Middlemarch is a prime example of the realist social novel of the 19th century, where “social novel” is defined as a work of fiction “in which a prevailing social problem, such as gender, race, or class prejudice, is dramatized through its effect on the characters.” Centered around a group of people living in a fictional but representative town in the England countryside, Middlemarch focuses on social problems such as the power—or lack thereof—of women, the hypocrisy of religion and science alike, political reform, the rise of industrialization in the form of railways, and more. It’s a monster of a book, some 880 pages if you read the Penguin Classics edition, and it’s not always an easy read. But it’s a beautiful novel, the kind readers can fall into completely.
This isn’t to say the book doesn’t have its problems. George Eliot was a writer very much of her time, and it’s often unclear from her books—at least, to me it is—where she stood on certain issues like marriage or gendered hierarchy. What’s clear is that she was a thinker, and she addressed societal wrongs from within, using the characters she created as mouthpieces for varying opinions and examples of the possibility for change.
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, The Female Persuasion, feels very much like a 21st century-take on the social novel, and it, too, criticizes a particular area of society from within—specifically, it criticizes white feminism from the lens of a feminist who is white. Like Middlemarch, it features a relatively large cast of characters whose lives bump up against one another, sometimes making sparks fly.
The Female Persuasion is about Greer Kadetsky, a child of hippie parents whose main hobbies include smoking weed and seeming to forget about their daughter’s existence. We meet Greer as she’s beginning college at an “undistinguished school in southern Connecticut.” It’s there she meets Faith Frank, whose name is as perfect for her as any name in a Dickens novel—her faith in her cause is never in doubt, but the faith of others in her will be throughout the novel. She’s “a couple of steps down from Gloria Steinem.”
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Faith gives the kind of pep talk/lecture that college students the nation over will recognize—there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of substance to it, but it’s enthusiastically and warmly delivered, and the students listening will talk about it on the way back to the dorms with excitement, having never heard anyone express ideas quite like this before. Faith stirs something in Greer, who slowly begins to use what she refers to as an “outside voice” (as opposed to the “inside voice” that teachers remind rambunctious students to use).
As Greer becomes more impassioned about women’s rights, she also becomes more confident in herself, ultimately writing to Faith near the end of college and asking to apply for a job at her magazine, Bloomer, named after feminist Amelia Bloomer. In another Dickensian moment, the magazine’s declared shuttered the very day Greer arrives for an interview. A largely print medium, the magazine couldn’t survive on ads and subscriptions anymore in 2010.
Greer ends up working at a foundation called Loci, headed by Faith Frank but funded by a famous venture capitalist. Loci is a kind of speakers’ bureau, with undertones of BinderCon and similar conventions, though funded beyond the real-life equivalent’s wildest dreams. Loci’s conferences are large, glamorous, and well-attended. Greer becomes a speechwriter for the workaday women who fight for equality, those who still toil unnamed and unnoticed more often than not.
Wolitzer names these fictional avatars: “The first speech Greer wrote was for Beverley Cox, who worked in a shoe factory upstate where the men were paid more, and on top of that where the women were degraded and harassed, and they all had to work together inside a hotbox roiling with fumes.” After Cox delivers Greer’s speech, Faith commends Greer’s work; but for Greer, the more important takeaway is that “the speeches she was writing might have given the women who delivered them a chance to be ambitious too; as ambitious as she was.” Greer listens to these women, and by listening, she comes to care deeply about them.
Loci is ultimately funded by, and dependent on, a moneymaking firm, and though the foundation has “special projects” where they make grand, life-changing gestures—employing a community health worker in a rural village in Namibia, paying for the defense of a woman on trial for the murder of her abusive husband—money for these projects tightens over time. Worst of all, one of these special projects gets royally fucked up, and Greer, unbeknownst to her, gets involved in an institutional lie. A lie that Faith isn’t willing to go public with, because it would ruin the larger mission of the foundation.
This is the breaking point for Greer, the moment of the worst disillusionment. Is Faith right, that by exposing this one mistake—a mistake with real consequences for a group of women in Ecuador—the foundation won’t be able to work further on good projects? Is Faith correct in believing that the larger good is enough to sweep the smaller evil under the rug?
Greer doesn’t think so. Faith is the epitome of white feminism here: believing in the larger good of her movement and willing to lie about and hide the ugliness of the past in order to keep surging forward. Greer becomes the recovering white feminist, the person realizing all the issues with what she believed, how she used to sweep her own doubts under the rug, and how in doing so she contributed to the lie of a feel-good foundation with little substance.
This is what I mean by Meg Wolitzer criticizing her topic from the inside. She takes the world of white feminism, which is largely cis, often straight, able-bodied, and wealthy too, and shows that yes—it can and has done some good, it’s mostly well-intentioned, and at least some of the people involved are aware of the problems. But more importantly, Wolitzer shines a light on the warts, the ugly moral compromises, the lazy self-satisfaction that can creep in and take over. In one moment that drips heavy in metaphor, Greer attends a weekend getaway at Faith’s country house. While there, Faith makes steaks for everyone. She forgets that Greer is a vegetarian, and Greer, not wanting to rock the boat, decides she’ll eat the steak served to her.
Wolitzer’s also aware of the generation gap that exists amongst feminists, the way some—not all, never all, but some—older feminists push back at intersectionality, trans rights, queer rights. In one early mini-speech, Faith tells Greer, “The kind of feminism I’ve practiced is one way to go about it. There are plenty of others, and that’s great … I learned early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem that the world is big enough for different kinds of feminism to coexist, people who want to emphasize different aspects of the fight for equality. God knows the injustices are endless, and I am going to use whatever resources are to my disposal to fight in the way I know how.” The thing is, Faith is right—in a way. The injustices are endless. But Faith sounds like a politician repeating a well-trodden stump speech: when she says there’s plenty of room out there for various kinds of feminism, she ignores her place of power within the movement and ignores the fact that she’s agreed to work in a dangerously capitalist environment.
Greer doesn’t see this at first, and through her journey, Wolitzer shows how a person can learn everything she can in a pompous, exclusionary (even if it claims otherwise) environment and move on from it. Greer does, and she and others in the book become aware of varying, complex issues that affect the feminist fight—race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, ability, and more.
Wolitzer shifts the lens from Greer in several sections and explores other versions of feminist undertaking through the lives of Greer’s boyfriend, Cory, and her best friend, Zee. Cory, the son of Portuguese immigrants, is working for a venture capital firm in their Manila office. There, he lives the life of the young and rich, partying with clients and sharing an apartment in the wealthy American community with two other young men, while a housekeeper named Jae Matapang cleans up after them. But when tragedy strikes back home, Cory leaves and becomes his mother’s full-time caretaker. Greer can’t understand this—she sees it as a choice, but Cory tells her over and over again that it isn’t: there’s no one else to care for his mother.
After a time, he takes up his mother’s old clients and teaches himself how to clean houses. It’s honest work, he comes to realize, and it feels more honest to him than any of the work he did in Manila. In becoming a caretaker and housecleaner, Cory becomes his own kind of feminist—a man realizing that work long considered “women’s work” isn’t demeaning, and he can find his place within his quiet, hardworking life far easier than he could in the toxic, masculine environment of the venture capital firm—which dropped him easily, expendable as he was, when they learned he couldn’t return to Manila.
Zee, meanwhile, has been an activist of sorts since her youth. The wealthy and privileged daughter of two New York judges, Zee lived an easy life, and she knew it. Her need to struggle was born originally out of a youthful and ignorant misunderstanding of what struggle is. But Zee, like Greer, learns. After college, she goes back home and bounces between jobs before becoming a teacher at a fictionalized version of Teach for America and relocates to Chicago. There, she begins her own lesson in intersectionality—she realizes that enthusiasm for teaching doesn’t matter when the kids don’t have enough food to eat, when they don’t have hats and gloves some days, when there’s no funding for their equipment and needs. And though she brings protein bars for her students and gives them socks and hats and gloves when they need it, this doesn’t make her a better teacher to them.
The guidance counselor at Zee’s school, Noelle Williams, ends up schooling her on the real problem with her position, which isn’t that she’s privileged or comes from money, but rather that she’s part of a system that promised dedicated teachers who would save schools. But instead, Noelle fumes, “a team of completely unprepared teachers, right out of college themselves and with virtually no training except for a crash course that’s far shorter than the course you’d need to take to become an air-conditioning repair person, have been sent into our schools. And we’re told to be grateful.” This is a learning moment for Zee, and with time and continued self-education, she becomes deeply grateful for it.
Although Cory and Zee carry their own weight, The Female Persuasion is Greer’s book much in the same way that Middlemarch is Dorothea’s novel. In both novels, we begin with a young, immature woman and end with someone who’s learned a lot in her life. Pamela Erans wrote in the Paris Review, “[George] Eliot makes it clear that Dorothea is no saint but rather a morally immature young woman … But Dorothea learns. And if her behavior in marriage is initially dutiful and injured, eventually it becomes something larger—something generous and large-minded.” Indeed, Greer too learns, and her ideals become something larger, more generous. She learns a lot from Faith Frank’s kind of feminism, and then she moves forward to find her own, more inclusive space.
Like George Eliot, Wolitzer is a thinker. Rather than offering solutions, both authors offer ideas through the mouths of their characters, allow them to be more or less self-aware and self-conscious, and provide an element of change for them. It might sound like I’m describing every novel, but social novels are incredibly difficult to pull off, especially when covering wide ground, be it physical or temporal in scope. More importantly, it’s difficult to make social novels as much about their characters as about their ideas, and this is something Wolitzer does incredibly—in apparently effortless writing to boot.
In a time when many folks, myself included, don’t know how to keep fighting on all fronts when there are so many to choose from, Wolitzer’s novel gives permission to the idea of choosing a space you’re passionate about where you can do the most good, and throwing yourself into that work, rather than spreading yourself too thin and achieving little but a feeling of futility. The novel could have been called The Female Permission. Many of us remember the person who first gave us permission: permission to fight, to be loud, to be ourselves, to be something other than what was prescribed for us. And even if that person isn’t perfect—and no one really is anyway—we can still appreciate her. And we can also move on, and we can move forward.
Featured Image: Elsa Jenna; Author Photo: © Nina Subin