In her newly released book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Deborah Spar, president of Barnard College, talks of how “women struggled for power and instead got stuck in an endless quest for perfection.” As one of the youngest female professors to be tenured at Harvard Business School and a mother of three, she swore to young women that they could have it all. “We thought we could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats, and husbands in tow,” she writes. “We were wrong.” Ying Chang sat down with President Spar to talk about her book, her insights to feminist movements, and maybe even Barnard.
Q: What drove you to write this book? Was there any particular event or occurrence that prompted you to sit down, research and write?
I actually started writing the book about seven to eight years ago, way before I came to Barnard. I think people presume that I started writing this book when I came here, but it actually had its genesis when I was at Harvard Business School, and there were two events that made me start thinking about this. The first was when my colleague called me one day asking me to do something. He was a perfectly nice guy with a perfectly reasonable request; but at the end of the request, he said, “…and we really need a woman.” And for the first time in my life, I said no. I said, “You know what, I will never again say yes to something if somebody tells me they’re asking me because they need a woman.” It just made me realize that my career, because I was female, was very different from that of my colleagues who were mostly male.
Around the same time, a number of folks at Harvard Business School asked me to solve the women’s problem, as if there was some magic switch that only I could flick up. And of course, I didn’t solve the women’s problem –It (HBS) remains a complicated place, but I did start to realize that there was a women’s issue, which I had been ignoring that all of my career... I had never studied feminism, but it made me realize that many of my female friends and students, their lives and careers had evolved in ways that were different from their male counterparts. I started some of the research and I started playing around with the idea of this book, that I was planning on calling “The Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist.”
Q: In your book, you wrote about how feminist movements had unintended long-term effects by driving up expectations as well. How is the expectation of perfection a unique pressure for women?
One of the unintended consequences (of feminist movements) – for which I blame not the feminists, but the women of my generation – is that we privatize feminism. What feminism did – which was incredible bordering on miraculous – was to say to the first post-feminist women of my generation, that you can be anything you want… And my generation heard the “cans” as “shoulds”. So we translated that into “I should be an astronaut, I should be a Supreme Court justice, I should be financially independent.” And when those things proved pretty hard, we privatized feminism even more, by saying, I can control my body— I can control how I look, what I eat …maybe even my kids.
Whereas the original feminist had a very global and collective vision, I think what happened in subsequent generations is that many women turned inwards, and they focused on their bodies, their families, their home lives, their kitchens, their home décor, rather than trying to advance social causes any more. It’s not what feminism did but how other women interpreted it.
One of the early generation feminists said to me – and this is my favorite quote – “Honey, we didn’t fight so that you could have Botox.”
Q: How is the way in which women balance having family with having careers and other personal pursuits changing?
It’s a slow evolution. I think we collectively need to cut ourselves some slack, because we’ve actually just lived through a massive social revolution, far bigger than we actually realize. … We have had organized families and societies the same way literally for thousands of years, and in kind of a ten year span, we’ve said, never mind, we’re going to flip this on its head and do it differently. It’s actually not all that surprising that we haven’t figured it out yet. It’s going to take us a couple generations, if we’re lucky, to actually figure it out. Because it’s hard. Children need caring, homes need tending, families need bonding.
If the woman is not around to do that anymore, somebody else has to. And we haven’t come up with that alternative. It’s too simplistic to say, “men should do half the work”, because life is more complicated to that.
I think some other societies have done a much better job than the US has. In parts of Asia, there’s much more a tradition of (caretaking done by) the extended family. In many other parts of the world you tend not to move away too far from the nuclear family. That makes it easier.
Q: Do you think education level matters in terms of choosing a career over family or vice versa?
The data suggests that the more highly educated woman makes the choice to stay home at higher rates. Which actually makes sense (and this is the quasi-economist in me talking), as people tend still to marry folks in the same social strata. So if you’re a Columbia-educated lawyer, you’ll probably marry to an Ivy League lawyer. And you will have the income level that allows you to make that decision. If you are less educated, married to a less-educated person, you’re generally going to make less money, and you’re not going to have the ability to make that choice. And so the correlation is different from what you’d expect.
I think sometimes, the choice to stay home or to pull back or to go part-time, is a painful choice, and sometimes it’s not – babies are kind of wonderful. There’s some percent of women and some percent of men who say, I hate my job and I have this wonderful kid in my lap and this is what I want to do right now. And though I’ve made a different set of choices, I think that we as a society really need to legitimize that choice, and not make women or men feel guilty that that is the choice they made.
Q: In the process of pushing for more opportunities for women, the standard of the ideal woman has been heightened as well. How do you think these standards have changed the definition of happiness for women?
I think it’s been bad. Unfortunately, the ideal woman is very successful at her job, financially independent, looks like a model, has a fabulous sex life, has perfect children… everybody is going to fall short of that standard. I do a fair amount of cultural history in the book, and it’s interesting to see that most of our working women cultural models are unrealistically perfect. We don’t have any more Rosanne Barrs. We don’t have those overweight, slovenly, working-class heroines any more. We have men like that. We have lots of slacker men, yet there are not a lot of slacker women.
Just think of any of the doctors on House – they’re doctors who are models. The Veep? (HBO TV show about a female Vice President) Gorgeous. We don't have women who are just average. Now this is TV, and it’s fiction. But I think we are quietly creating a standard that young women look up to and they kind of go, “Oh, I’m not that.” They beat themselves up for not being that, but that is just completely unrealistic. So one of the things I’ve tried to do in the book is show more messiness than I might have intended to, because I think it is important for young women to see that no woman has it all. Every woman, particularly women who are both trying to be mothers and have careers, they’re dropping things all over the place. They’re cutting corners, feeling guilty, not getting enough sleep, because that’s kind of what life is like during that phase. I think it’s important for young woman to see this side too, not in order to get defeated seeing it, but so that they get realistic.
Q: Last year, you were on the Forbes list of 25 Working Moms to Follow on Twitter in 2013. Social media platforms like Twitter are increasingly sparking insightful conversations. When you joined Twitter, was there a certain topic that you thought deserved more attention or thought?
I’ve found Twitter hard. Twitter does not come naturally to me. I’ve spent most of my professional life writing, but 140 characters is just really tough. So I went on Twitter because, given how important it’s become, I just really needed to understand it. I still don’t think I’m very good at it. But in so far as I do, I do try to comment on things that I do know something about, so I do generally focus on women’s issues that are higher-ed related.
Q: Speaking of education, you attended the White House Summit on College Access just last week (Jan 16, 2014). In terms of college opportunity, where do you see Barnard now and where do you hope to see it go?
This is an area that is core to Barnard’s DNA. Barnard has always been a school that’s committed to first-generation and low-income students. It’s something we track really closely, and we always want to make sure that we can find those students who deserve to be here. I hope we can just keep doing more of it. We’re always excited to get more diversity in the pool, including socio-economic diversity, and we just need to make sure that we can always have the financial ability to support those kids. The way the summit worked was in a way that was very clever—which was that you couldn’t go to the summit unless you made a commitment to the summit and to the White House, and we essentially committed to expand existing programs.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to young women today?
I say this to my own kids too – I hope that young women could every once in a while just realize that the people who are in their lives right now are not going to be in their lives for very long. And I don’t mean that in terms of your friends and your family, but I think there’s a tendency to be totally caught up in the social mire in which you find yourself in right now. Like your first job: You’re not going to stay at your first job forever, so if three guys there hate you, it’s actually okay. Your colleagues and classmates are only going to be in your life for a short period of time, so learn what you can from them, appreciate them, but don’t get too caught up on what people think of you. You’re going to move on and they’re going to move on and it’s just not going to be all that important. I think it’s useful to remember that the people I’m trying to impress right now actually aren’t that important to me. Particularly when you’re younger, there’s a tendency to think that somehow the bubble you’re in now is the bubble you’re going to be in forever. But life changes a lot.