by Rachel Dreyer
Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (published in 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books) first provides a primer on the feminist movement, helpful for grounding the discussion of the issues that still challenge women today. Subsequent chapters address body image, “hookup” culture, marriage, fertility, career choice and achievement, and aging. Readers should feel comfortable skipping around to chapters that best interest them, as several of Spar’s chapters read like a review of Women and Gender 101. Yes, body image issues plague even educated women; yes, contemporary hookup culture can be both liberating and limiting for young women; yes, divorce inordinately affects women’s re-entry to the workforce after years of staying at home with children; yes, society reacts more harshly toward women as they age as opposed to men. These conclusions are nothing new, but they do serve as important reminders of still-pervasive sexism.
As an early-career archivist with five years in the information profession, to my mind, the most engaging chapters involve women and work. Spar discusses women who opt out of careers that were firmly placed on a successful trajectory until family responsibilities loomed larger, but also (thankfully) clarifies that opting out isn’t always possible for women because of financial reasons. Women who love their jobs or who can’t afford to stay home will remain in the workforce, while women in the upper echelons of the social strata often have more of a choice about staying in their careers or opting out—but that many choose to leave because of the financial stability and earning power of their husbands. There’s a fascinating side to the argument of opting out/staying in that involves the American class structure, here, but Spar doesn’t prod this facet too deeply.
Spar’s arguments suggest that women choose careers that allow them certain flexibilities for future life choices, or they elect to follow career paths that preclude certain life choices due to the demands that “success” will require. The latter choice may mean that women leave the workforce as marriage, children, and family become more important, while the first choice might mean that women’s earning potential is lower from even the start of their careers. Instead of calling for governmental intervention, or blaming men and workplace culture, Spar urges women to acknowledge the choices they might want and the impacts that these may have on their career paths, a clear admission that there is no “having it all.” The implied message is that women can be happier with what they have if they harbor no illusions about the impact of family and life choices on career success.
Ultimately, what does Spar suggest to help remedy the issues that restrict women’s career success? Spar reminds us that biology is a legitimate factor, one that the feminist movement has tended to downplay, in determining the choices that women make regarding sex, childbearing, and childrearing. Biology matters, Spar argues, and to overlook its influence doesn’t equate eliminating the disparities in workplace structures for women. Spar also urges women to “redefine the meaning of choice.” By this, she means that women need to be aware of the multitude of options that they encounter and the benefits and trade-offs that each involves; in short, “having it all” is a technical impossibility, but women can have most of what they want if they give up certain things. Women need to decide what matters most to them and let go of caring so deeply about what isn’t a priority for them.
Good advice, if you can take it! And that’s really the challenge, isn’t it? Amidst so much societal noise and pressure that urges women that we can have it all, that we are wonder women, accepting that difficult choices must be made and their consequences accepted, is just one of the difficulties we face in our identities as modern working women. Spar gives us some good points to consider as we maneuver within our daily lives, but it isn’t what we want to hear—it’s not the panacea of “You go, girl! You can do it all!” It’s about re-evaluating what “all” means to each of us and coming to an acceptance of the constraints we as women place on ourselves.
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