This is the 12th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel is enjoyably, inescapably “timely,” with its focus on modern feminism and its attention to collegiate rape culture, skirmishes in capitalism’s long battle with idealism, the assimilation of immigrants, and a strong feminist leader whose compromises anguish her devotees. The engaging characters in The Female Persuasion are all wrestling in specific, interesting ways with how to do good in the world and how to be good to each other. Spoiler: both are harder than they expect.
Nearly every phrase and interaction in the novel, up to and including its title, The Female Persuasion, is about power. Who is able to persuade and influence others around them and in the wider society; who is granted that influence, and who has to work to grasp it? As the novel’s characters come of age, their understanding of what it means to be ambitious—and to be powerful—deepens and becomes more complex. Wolitzer has written elsewhere of a similar personal negotiation of power, revealing the importance of totems like an inclusive hashtag or a knit hat that signifies your connection to the million other women wearing it or the boots the novel’s feminist icon, Faith Frank, wears.1
“There are two kinds of feminists,” another character says: “The famous ones, and everyone else.” Yes, Wolitzer is tantalizing us with the notion of a world that contains many “famous” feminists and thus many visions and variations of female empowerment. Faith Frank believes women “could be strong and powerful, all the while keeping their integrity and decency.” And so do the novel’s characters endeavor.
The novel’s bookish protagonist, “selectively and furiously shy” Greer Kadetsky, forms attachments: to her high school sweetheart Cory, her college friend Zee, her mentor Faith. The novel binds these pairs, but then flings them apart for large chunks of book-time, without fully persuading this reader of the magnetism still pulling the characters together. Greer is unworthy of Zee, and Cory unworthy of Greer, for much of the novel.
Greer “sometimes said, ‘I don’t know,’ even when she did know.” After a sexual assault, she is uncertain whether the incident—or she herself, with “her overly neat, good-girl handwriting,” is significant enough to be taken seriously. Her attitude is symptomatic of general female anxiety about how much strength and capability to reveal.
Wolitzer nails progressive purity tests and woker-than-thou posturing, while acknowledging the need for a more intersectional idea of progress.
The verbal tic of turning statements into questions, as if self-doubt is a balloon pulling the words upward—Greer has this symptom, too: “I don’t want to be an uptalker! … But it was always so much easier to turn a statement into a question, because in the end you could backpedal and say you were only asking, and then you wouldn’t have to endure the shame of being wrong.” The disease behind these symptoms may be the societal default that often gives male assertion more credence than female expertise. (Certainly, this is a profound affliction in my own worlds of tech and academia.) But Wolitzer portrays Greer as a cooperative participant in her own minimization.
In high school, during a spat with Cory, Greer was “upset and hugging herself, and she realized that she had seen this kind of behavior in TV shows and movies: the emotionally fragile girl with her arms crossed protectively around herself, maybe even stretching out the arms of her sweater. She didn’t understand why she was so easily willing to take on this predetermined female role. But then she realized she actually sort of liked it, because it made her part of a long chain of women who had done exactly this.” This reader was haunted by the thoroughly depressing notion that performative helplessness is Greer Kadetsky’s idea of sisterhood.
Greer’s friend Zee was fired up for social justice long before Greer herself warms to the concept. Zee pushes back against gendered expectations, relieved to leave a job “where she had to dress like a robot monkey woman.” Throughout her life, “the only positive aspect about [the] inevitability [of Zee’s parents’ deaths] was that finally there would be no one on earth who would say to her, ‘Would it kill you to wear a skirt?’”
This reader found Zee far more engaging than Greer herself, partly for moments like this. Even this sentiment’s mild subversiveness is inverted by Greer’s desire to please: “Greer, of course, actually liked wearing skirts, and wore them all the time, even when it wasn’t required. Also, Cory had said Greer looked very hot in them.” As this is revealed from Zee’s point of view, it might be the harsh judgment of a more-feminist friend, except that it closely echoes Greer’s own self-assessment of her willingness to take on this predetermined female role.
In short, Greer Kadetsky is primed for an awakening. And the potential for one arrives when Faith Frank, “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem,” comes to speak at her and Zee’s campus. Faith runs a magazine, writes books, gives speeches, and does the hard work of serving as a public feminist. “In 1984 she had an enormous hit with her manifesto The Female Persuasion, which essentially implored women to see that there was a great deal more to being female than padded shoulders and acting tough.” When Faith first found her own voice, she realized: “It didn’t matter that you quavered; it only mattered that you made yourself heard.”
Faith Frank is both Athena and Mentor for Greer: first a distant symbol of rational female strength, then a real-life guide. Greer leaps at the opportunity to work with Faith, despite pay rates lower than those in the finance and tech worlds. “The bonus,” a coworker tells her, “is when Faith smiles at you. Then it’s like being smiled at by God.”
It’s disappointing that Wolitzer lets Faith Frank be Greer’s only such mentor. With her “marginal” stoner mom, Cory’s mother distanced by language and grief, and Zee cast aside after graduation, Greer over-samples the messages from Faith and from “TV shows and movies.” Wolitzer’s novel—and Greer’s journey—would have been richer if other characters remained onstage to provide counterpoints to Faith, alternative ways of being female for Greer to actively compare and contrast. Within the novel, Zee gets this: she herself has had “different women in my life who I like to be around.”
Despite her own fierce feminism, Zee is betrayed by a series of women, including the “big blond law clerk” who outs her in high school, and, alas, Greer. This betrayal is personal to Faith, perhaps because she herself feels spurned by a friend of her own youth, who later becomes a conservative political leader whose proclaimed family values are at odds with Faith’s feminism. She remains a distant foil throughout the novel, a regressive yin to Faith’s progressive yang. This reader longed for a scene that would bring Faith and her erstwhile ally back together.
Wolitzer’s novel, whose main events span the decade between 2004 and 2014, contains premonitions of our current Dark Timeline. Just a few years ago, Zee’s partner felt “comforted by our president. A black man … brilliant and kind,” but feared: “Nothing is going to change the baked-in bad stuff all that fast. … There are forces out there that are lying in wait, taking their time, knowing they will have their moment.”
Wolitzer nails progressive purity tests and woker-than-thou posturing, while acknowledging the need for a more intersectional idea of progress. Faith’s good works come to seem tainted, unbalanced by the compromises she’s made. “That’s what it’s about, this life,” Faith says. “The weighing.” And so a competent, well-intentioned woman can be sidelined, her voice muted. Indeed, the last chapter is a kind of epilogue, with Wolitzer’s characters wrestling with “the big terribleness” of the 2016 election cycle and its aftermath, when “staying strong and loud was urgent.”
Power “excites everyone,” Greer says, and Zee agrees: “It has the word pow in it. Like in a comic book.” And “to live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.”
The joy of mastering new skills, deploying them in the service of others, is among the pleasures of “The Female Persuasion.”
This is indeed a “dream,” like the one Naomi Alderman’s The Power explores and implodes, but a key difference in Wolitzer’s vision is the word “mutual,” implying that female power need not come at the expense of male strength.2 “There shouldn’t be a hierarchy,” according to one of Wolitzer’s characters, “because that always led to someone being kept down, and there had been enough of that throughout history.” Alas, too many men seem afraid that female voices will indeed drown out their own.
One of Faith’s mantras is that “men are scared of women.” A man who works with Greer at Faith’s foundation admits, “Men know that women have our number. Like, women can see through us. … But the world keeps propping us up, and women know it, and we know you know it, so maybe we hate you because you have something on us. You’re basically witnesses to a crime.” This interesting concept sheds some sideways light on one reason women who speak their truths are often disparaged, diminished, and dismissed: the importance to the status quo of women being seen as unreliable witnesses.
Wolitzer is on point on the role of work in the lives and souls of her characters and on the workplace. “The office environment [is] like its own planet made up of conference rooms and spring water dispensers and paper recycling bins.” The light fixtures “had been outfitted with special energy-saving coils that were still in beta, and were not quite bright enough for the tasks at hand, causing everyone who worked there to strain a little too hard, as though squinting over a medieval manuscript.”
Her characters seek meaningful work, fulfilling work—whether its rewards are also financial or not—and one moral of The Female Persuasion may be found in the fact that they outlast some of the superficial venture-capitalist pigs. Cory moves from international consultant to caretaker; Greer, after ghostwriting speeches and stories, at last finds her own confident voice. Zee’s evolution from well-intentioned but underprepared teacher to counselor and crisis manager is especially persuasive and moving. “She was known to be uncommonly skilled at what she did: light-footed, unobtrusive, deeply useful.” The joy of mastering new skills, deploying them in the service of others, is among the pleasures of The Female Persuasion.
Engineering, and teaching, are fulfilling vocations. But the STEM workplace, academic or otherwise, could use some tweaks. Doree Shafrir’s novel Startup and nonfiction analyses including Emily Chang’s Brotopia have diagnosed and portrayed its various ailments: from casual chauvinism to a culture of a nearly hard-wired sense of entitlement. Like Wolitzer’s characters, most people in tech aim to “change the world,” to do well by doing good. And engineering design teaches us to counterbalance competing objectives, to appreciate that progress is complicated and nonuniform. (“The weighing,” Faith Frank might call this.)
As Margaret Atwood wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale, “better never means better for everyone. … It always means worse, for some.” The brilliant Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, asks her students not to overthink it, but to “design this [insert technology object] without anyone dying in the process. Design this [insert technology object] without poisoning anyone.”3
STEM’s long history of “propping up” men, of fostering a narrowly masculine culture under the banner of “rigor” and “objectivity,” has ensured that women and others who don’t fit the dominant paradigm feel at best unwelcome and at worst unable to participate. It’s probably not that great for the men, either. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in We Should All Be Feminists, “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”4
There are reasons to be hopeful, for example in the way that we have gradually changed our worries about a broken “pipeline” from which women leaked to concern about the health of a holistic “watershed”; recognition that a culture ought to promote not just survival but thriving for many diverse members and, increasingly, involving a diverse population in the building of that culture; and understanding that the “hard, small cage” traps and limits all of us.
Like citizens of any culture, we in STEM need to remind ourselves that we have the agency to transform it: we are the culture. We can envision that “dream of mutual power” as a pasture with the gate left open, or we can open the gate and tear down the fences ourselves.
- Meg Woltizer, “Learning to Feel Powerful,” Lenny, August 15, 2017. ↩
- Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “The Shape of Power Is Always the Same,” Public Books, February 13, 2018. ↩
- Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression (NYU Press, 2018). ↩
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (Anchor, 2015). ↩