/life balance as only for women. At BlogHer, several times the moderators asked the male panelists, “How do you do it?” in terms of balancing their blogging, work, and family, and everyone laughed {though the questions were asked in seriousness}. We just don’t think of asking men that.

    I also think it is unfortunate that we have done so much as a society to increase women’s options and choices in terms of education, professions, etc., and yet we are the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave, and quality childcare is so crazy expensive. In most European countries, childcare is seen as an educational opportunity and a necessity for children, not as a service for working parents. I wish we had more of that here!

  20. Lindsey, I am dying to read the article now- thanks so much for the inspiration. Your comments about turning that laser inward and perfectionism really resonated with me. I admit that I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before- you’ve given me a lot to think about! Great post.

  21. It’s 1:17am where I am right now. I’m visiting my parents in the midwest and therefore, my normal routine is off. I just got done working because in the morning, I dont’ have childcare. It must be done now. And I will spend an hour or so working in the morning, hop on a plane with two toddlers and put them to bed on Seattle. I will wake up and do it again (minus the plane flight). My days are non-stop. I rarely watch television because that just seems like an utter waste of time when I could be working, cleaning, writing. And it’s all things I feel I must do. There is nothing I can drop.

    So perfectionism, work-a-holic, Type A… you betcha. The thing that resonates most with me is the idea that because “we” are so busy, so overwhelmed, over-worked, over-tired that we get tunnel vision. We put crosshairs on the things we can control because that makes life seem more manageable. Me = guilty.

    I also think this contributes to the “wars” between women and the competitiveness because we are more singularly focused on ourselves. How can you NOT be when the cards are stacked against you all the time? It’s near enough to a survival instinct.

    I wrote about this very thing today from a very personal standpoint, but relating it my need to control and achieve is taking it one step further.

    I will be reading the article you mentioned above, but not right now… it’s 1:24am.

  22. I get so overwhelmed every time I read a piece like this, ever since I read Lean In. I’ve never considered myself a feminist – which I now feel guilty about. I just took my choices for granted, and honestly didn’t look back when I left the work place. But now, that the grunt work of motherhood is over:(, I wonder what’s next. With four kids, three schools and special needs, the option of fully joining the workforce is a difficult one. Fortunately, I have the choice to stay home, but I want (and need) to do more. The struggle is how much…and what, and the inevitable chorus (from the family) of “what about us?” I’ve heard it before! And honestly, I have difficulty fathoming how I’d DO IT ALL.

    Then – when I think about raising my daughter and telling her she can do anything that a man can do, even though mommy didn’t, I feel like such a hypocrite! My husband paid my student loans – how sad is that?

    Like I said – I get overwhelmed by the complexity of these questions and expectations.

  23. I really liked this – as well as the insightful comments. As a woman who leaned out – WAY OUT – and have crept back into the working world, albeit part time, I have to agree with Kathryn above. There is no balance. There is prioritization – and for goodness’ sake, we need to stop the glorification of busy. As a crazy, do-it-all type A, I need to be better at this and at weaving my web of community – and asking for the help I need, even if – especially if – what I need is to sit with other mothers and say, “You know what? Me too.”

  24. Such a great post and so many great comments. I agree that it is prioritizing rather than balancing. I think it is interesting that so many discussions of women’s work-life decisions mention our mothers but so rarely our fathers. In deciding my own path I have found lessons from my father at least as important as those from my mother. He choose rewarding work that paid the bills and having fulfilling life outside of work over having an all-consuming career that made him wealthy but with no time to enjoy it. He also changed careers more than once. The flexibility and joy in his approach to making work-life decisions has been a very freeing model to me.

  25. Yes. That’s my experience too – maybe not that we can’t, though, but more that we’re unwilling to ask. I think the can’t will improve as your kid gets older – that’s certainly true here. But still, I don’t ask, and few people ask me. I don’t know how to change …

  26. It’s helpful to hear that those people who come close can be miserable to be around! 🙂 At least when we hold ourselves up to that standard and fail, and look at others who seem to be handling it all more gracefully. xox

  27. Yes, it was Judith Warner’s thoughtful book, Perfect Madness, that really made me aware for the first time how differently the US behaves in terms of offering help/leave/care. That was really the first time I’d considered it, and it’s a huge difference.

  28. Your piece resonated a lot with me. I think you are right about something as basic as survival instincts kicking in. And those are ferocious and self-protective, right?
    I don’t watch TV either! 🙂

  29. I know … very hard to parse all the expectations. I think all we can do is what we can do, but as I wrote, I feel like that’s sort of a defeatist answer, too. I worry a lot about the example I’m setting for my children, both my son and my daughter. Perhaps overly. xoxo

  30. That CS Eliot quote – I love, love, love it. And I am about to instagram the fact that it is framed in my daughter’s classroom! What a small coincidental (or not) world. xoxo

  31. That is a really interesting point you bring up. My father is such a huge influence on my life (to the point that my dear friend, after reading my first [unpublished] memoir said only ‘this is a love letter to your dad’) but I don’t often think of him in this particular way. Which is sexist of me, I realize. What you describe of your father does sound like a very inspirational model. xox

  32. I love this as I loved Kathryn’s. In some ways I am very much out of this conversation as I am a stay at home mom. But it was my choice and I think that feminism is about choices – that true feminism will be when all women can make valid choices and have support for those choices.

    I am also aware that many women are not able to choose something that works right now and I believe that until that happens we all need to work together to make that happen. Thank you for continuing this conversation.

  33. A delayed comment, but oh YES to “women have realized how difficult it is to effect change on these topics in the broad theater of society they have turned the laser beam of that intention onto themselves.” You have managed to capture quite perfectly and succinctly what I’ve been trying to tell my husband about the women in our religious circle who were trying to perfect themselves (body, children, house). It’s so insidious and subtle and until I was able to step back for a little while, I didn’t notice that I was starting to get caught up in it too. After much discussion (mostly educating my husband), we made the decision to leave our church and find a different, more “outer-focused” one. Thankfully it’s been good for all of us and we’re not only more sensitive to just how “privileged” but also what we must do to advocate for privilege for others. Thank you, Lindsay for starting this discussion. The comments are great too!

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