By Kendra Weddle and Letha Dawson Scanzoni
“[As] women, we’re nurturers; that’s what’s expected of us. . . . But we have to find personal fulfillment. We have to follow our dreams. We have to say, “I can do that, and I should be allowed to do that.”
Those words, spoken by film actress Glenn Close at the January 2019 Golden Globe awards ceremony electrified the audience the moment she spoke them. Everyone, it seemed, spontaneously jumped to their feet—cheering, clapping, and nodding heads in agreement. Close had struck a feminist chord and there was no waiting for the end of the speech to give her a standing ovation.
Close was being honored as best actress (drama) for her performance in the 2018 motion picture, The Wife, based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel of the same name. Close is also one of the nominees for an Oscar in the best actress category at the Academy awards ceremony in February 2019.
Both the Golden Globes speech and the movie are timely in a way that might not have been the case when the book was first published. In this era of #Me too, #Time’s Up, women’s marches, and new efforts to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, women (and many men) resonated with the words of her speech: “I can do that!” It’s especially a message for every girl and woman who has been told her gender meant she couldn’t follow her dream, couldn’t aspire to her own self-fulfillment rather than deferring to the wishes of men.
The next part of Close’s message rang out just as powerfully. “And I should be allowed to do that.” Society’s gender norms should not restrict women’s aspirations. Close spoke about her mother who had “sublimated herself” to her husband throughout her entire life and in her eighties spoke of regret for how her life had been spent, feeling she had never accomplished anything.
Hearing that statement, Letha thought of her own late mother and her mother’s widowed friends who, in their later years, despite having loved their husbands, discussed their realization that they had “lived their husbands’ lives” throughout their long marriages, and only when their husbands were gone could they “live their own lives.” Kendra remembered the wives she had observed growing up in a rural community, where wives were expected to provide their husbands and their farm workers with large cooked meals two or three times a day and expected to submit to their husbands’ wishes in whatever husbands needed or wanted.
Most of us are all too aware of the ways scripture has been pulled from cultural and historical context to reinforce the dominance of men and subordination of women, even while claiming to honor women. The old adage that “behind every successful man is a woman” leaves out the silent implication that it’s important that he get all the credit.
The Wife tells the story of a husband and wife who receive news that the husband has been awarded a prestigious prize—in the movie version, it’s the Nobel prize for literature—and all that transpires when the couple travels to Sweden where he will receive the award. Shortly after the book was published, it was already considered to be good material for a movie, but, as Glenn Close joked at the Golden Globe, the title alone might explain why it took fourteen years for the film to get made! Raising money was an issue, as was finding a leading man, with many American actors turning it down. In the end, the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce provided an excellent portrayal of the husband. If you haven’t already seen the movie, be sure to do so. Here’s the trailer. And read the book, too!
Feminism in another of Meg Wolitzer’s novels
Both of us were excited to learn about both The Wife movie and the book behind it, because we had just discovered Meg Wolitzer, the author of the novel, the summer before. At the time, she was on a book tour for her most recent novel, The Female Persuasion, and was being given a great deal of publicity through reviews and appearances on major media outlets.
The jacket of The Female Persuasion (2018) describes it as a novel about “people who guide and the people who follow—and how those roles evolve over time.” Since the protagonists include Faith Frank, a sixty-three-year-old activist and Greer Kadetsky, a twenty-something college student looking to find her way in the world, the cross-generational aspect, as well as its focus on the feminist movement, immediately appealed to us. After all, we not only enjoy a cross-generational friendship ourselves but had worked together with Melanie Mock on a cross-generational Christian feminist blog called “FemFaith.” So both of us decided to read The Female Persuasion and discuss it together as an impromptu book club of two!
The book’s protagonists, Faith Frank and Greer Kadetsky, meet in, of all places, the women’s restroom after a college lecture. Faith, the older feminist is grappling with how to keep her work—and thus the message of feminism— alive by traveling to college campuses to speak while simultaneously maintaining a shrinking feminist periodical, Bloomer (named for the 19th century women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer). Greer, on the other hand, is the young student who embarks on her own self-discovery of feminism and activism.
Faith had just delivered the Edmund and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial Lecture at Ryland College in 2006 and Greer, a first-year student, attended it with her friend Zee. Shortly before that time, Greer and Zee had bonded over their shared determination to get their college administrators to take seriously a pattern of sexual abuse on campus. Zee, who identified as gay, wasn’t new to activism, but Greer was.
During her speech Faith explained that feminism involved two aspects: individualism (a person gets to determine the contours of her life) and sisterhood (being a part of a larger community of women who are working together). Hearing this, Greer was instantly captivated, so much so that after the lecture, she and Zee followed Faith to the “ladies room,” hoping to have a chance to talk with her. Up to this point, Greer felt small in the world; her voice—what she called her inside voice—was soft and uncertain, reflecting her timidity. While washing their hands, Faith identified Greer from a question Greer had asked during the Q and A after the lecture; and in the span of a few minutes Greer’s experiences were validated. The older woman encouraged her to refuse to let them confine or define her. By the time Greer left the restroom she was not only in possession of Faith’s business card but an invitation to connection that would several years later result in working for Faith in her feminist foundation, Loci, after Faith’s magazine had stopped publishing because of inadequate funds. More importantly that night after the lecture, Greer had received an irrevocable gift from Faith: a new vision of possibility.
What follows as the book moves forward is the weaving together—and subsequent unraveling—of their feminist activism and friendship.
Two aspects about the story surprised us, leaving us feeling ambivalent about Faith and Greer. The first is that despite several reviews pointing to the mentoring aspects of this novel, the actual exchanges between the protagonists where such exploration had potential was minimal. Instead, Faith is painted mostly as an isolated figure, someone who only occasionally took time to build meaningful relationships with those around her. “Being alone was something that Faith had perfected over the years. …Unlike many people she knew, she often preferred her own company” (p. 306).
The second surprise occurs as the plot unwinds revealing the underbelly of the Loci Foundation with its shady funding funneled through ShraderCapital under the direction of venture capitalist Emmett Shrader and the subsequent blurring of Faith’s early feminist vision. On one hand, it may not be fair to expect one person to remain steadfast to her justice work as shared interest and financial support wanes over the course of any lifetime. On the other hand, it is disappointing if not disturbing to witness how thoroughly Faith makes peace with the lure of commercialism and recognition. We’re told, for example, “Faith was overexcited at the thought of having access to the kind of money and resources that Emmett was offering. She’d never had any of it before, and she’d never thought to want it” (p. 308). When Greer questions Faith’s capitulation to the corrupt shenanigans of ShraderCapital and therefore the Loci Foundation, Faith responds, “Don’t you think I’ve had to make compromises before? My whole working life has been about compromise. Even back at Bloomer. I didn’t have access to real money until Loci, so I’d never seen it on a big scale. But it happens” (p. 345).
In the end, Greer is the one whose clarity of feminist vision determines the contours of her work while Faith remains content to do a measure of good for women with the continuing financial backing of a corrupt corporation. Their impasse eventually becomes too wide of a chasm and Greer quits Loci, establishing herself as a well-known feminist speaker and writer in her own right. The passing of feminist activism from one generation to another is realized only through a high cost, one that even includes what had once been the possibility of being a lasting friendship.
The novel contains a fair amount of feminist insight, including the challenges of self-doubt and hatred often born because of “…adopting the views of men as if they were my own” (p. 284) or that when men speak they are seen as having authority and when women speak, “… everyone resents her and thinks she’s their mother. Or their nagging wife” (p. 293). Wolitzer also weaves into her engaging narrative LGBTQ issues as well as abortion and familial struggles, even the challenge of international relationships. And yet, for all of these intriguing aspects, the relationship between Faith and Greer and their paths that converge and then diverge remain the central feature worth returning to over and again.
As disappointing as the Greer-Faith rupture is, it accurately reflects the challenges in the American feminist movement as it sputters and lurches through backlashes and splintering trying to stay relevant, trying to speak in new times and with new idioms. Through Loci Foundation and Faith’s accommodation to consumerism, we understand the lure of status and the fear of its loss. Although the method and messenger change, there is a continuity of essence that makes its way from one generation to the next, the core reality of feminism always being in some form or another, persuasive. Its appeal— as seen in the enthusiastic responses Glenn Close received at her Golden Globe acceptance speech and the burgeoning women’s movements mentioned at the beginning of this article—lies in one basic fact. Feminism is about justice, fairness, freedom, equity, and equality. That never changes.