"We really thought we could have it all, and when reality proved otherwise we blamed – not the media, as it turned out, and not our mothers. We blamed ourselves."
Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection is a fascinating read, combining an overview of feminist history, an examination of the challenges modern women face, and a few recommendations for making our personal and professional lives more enjoyable.
A solid two-thirds of her book provides the historical context of the modern reality of many women’s lives. Instead of having the freedom to choose our destiny and be anything, most women have created for themselves the guilt-ridden requirement to be everything. It’s a burden far too great for any of us to carry, and which has resulted in unprecedented levels of depression and substance abuse.
The Big Idea
In Praise of Muddling Through
"The quest for perfection simply must end... Women of the postfeminist years have taken this quest to the brink, truly, of madness."
We women have heaped upon ourselves unprecedented levels of guilt and shame. But “feminism wasn’t supposed to make us feel guilty. It was supposed to free us.” Sadly, the ability to determine the course of our lives – whether to be homemakers or CEOs – resulted not in that promised freedom but in the expectation to be both the homemaker and the CEO, the wonderful mother, the sex goddess, and the captain of industry. We internalized a lie.
Rather than returning to the pre-feminist-movement world of limited options, we women must end our quest for perfectionism. It’s time to be gentle with ourselves and our expectations of what one person can do. It’s time to “stop trying to be so damn perfect;” time to accept that real joy comes from letting some things go.
Women Work Differently
"Men in group settings strive generally to preserve status, while women try to gain intimacy and closeness. Which means that women can appear to lack authority in the workplace – but, also, potentially, that they can be more inspiring and transformational leaders."
The feminist movement tried, unsuccessfully, to eliminate all differences between the genders. Which is part of the problem – men and women are different, in a good way. Generally speaking, women lead differently, work differently, and communicate differently. Rather than attempting to “behave more or less just like men,” we must understand our differences and the strengths that those differences bestow.
Know the Rules
"For heaven’s sake, don’t go into a field without first understanding the rules of the game and considering deeply whether you want to play by them."
One of the keys to balancing the promises of the feminist movement is choosing wisely what we really want. Women have achieved equal access in most areas of professional life, earning 58% of all degrees in the US, including 50% of Ph.D.’s. Sadly, women still earn less than men in similar careers and claim roughly 16% (often less) of the highest positions in corporations and government.
And it’s not necessarily because the opportunities aren’t there for women to advance. It’s usually the realization that our internal desires and expectations clash with the requirements of life at the highest echelons. We simply cannot do it all. So let’s be completely honest with ourselves, understand the requirements of the careers we seek, and make decisions about our personal and professional lives that will lead to fulfillment rather than exhaustion.
I must admit that this summary has been the most difficult for me to write this year – partly because the “actionable” Insights were hidden in the last 50 or so pages and partly because I am a product of this hyper-perfectionist generation of women. I found myself in these pages – trying to be and do it all.
What I found most compelling, however, was the history of the women’s movement. I gained a deeper understanding of the women who came before me and what they hoped to accomplish. I found Wonder Women to be an enlightening and easy-to-read primer on feminism; with a thoughtful examination of the distortion women of my generation have placed on our freedoms. And I remain optimistic for my future, and for the futures of the women in my life.