Debora L. Spar’s book has a serious title: Wonder Women; Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. It’s enough to make your head hurt, or at least whizz as your brain processes the millions of social, political and cultural links between those nine words.
And whilst I can’t nitpick and unpick all of those links, Spar makes an argument that is worth considering. In an essay adapted from the book and published in the The Chronicle Review, Spar talks about the ‘privatisation of feminism’. In my head, the word ‘privatisation’ paints pictures of Thatcher, angry union leaders and hardworking people being given the frost-bitten shoulder of the free market. In my head, the word ‘feminism’ conjures a feeling of hope, of sisterhood, of fighting for equality and promoting the talents of women and girls. Therefore, bringing these two words together is confusing, if not uncomfortable. But Spar does have a point.
Debora L Spar is the president of Barnard College: a prestigious liberal arts college in America, affiliated with Columbia University. One evening, she had cocktails with some of her students. These students, she claims, ‘are some of the smartest and most determined young women in the country’. But that evening, over drinks, they seemed to be more concerned with impending motherhood and their personal, inevitable, work/life balance/struggle, than the careers that lay before them.
Instantly and easily, you can see yourself in that moment. Not as some hotshot American intellectual but as a young career woman wondering at what point you are going to have to give up something, someone, or somewhere. Spar points out that coupled with the pressure on women to be like those hotshot US American whizzkids and devoted mothers and wives, the struggle to figure our own personal dilemmas has eclipsed a broader, collective gaze on the lives of modern women, and in turn made feminism very inward-looking.
While you may tackle the big feminist questions of our time such as equal pay, sexual harassment in the workplace and achieving board level positions, you have only the capacity to consider your own fight because you’re exhausted from a sleepless night worrying about your ill mother, or kept awake by a baby who refuses to sleep. But like the privatisation of Thatcher’s 80s, we’ve put our individual needs first, and have stopped believing in, caring for or even noticing the society of women around us. Spar writes:
‘Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection. It’s time now to go back, to channel the passion of our political foremothers and put it again to good use. We need to focus less of our energies on our own kids’s SAT scores and more on fighting for better public schools. We need fewer individual good works and more collective efforts.’
And she’s completely right; for a lot of middle class, western women, feminism has become a individual fight. However, there is a younger, digital generation of feminists organising some pretty amazing ‘collective efforts’. Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism campaign has been translated into languages from all around the world underlining that it is a universal struggle. No More Page Three seeks to protect future generations of girls from the sexist culture of The Sun. Nimko Ali is speaking out about her own experience of FGM to help other young women and girls avoid what she went through.
So perhaps these digital-savvy fourth-wavers are the angry union leaders of our time, speaking out against the privatisation of feminism, reminding us we’re all in this together. Perhaps, however tired, however much pressure sits on our shoulders, we remind ourselves that we take strength and courage from standing together. The privatisation of feminism means that it’s an individual problem, but it’s not. Feminism effects everybody, and our struggle to make better lives for ourselves will come from fighting for better lives for everyone.