'The Female Persuasion' Exalts White Privileged Feminism and Fails to Subvert Oppression
Wolitzer is an aware author who clearly understands how matrices of power oppress and subjugate. Yet here, her characters only occasionally check their power or privilege.
The Female Persuasion
Meg Wolitzer's novel, The Female Persuasion, examines feminist consciousness and society's role in impeding gender equality. For the character, Greer Kadetsky, the pursuit of self-actualization is not an effortless endeavor. She is challenged by the toxic capitalistic and patriarchal practices that cause injustices. Yet Greer's agency is developed by her mentor, the archetypal second-wave feminist, Faith Frank. Greer's and Faith's privilege is the fundamental agent enabling their activism. Wolitzer is astutely aware of the larger social and historical forces that continuously oppress women, but her deconstruction of these mechanisms is glib. As a result, The Female Persuasion exalts white privileged feminism and fails to subvert oppression.
The novel begins as Greer miserably leaves for college. She is furious at her stoner parents who jeopardized her admissions to Yale. Instead, she attends the notoriously mediocre Ryland College. Check your privilege girl, complaining about access to higher education is trite. Yet as the novel progresses, Greer does witness how privilege belies feminist consciousness. Greer herself feels empowered to subvert norms because her privilege bolsters her expostulations. For example, once she loses her job with Faith, she is advised to not immediately find new work but take the time to develop self-awareness. Coincidently, this period of introspection gives her the space to pen a bestselling book. This myopic characterization, too, ignores class and economic inequalities while glorifying privileged feminism.
Faith's activism is channeled through a foundation named "Loci... because there are so many issues to focus on, concerning women, and so many places to put our energy" (130). Wolitzer incorporates a myriad of feminist issues ranging from women's safety, access to services, balance of work/family, and representation. Greer's feminism is sparked by a campus assault that goes unpunished by the administration. Her friend Zee's queerness is dismissed by her therapist as rebellion and Zee is later questioned prior to an acquaintance rape. The perpetrator insists they "could just do some things" (237) despite Zee's firm protestation and lesbianism. There's no justice for Zee, as any repercussions are undiscussed. This negligence to critique characters' actions threatens to put readers' experiences under erasure.
The strongest moment of The Female Persuasion is the depiction of abortion access and Wolitzer's commentary on reproductive justice. Faith supports her roommate, Annie, as she seeks an abortion but 1960s America provides few options. Ultimately, Annie has a back alley procedure that causes massive hemorrhaging. When they seek medical aid, the nurse tells Annie, "I could have you thrown in the slammer, did you know that? I could call the police right this minute, you little harlot" (280). Eventually Annie becomes a vocal anti-choice politician. This is a poignant reminder of the nightmares before Roe v. Wade while calling out hypocritical incumbent politicians who intend to criminalize choice.
Throughout the novel Wolitzer includes interesting factoids about women's erasure. She compares a group of women in a dark hallway to a Flemish painting "if, in fact, the Flemish artists had ever painted groups of women together without men" (286). Indeed, Wolitzer's world is fictional yet coexists within authentic feminist history. Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine are mentioned while Greer's name is a clear homage to the problematic Germaine Greer. Faith's scene with Holt Rayburn, a misogynistic author, is reminiscent of Germaine Greer's confrontation with Norman Mailer. Whereas Germaine Greer used the debate with Mailer to promote the women's movement, Wolitzer misses an opportunity for Faith to unpack privilege and power. Faith concludes that gender oppression exists because men fear "so-called women's work" (301). Pinpointing fear is reductionary, however, and completely disregards intersectionality.
Faith is an Ivanka Trump type, a character who sees capitalism and feminism as synonymous. When faced with choosing between her principles and funding, Faith sides with capitalism. She represents activist organizations that believe systematic change happens by writing a check. When Greer quits her job because she finds the connection between capitalism and equality paradoxical, Loci and Faith continue unscathed. This tells readers that money always prevails and there's no point in subverting capitalism.
Instead of deconstructing capitalism, Wolitzer uses Faith to vilify the online voices who "write things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies" (311). Basically anyone online with a contrasting standpoint. Through Faith, Wolitzer further debases the online blogs that "shifted away from personal essays and embraced a radical critique of racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia" (111). At this point in the novel, Faith is still a sympathetic character; therefore, these comments slander online agency and are overly critical. By dismissing online conversations as "the hazing on Twitter" (311), Wolitzer is just protecting herself from inevitable criticism.
Equally problematic is The Female Persuasion's depiction of women of color as voiceless subordinates. Iffat Khan is Faith's assistant until she becomes a researcher. Unsurprisingly, her promotion aligns with a loss of dialogue. Another character is Sue, Faith's Chinese masseuse. Faith briefly wonders if Sue is a victim of child labor. She asks Sue if she enjoys her work but Sue does not answer. Faith's thoughts immediately return to Greer thereby recentralizing whiteness. Finally, one of Loci's summits feature Lupe Izurieta, a rescued Ecuadorian woman. Lupe is only featured for about 30 pages, maintains her silence throughout, and is sent "home to Ecuador a day later" (334). Here Wolitzer frames Lupe as an instrument meant simply to reinforce Loci's mission. However by maintaining Lupe's silence, the author reiterates the same mistake she attempts to censure.
Wolitzer is an aware author who clearly understands how matrices of power oppress and subjugate. Yet her characters only occasionally check their power or privilege. They even more seldomly step back to question why society accepts institutionalized oppression. It's maddening to see Wolitzer acknowledge these systems as The Female Persuasion remains inert.