Daring to Be Good

The Female Persuasion: A Novel BY Meg Wolitzer. Riverhead Books. Hardcover, 464 pages. $28.

The cover of The Female Persuasion: A Novel

At a certain point in January 2018, “second-wave” seemed to have become a slur. “The Backlash to #MeToo Is Second-Wave Feminism,” declared a post on Jezebel—referring to Katie Roiphe, Daphne Merkin, and Catherine Deneuve. A “burgundy-lipstick, bad-highlights, second-wave-feminist has-been”: This was what babe.net writer Katie Way called Ashleigh Banfield (b. 1967) after the HLN host criticized Way’s article about Aziz Ansari.

Though used without any particular regard for historical context or ideological specificity, the term second-wave expressed genuine frustration. To speak of any clear-cut “generation gap” would be oversimple—but as the post-Weinstein months of #MeToo unspooled, they exposed certain fault lines in women’s expectations and experiences, some of which had to do with age. Such divisions involved resentment over hardship endured and progress taken for granted; they involved misunderstood changes in sex, work, and technology. Certain younger women were mad at older ones. Certain older women were mad at younger ones. “Older” and “younger” were in no way fixed terms.

Into this fray arrives The Female Persuasion (Riverhead, $28), Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, which puts a happier face on intergenerational feminist relations. There is personal conflict and some coming-of-age disillusionment, but everyone basically respects everyone else and can see where they are coming from. Here, the dread second wave is incarnate in the charming person of Faith Frank.

“I’ve always loved her,” one college freshman tells another, shortly before Faith visits their campus in the book’s opening pages. “I know she represents this kind of outdated idea of feminism . . . with more of a narrow focus on issues that mostly affect privileged women. I totally see that. But you know what? She’s done a lot of good, and I think she’s amazing.”

Faith Frank, as her name may lead you to suspect, is both a true believer and a forthright pragmatist. She’s also hot, with big silver rings like brass knuckles, expensively blonde hair, and signature tall, suede boots. She has “been described as ‘a couple steps down from Gloria Steinem,’” and the magazine she founded, Bloomer, “was known as the scrappier, less famous little sister to Ms.” In the 1970s, she had a star-making turn in a televised face-off with a Norman Mailer–style boor of letters. In the ’80s, she published a best-selling manifesto for women in the corporate world called The Female Persuasion.

Faith’s latest acolyte is Greer Kadetsky, a new conscript in the feminist cause (and burdened with a similarly significant name). When we meet Greer in the fall of 2006, she is an unhappy college freshman distinguished by a “streak of electric blue that zagged across one side of her otherwise ordinary furniture-brown hair.” As is customary for shyly special heroines, she is also a reader. The book Greer inhabits is only barely a period piece: She belongs to the college class of 2010, placing her just on the old side of the old millennial/young millennial divide. Her nice boyfriend first saw porn in print, in a cousin’s dirty magazine; her campus is largely untouched by the more radical strains of activism—around consent, assault, gender identity, and cultural sensitivity—that have unnerved grown-up onlookers in the past five or so years.

The Female Persuasion follows Greer through the first decade of her professional life, looking back from the vantage of 2019. Raised in Massachusetts by feckless hippie parents, Greer winds up at a fictional liberal-arts college in Connecticut after they botch the financial-aid paperwork for Yale. There she experiences a feminist awakening after a frat boy grabs her breast at a party and, despite being a repeat offender, receives only a slap on the wrist. Not long afterward, Faith comes to speak—she tells an exhilarated audience about the importance of sisterhood—and for Greer, their encounter is “the thrilling beginning of everything.” She spends college treasuring the business card Faith gives her, becoming a vegetarian, canvassing for an unnamed-but-profoundly-inspiring-circa-2008 presidential candidate, and continuing to date her high-school boyfriend.

When graduation approaches, Greer decides she wants to work for Faith. Bloomer has just folded, but Faith offers her an entry-level job at her new project, Loci, a women’s-rights foundation bankrolled by an old fling who got rich as a venture capitalist. Greer spends her twenties under Faith’s wing, organizing summits and writing speeches for oppressed women. Marketing copy explicitly casts The Female Persuasion as a contender for “this era’s Great American Novel”; like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a Great American comp title, it takes an earnest but compromised nonprofit endeavor as a vehicle for its ideas. With its magical relationship to money, the foundation helps insulate Greer and her beliefs from the world beyond, at least until she must confront the reality of what the suits are doing upstairs. Criticism of Faith and her work is regularly acknowledged but remains muffled, distant—the grousing of far-off blogs. Even when Faith and Greer’s relationship (and the question of Loci’s integrity) reaches its moment of greatest crisis, Faith survives unscathed; Greer is hurt, but her admiration undimmed.

Greer is sort of a parental fantasy of a young person: She is quiet, reverent, eager to work hard and learn; unencumbered by interests, beliefs, or habits that might surprise or alienate anybody four decades her senior. In the early months of Loci, Faith takes the staff on a retreat to her country house upstate. They all pitch in to cook dinner, and Greer, appointed sous chef, happily drinks wine and makes dad jokes. “We got Li’l Nuzzle, by the way,” mentions a colleague, of the music lineup for an upcoming event. “I guess Big Nuzzle wasn’t available,” says Greer, chopping onions. Faith holds forth on chores and gender while working a salad spinner. The allure of affluent domesticity—of late-middle age à la Nancy Meyers—brings everybody together.

Tammy Rae Carland, Sisterhood Rebound, 2008, digital C-print, 16 × 20". Courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery.
Tammy Rae Carland, Sisterhood Rebound, 2008, digital C-print, 16 × 20". Courtesy the artist and Jessica Silverman Gallery.

We are told near the beginning of The Female Persuasion that Greer herself will become famous, though we don’t learn why until later: She’s written a book called Outside Voices, urging women to use their outside voices (and oddly, maybe unwittingly, evoking Outdoor Voices, a brand of workout clothes whose tote bags are ubiquitous among Greer’s real-life peer group). “The book, certainly not the first of its kind, was a lively and positive-leaning manifesto encouraging women not to be afraid to speak up”; it was “frequently criticized, of course,” but many women and girls “bought the book and loved it, and it continued to resonate.” Outside Voices sits squarely in the Lean In tradition, in other words. Its success in Wolitzer’s fictional 2019 proposes a world in which the general feminist response to the events of 2016 was to double down on the wisdom of Sheryl Sandberg.

In this sense, The Female Persuasion—with its closing glimpses of Trump and the Women’s March—is aggressively of the moment without being at all of the moment’s mood. And the resolute conventionality of Wolitzer’s novel throws into sharp relief what’s distinctive about the way many women of Greer’s generation are writing, reading, thinking, and talking about feminism today. It feels weirdly coy, right now, reading a novel concerned with contemporary women’s issues whose real-world reference points are draped in a perfunctory veil of fictionality. The Vagina Monologues becomes Ragtimes, a play about periods, in which rotating celebrities proudly take their turns onstage. Jezebel becomes Fem Fatale, a website that calls itself “sex-positive, snark-friendly, and in your face, but also just a damn good read.” For a book that strives to capture an era in which feminism became a dependable pop-culture brand, The Female Persuasion offers a sparsely populated cultural landscape. Mentions of Ragtimes and Fem Fatale recur regularly, along with a couple of fictional pop stars—one, named Opus, has an empowerment hit called “The Strong Ones”:

Don’t ever think I’ll be easily beat
Just because I’m wearing Louboutins on my dainty feet
We are the strong ones
We are the lithe ones
We are the subtle ones
We are the wise ones

Fairly or not, I found myself embarrassed and depressed to encounter these manifestly fake things—an occupational hazard of reading fiction, I guess. Are real proper nouns a legal issue? Are the fake ones a winky joke? Even having to wonder is a distraction.

Wolitzer’s tin ear for pop culture (there is also a rapper called “Pugnayshus”) comes to feel like an author’s inability to either authoritatively capture the things of her world as they exist or else invent a world compelling on its own terms. This nagging awareness of cautious, awkward falsity left me with a renewed appreciation for female truth-telling, a force that’s been unfurling its maybe-discomfiting, maybe-dangerous possibilities in recent months. An underlying confidence in your perception of the world isn’t just a matter of self-esteem or sanity; it’s what undergirds any belief that you might remake what you see. Anyway, what does it even mean to be “a couple steps down from Gloria Steinem”? A not-so-popular popularizer? “Have a new idea,” I wrote in my notes, after reading about Teach and Reach, the Wolitzer simulacrum of Teach for America.

The youth are out there naming names, demanding change, maintaining a briny sense of humor. Meanwhile, at the end of The Female Persuasion, thirty-one-year-old Greer has something strongly resembling “it all”: a baby, a best seller, and a brownstone. It’s a happy ending, fantastical and very old-fashioned.

Molly Fischer is an editor at The Cut. Her writing has appeared in New York, Harper’s Magazine, and n+1.