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A Map of Complications

Tensions between two generations of feminists animate Meg Wolitzer’s novel.

Illustration by Sarah Hanson. Photos Top to Bottom: Archive; Bettmann; David Fenton; Dan Kitwood; Ben Stansall/AFP; Kena Betancur/AFP; Dan Kitwood; Steffi Loos (All Getty)

Writing a novel about feminism can be a thankless task. It’s not that the subject isn’t rich enough for novelistic treatment; far from it, actually. For all that critics of feminism may think of it as a lockstep kind of march, an ideology that admits no dissension, anyone who spends time with actual feminists knows that they are not types who always play nicely together. Life under feminism is a constant fight over all the big things we know we stand for but struggle to define: What is freedom? Is it a good job? Is it the right to choose? Do we bear the burden of global justice or is it all right to stick to the local concerns? And what is a woman, anyway? When you learn to love feminism, it is, I think, because you have learned to love this fight.

Riverhead Books, 464 pp., $28.00

Art, as a rule, loves this sort of mess. Great novels are maps of complication, leading nowhere in particular, taking stances only provisionally and obliquely, happy to be tangled and to lack as many answers as the people they seek to depict. Yet, though a novel is not a tract, stories have a way of implying values even when they don’t state them outright. The reasons why we tell one story rather than another suggest both moral choices and material conditions. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urged readers several years ago to consider the dangers of a “single story,” she was simply reminding them that the stories they loved, the stories they grew up in, emerged from a social and political context. And that, to the extent that that social and political context was rife with injustice, it might always be worth looking out for its blind spots.

The tendency among those who love art more than politics (to the extent the two can even be separated) is to say that art shouldn’t be instrumentalized for moral instruction. They insist that only children require constant schooling in that way. This is a truth that often threatens to harden into dogma. We do learn a thing or two from art. It may not be the one-to-one instruction of a moral lesson or the rote learning of a grammatical rule or mathematical concept. But the habits of mind art cultivates are important. Art can be open, and art can be closed, and overall I do not think many would disagree that it ought to be the former.

Opening the mind up to feminism through art, though, means opening up questions of disappointment. Feminists are disappointed in each other a lot, a natural side effect of being involved in a movement, which naturally implies that progress toward the ultimate goal is the only measure of success and that setbacks are always disasters. Sometimes, the disappointment is vicious and takes the form of “trashing,” as Jo Freeman put it in a famous essay in Ms. in 1976. (Trashing, she wrote, was a “form of character assassination” not intended “to expose disagreements or resolve differences” but to “disparage and destroy.”) But sometimes it is merely searching. Why this story? Why not one about a feminist more virtuous than this, more “representative”: younger, older, less white, less educated, less rich?

This might seem to burden a book with too much. But we live in a moment when, curiously, the reach of feminism has rapidly expanded. In the 1990s, it was not uncommon for relatively empowered young women to argue that they didn’t need a label. There were still broad swaths of the American public who used the word “feminism” pejoratively. Then a series of pop singers and movie stars blessed it and, all of a sudden, the winds changed. And with that sudden popularity comes a whole new set of compromises and disappointments.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion is steeped in these tensions. It introduces us to Greer Kadetsky, who is a shy but ambitious young white woman at college in New England. Greer arrives there just over a decade before the present, right before social media has started to give a new shape to campus life. But some dynamics familiar to us from recent months of arguments about #MeToo are operating there anyway. There is, for example, a young man in the habit of groping his fellow undergraduates. University officials deal him only a light blow to the wrist, and Greer and her fellow classmates are in an uproar. They make T-shirts with this young man’s face on them, and friendship blooms among them “in an accelerated way because of the night they’d spent with the T-shirt scheming, talking, free-associating.”

In the middle of all this, Greer happens to go to a talk by a prominent feminist named Faith Frank. A representative of second-wave feminism, Faith evokes several people. One is Gloria Steinem, the beautiful, willowy avatar of a movement that had often been stereotyped as a collective of misfits. Faith is beautiful, too, poised and media-friendly. Also like Steinem, who launched Ms. in 1971, Faith runs a feminist magazine, called Bloomer. But in the early pages of The Female Persuasion, the magazine is dying, having been eclipsed by the internet and a Jezebel-like blog called Fem Fatale. In other words: By the time the novel lets us meet her, Faith is already a ghost of feminism past.

The subject of the aging, perplexed, and “difficult” second-wave feminist has been treated in earlier novels, such as Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon, which starred a woman of Faith’s generation. But Florence was nowhere near as easygoing as Faith. In fact, one thing that is striking about Faith at first is how frictionless her life is on the surface. Faith’s son doesn’t appear to resent her, as the children of that generation of feminists often did, and often publicly. (Rebecca Walker spoke openly of her struggles with her mother, Alice Walker; so, too, did Ariel Leve, the daughter of the feminist filmmaker Sandra Hochman.) Faith is respected by her feminist peers and, at least in the book’s pages, never comes under serious attack.

But as Wolitzer begins to peel back the layers, we see that Faith has known deep disappointment. Her parents and brother were indifferent to her intelligence to the point of restricting her schooling. She goes through a startling episode with a friend’s botched abortion, then watches the same friend elected to the Senate on the power of her opposition to abortion. (“But just as Annie would never reveal her own history publicly, Faith wouldn’t reveal it either,” Wolitzer writes. “It wasn’t her information to give. It was private.”) She doesn’t seem to mind being single but also makes clear that, where men were concerned, the pickings were slim to none; she found sexual rather than emotional and intellectual partners.

Then, when the magazine that was supposed to be her life’s work folds, Faith is set adrift in a new world in which corporations own everything and branding is the only thing that matters. A longtime acquaintance offers to fund a kind of speakers bureau that looks a great deal like Tina Brown’s Women in the World, and Faith reconciles its corporate glitz, which isn’t usually her thing, with the physical and financial demands of old age.

When Greer meets Faith, she is about to see all the same problems with the world, filtered through the perspective of her own generation. At first glance, these problems appear minor. A snafu with a financial aid application leaves her attending a middling school instead of Yale, as she’d dreamed. When the time comes for her to go out into the world and get a job, Greer is uncertain of her way but seems to have a remarkably easy time nonetheless. From her pocket, she whips a card Faith gave her in the bathroom, ever so long ago, and makes a call. She ends up with a position at the new speakers bureau—which has the rather ugly name Loci.

Wolitzer is a gentle novelist, who does less with her prose style than with flourishes of character development. Her protagonists are often a lot like Greer: intelligent, ambitious, and all the same a little bit aimless. They are sensitive, and when things go wrong, it hits them hard. This makes Wolitzer, in most ways, the perfect chronicler of the current crop of young people, who by and large have the same problems. Both idealists and realists, they would like to see a better world but find precious little room for principled choices amid the corporate structures that now govern more and more of life. Wolitzer here tries to illustrate that by way of Greer’s boyfriend, Cory Pinto, a young man who wants to do something creative and idealistic (design a game) but recognizes that he must make his money first (in consulting).

Wolitzer is also very good at setting up Greer’s admiration of Faith. Early in the book, before they meet, Greer does something that anyone who has ever met one of their heroes will recognize. She gets up at a Q&A for Faith’s talk at her college campus and proceeds to ask a long, rambling question. “What are we supposed to do?” she asks, about “things like misogyny, which seems to be everywhere, kind of wallpapering the world, you know what I mean?” Having finally gained an audience with the monarch of her dreams, she is expecting divine wisdom. Instead she gets the lame answer Faith actually gives—“I know that you and your friends should definitely keep the conversation going”—and still sees it as an invitation for a deeper connection.

Do young feminists really apprentice to older feminists in the way Greer latches on to Faith, these days? I’m not sure. It has often seemed to me that young women now deliberately avoid knowing much about their forebears. They dismiss the “liberal second wave” as a relic, often having little idea of what the second wave actually was or what it stood for. They think of themselves as more enlightened on any number of fronts: sexually, racially, economically. They use the word “intersectional” often, as a way of signifying this. And because they have their own set of foundational texts so readily available on the internet—in blogs, on Twitter, on Tumblr—the desire for mentorship has somewhat receded.

This generation also takes a dim view of the wisdom of experience. Never has this been clearer than in the last few months, as the #MeToo moment flowered, accompanied by a notion that “older feminists” were holding the younger ones back. When some writers called for a sober second look at the wave of accusations moving across most of our cultural industries—cautioning that quick judgments might lead toward a sex panic—they met with reactions of visceral anger from some quarters. Such articles, mostly younger women insisted, were too dismissive of the idea that sex was inflected by power and of the difficulties of truly giving consent amid long-standing inequalities. The articles in question happened to have been written by older women, and even though their generation did not universally agree with the points made, battle lines were drawn. Younger feminists told older ones they needed to get out of the way; older ones told the young they were being ageist. And so on and so forth.

Greer and Faith never engage in this sort of conflict. Their break is both more abrupt and more polite. There is very little blame or bitterness to go around. Though it is Faith who disappoints Greer and not the other way around, Faith is only marginally responsible for the problem that brings about the rift, and in a way her only fault is that she chooses to do nothing about the thing that is bothering Greer. Which is the way of things in the real world; it is only the very young who can believe that blame is easily apportioned in a big, complicated world. And it is spoiling nothing of the plot here to say that Greer makes the idealistic choice, and Faith the realistic one.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around. A rule of thumb in internal feminist debates is that everyone seems to have a claim to both idealism and realism. When, for example, it comes to the younger feminist’s desire to break down the gender binary, a second waver might reply that such a thing will happen “after the revolution.” Then the younger one, aggrieved, points out that trans people shouldn’t have to wait that long to live as their true selves. Conversely, when the second waver might claim that some advance for women in the halls of power—say, the first nomination by a major party of a female candidate for president—is a practical gain for all women, a younger feminist might say that ideally such a candidate would also have economic and social policies that would advance the cause of all women, without equivocation. They would say it isn’t enough to “lean in.”

The Female Persuasion seems to understand this about feminism, the notion that there is no right way to do it. There are no villains, no heroines, no triumphs that are without struggle. There are also no real sops in the novel to the current politics of feminism, the demand that feminist rhetoric center women of color, or even to its focus on relitigating the rules of consent. All of which makes it a pleasing, pragmatic entry in the literature of feminism. But there can, and should, be more to come.