I watched an episode of Oprah once, maybe 20 years ago, when I was in my early adolescence and putting together some ideas about what my life was going to be like. A woman was telling Oprah, Our Lady of Everything, how busy she was, between her job and her family and her home. When Oprah suggested to the woman that she ask her family to help her do things like fold towels, the woman looked offended and kind of horrified, and told Oprah that if she did that, the towels wouldn’t be folded the right way.
The right way! Even so long before I’d ever have my own towels, or live with the first of several boyfriends who were cool and kind and feminist but really did fold the towels the wrong way, or have kids – I still don’t – I knew that the woman on TV was doomed to a suburban eternity of lonely towel-folding, and also why she wanted it like that. I never got over it. Last year, I tweeted, “I’m trying to read but too bummed out about my inevitable future of doing twice as much child care and housework as a man so just lying here.” I was going for a joke, but that feeling is for real.
Debora L. Spar, currently 50-ish with three kids, the president of Barnard College and formerly a professor at the Harvard Business School and the University of Toronto, opens her new book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection with a cortisol-injected anecdote about pumping breast milk in an airport bathroom, in a suit, during a business trip; her book is about the difficulties that (mostly wealthy) women experience in their (mostly executive-level) work and (mostly nuclear) family lives, and how it got to be that way. Spar writes, “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.” Damn, girl.
Proving it, Spar outlines the many conflicting and impossible ideas of what women living and working in supposedly post-feminist environments are expected to be: well-dressed, fit, beautiful and sexy, but not self-interested, self-regarding, threateningly beautiful, or overly sexual; successful and ambitious but always likeable and accommodating; fertile and maternal but never distracted from their work; corporate citizens, earth mothers and ever-available wives, and also vegan, gluten-free chefs and on-trend decorators and active social directors and rigorous personal organizers. “Perfect” is not hyperbole. Spar describes a “force field of highly unrealistic expectations,” and writes, “Poor Condoleezza Rice, left without a boyfriend. Sloppy Hillary, whose hair is wrong again. Bad Marissa Mayer, who dared to announce her impending pregnancy the same week she was named CEO of Yahoo. … She Could. Not. Do. It. All.”
Wonder Women will be read as a coda to Lean In, Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg’s light feminist treatise and career guide, which made enough of a cultural impact when it was released last spring that “lean in” has been ironically co-opted, as in “I’m really going to lean in to this cheese plate.” Spar, who has written many books but is not a professional feminist in the way of someone like Hanna Rosin (The End of Men), is more interested in supporting fundamental changes in women’s lives, rather than just managing the current reality. (Both approaches are important; both books focus largely if not entirely on a demographic sliver of upper-middle-class, super-successful women.) Spar, an ever-efficient Harvard PhD, suggests replacing “an idealized or ideological view” of what should be with “more attainable and flexible dreams – dreams that acknowledge both women’s aspirations and the obstacles to them that most women will inevitably confront.”
Spar’s proposed solutions are intelligent and reasonable: organizations and men within those organizations should work harder to include women and prevent sexual harassment; both women and men should be “far more explicit about recognizing the specific dilemmas of motherhood”; include men in these issues, since they are their issues too; make use of the economics concept of “satisficing,” which means accepting something that is good enough, though not ideal; choosing which things to be great at, and which things to be just okay at. Lastly, Spar says to return a sense of “joy” to life, be it the joy of work and purpose, of having choices, of sex and love and kids. Do what you want, and what you love the most, she says.
What I wonder – because I don’t know for sure – is whether or not it’s enough, since the X-factor in this equation of post-feminist thinking and I Don’t Know How She Does It-ness is some toxic mix of guilt and judgment. Surely, super-busy women already know that their lives would be easier if they stopped going to parent-teacher association meetings, like Spar did, or cut way down on the number of lessons and practices their kids attend (Spar admits that colleges care less about such résumé flourishes and more about passion) and up the kids’ responsibilities around the house, or get groceries delivered and stop throwing dinner parties. Another possible compromise was suggested in a New York magazine article by Jonathan Chait called “A Really Easy Answer To The Feminist Housework Problem,” one of very few examples of a guy contributing to a discussion that implicates them. Chait posited, “[T]he housework problem has a partial solution that’s simpler and more elegant: Do less of it. … The assumption of much of the feminist commentary surrounding household chores assumes that there is a correct level of cleanliness in a heterosexual relationship, and that level is determined by the female.”
Doing less, though, would mean for some women – not just “wonder women” – accepting both implicit and explicit failure, which might be much worse than constant burnout and stress. Leaning in, or out, or whatever, women still feel that they have to perform like a circus animal with a good blowout, mad bedtime-organizational skills and the dishes done, and then act like it’s all a piece of cake.
The fundamental human desire to adhere to social expectations, many of which Spar outlines so beautifully in this book, is such a powerful and self-perpetuating idea that the practical suggestions, as grounded in empathy and experience as they are, could be kind of useless for many of these women, or for anyone with or without kids or a huge job. Now, when women’s rights, freelance and gig culture and an unreliable economy mean that there are more opportunities than ever to create a life from our own imaginations instead of the status quo and other people’s expectations – whether or not that includes correctly folded towels – so many people remain plagued by iPhone thumb and no sleep and immovable ideas of what we think we’re supposed to do. If the “quest for perfection” could be about the perfect realization of a personalized, realistic dream life instead of perfectly executing some collection of ideals, we could be so much happier.
Kate Carraway is a writer and columnist in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @KateCarraway.