Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer—this is just the short and ultra-famous list of creeps who have stalked our news cycles. Since Weinstein, there have been 85 bigwigs accused of sexual misconduct that haven’t been able to keep it out of the media. By the time this piece is published, there will certainly be more.
SNL has endless material and the New York Times feels compelled to run a newsletter, separate from their daily wrap-up, on feminist issues alone. The witch hunt is on, only this time the crimes are real.
In short, this is a time that propels us to reach for the latest from Meg Wolitzer, a novel called “The Female Persuasion.” It follows Greer Kadetsky, a bright but soft-spoken and mostly friendless high school suburbanite, through a series of events that lead to her identification as a capital-F feminist. When Greer attends her very first college party, she’s groped and bullied by a terrifying and all-too-recognizable frat dude and is then appalled by the wrist-slap proceedings of her college administration. This experience, while scarring, also solidifies new friendships, including one with Zee Eisenstat, an edgy lesbian who is already an outspoken activist. Zee takes Greer to a speech by Faith Frank, a famous feminist leader and a fictional amalgamation of the real life Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and Sheryl Sandberg. Greer stalks the radiant speaker to the ladies room (where, clichéd or not, so many important encounters between women seem to occur), and the two have a meaningful meeting. In their momentary exchange, Faith hints that she sees a potential for leadership in Greer no one has yet recognized—or perhaps more accurately, no one has yet compelled her to attempt. The moment sparks her awakening.
Greer goes to work for Faith after college and is joyful in her new professional pursuits and wayfinding. Still, she has far to go—when given the chance to help Zee, she instead betrays her, so as not to risk being outshone. The betrayal lingers and Greer’s path is bumpy with ennui, disillusionment, and heartbreak.
The plot pivots around big questions of leadership, duty, and feminism—how it talks and acts. It also nods repeatedly and satisfyingly to real-life—a rival feminist publication is a thinly-veiled “Jezebel” and politics follow the same course of our last 10 years (even a Trump-y president presides in the end). A pleasing bit of irony is the reader’s gradual understanding that Faith Frank’s feminist foundation, the same that Greer dedicates her young career to, is generously backed by a misogynist with a crush.
But in the end the book plays it safe, sticking mostly to questions about old and new guard feminism—rich white vs. inclusive—and about utilitarianism vs. non-consequentialist ethics. As in, should Faith Frank take dirty money, and can she lie in service of her cause? The audience likely to pick up this book (the cover of an eye-catching vagina abstraction of pinks and greens and oranges) might be looking for something with a bit more bite.