Debora Spar, who is the President of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, was gracious enough to answer some questions for NeW about her book. The NeW Online Book Club read her book this spring. Read her interview below!
What initially prompted you to research and write about how American womens’ lives have become characterized by a constant struggle for perfection?
The genesis for the book was not a single “light bulb” moment, but rather my own slow realization of the extent to which American women – including so many of my own wonderfully smart and talented students – were pushing themselves harder than they should, and certainly harder than was the norm among their male counterparts. The more research I did into contemporary women’s lives, the more I was struck by the commonality of this relentless pursuit of perfection.
What kind of reception have you received since publishing Wonder Women? Have you gotten push-back from liberal or feminist groups? How have conservatives responded?
Surprisingly, I have gotten far less push-back than I had expected. I think that most women – even if they don’t agree with all of the book’s conclusions – can see elements of themselves in the juggling and confusion I describe. There may be some variation in how liberals and conservatives have responded, but I haven’t been able to identify them.
Are there any changes you wish you could make to your book now? Any other topics you would have liked to address?
Since the book’s publication, I have spent lots of time talking at greater length about possible solutions to the problems I describe, and in particular about how we might bring men more usefully into the conversation. I think these are very important topics, and I hope that I and others will have further opportunity to address them. I also hope that other women – single women, women of color, religious women – will add their voices to the conversation. Insofar as my book is at least partly personal, I had to rely on my own experiences and background. And it would be wonderful to include a much broader swath of women in this dialogue.
What value do you think groups like NeW add to the public discourse?
I fear that “women’s issues” have long been associated only with liberal women. And because I don’t believe there is a necessary link between gender and political viewpoint, I wholly support efforts by groups like NeW to bring a more conservative voice – and particularly a young, female conservative voice – to these important topics that face us all.
What message would you like young women in college or recently graduated to take from your book?
I would urge them to give up – now and forever! – on perfection. This doesn’t mean, at all, giving up their dreams and ambitions. It is just a caution to be realistic, and to understand that no one does everything well, much less perfectly. So pick your battles, figure out what matters to you – and then try to worry less about all the other stuff.
What advice do you have for young conservative women today?
My overall advice would be as I stated above. But I think there is also a very interesting moment right now for young conservative women to begin to sketch out their own political identity. What does it mean to be a conservative woman in the United States today? How do conservative women want to address crucial issues such as access to birth control and pay equity? What is the “voice” of conservative women today, and how do young women want to begin to shape this debate?