What We’re Reading: Meg Wolitzer’s ‘The Female Persuasion’

Welcome to ‘What We’re Reading,’ Manqué’s book column. Occasionally timely, but never committedly so, we aim to dissect and occasionally recommend books both popular and overlooked.

There’s something sort of inherently corporate feminist in writing a successful novel largely centered around corporate feminism. This is the prevailing backdrop for Meg Wolitzer’s 2018 novel The Female Persuasion, which I unequivocally devoured over the course of the last week, but which also left me considering the difference between writing about a problem and critiquing it.

The book’s key characters — millennial, book smart Greer Kadetsky and the Gloria Steinem-esque women’s lib icon Faith Frank — as well as their cast of love interests and close friends — spend the bulk of the novel navigating an ever-shifting U.S. political landscape. Much like the rest of us, they struggle to make sense of a country that seems unable to commit to any sort of modern progressive agenda. Both Greer and Faith do semi-begrudgingly acknowledge that their positions are a little more left-of-center than they are actually radical, but they refrain from completely overhauling either their personal beliefs or their approach wholesale.

Instead, through college-spawned feminist awakenings, venture capital-backed speaker foundations, and a distinct dedication to what might best be termed “status quo activism,” the novel’s characters navigate a version of feminism that appears specifically designed to provoke the ire of today’s Twitter-based cancel culture. The characters in Wolitzer’s book know that they’re being criticized as “white lady feminists” by people on the internet, but they don’t seem to care. In following their stories, I didn’t know whether to admire their apparent commitment to not giving a fuck or else to hope that they eventually face some type of reckoning from the feminist communities they purported to represent. (They don’t, really.)

I was drawn into the book, which spans some 450 pages, because Wolitzer is a deft character writer. Greer’s self-conscious arrival, following a sexual assault at a frat party during her freshman year of college, to feminist-oriented activism was all too familiar and entirely believable. Like Greer, I also attended a small New England college, within whose glaringly vibrant campus confines I learned about gender theory and social inequality as problems of the present, not the past, as the suburban high schools I attended generally taught. I, too, had that academia-induced “holy shit” moment that galvanizes generation after generation of students.

The way that Greer, with her lower-middle-class white privilege, fumbles her way into social consciousness reminds me of myself, and also of the friends I had at that point in my own life. In other words, she is relatable — and her slight discomfort at suddenly feeling the need to advocate for gender-based inequality reads as nearly gritty in its awkward honesty. Greer’s doe-eyed journey from her college dorm, to her job working as support staff at Frank’s newly-minted and vaguely mission-driven foundation, all the way into becoming a young version of Frank by her early thirties, drew me through the book’s arc because her story was one I understood and recognized as entirely common, especially in 2019, when a specifically overly-palatable feminism is incredibly, albeit often painfully, in.

Wolitzer seems quite aware that the kind of feminism the story relies upon is commonplace. Several times, Greer and Frank nod to the fact that radical feminist blogs take issue with their operations and their ethos. In fact, Frank’s entire introduction in the novel hinges on a describing her as an essentially washed up second-waver who retains her own celebrity more because of her position in the cultural zeitgeist than because she is anything remotely revolutionary. I spent most of the book waiting for a watershed moment wherein both Greer and Frank would realize that they had been exclusionary progressive figures this entire time, and that making weird off-hand remarks about being considerate toward other people’s pronouns is cut and dry Bad, but I never got that release from either of them.

The closest thing to that moment, I think, comes by way of Greer, as a fully-formed adult, reflecting on her feminist awakening in college, which was spurred by her school’s predictable wrist-slap response to a student serially harassing his female peers:

“It’s like we kept trying to use the same rules… and these people kept saying to us, ‘Don’t you get it? I will not live by your rules.’ … They always get to set the terms, I mean. They just come in and set them. They don’t ask, they just do it. It’s still true. I don’t want to keep repeating this forever. I don’t want to keep having to live in the buildings they make.”

In a lot of ways, both Greer and Faith ultimately represent a real, pernicious, persistent problem in popular, solvent feminism: it’s white, it’s canned, and it’s repetitive. It’s willing to shut out criticism because, this kind of feminism argues, at least we’re doing something good. It’s a disemboweled goodness, however, that persists despite itself, or maybe in spite of itself. And in that way, The Female Persuasion perfectly renders what led to 2017-era Women’s March criticism. I just wished that the characters, believable and infatuating though they were, opted to engage, rather than tune out and barrel onward, unabashed.

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