The Female Persuasion is full of characters who consider themselves activists or who aspire to activism. Faith Frank is a revered crusader for women’s rights, and when she comes to speak at Greer Kadetsky and Zee Eisenstat’s college, it lights a fire in both young women’s hearts that will change the course of their lives forever. After college, however, when Greer joins Loci (Faith’s somewhat nebulous women’s organization) and Zee pursues on-the-ground activism as a “Teach and Reach” teacher on the South Side of Chicago, both women realize that it is not enough to want to do good in the world. Wolitzer makes the timely argument that true activism—activism that serves the needs of the disenfranchised over the desires of “activists” to feel good about themselves and their contribution to the world—is, perhaps, impossible. In buffeting her argument, Wolitzer examines under a microscope (and sometimes throws under the bus) organizations that often benefit the activists and their senses of purpose more than the truly needy and downtrodden.
Faith’s desire to empower women has imbued her life with purpose since she was young, when her twin brother was allowed to go off to college, while Faith was made to attend a local school and live at home, where, under her parents’ watchful eye, her virginity would remain intact and her safety would be secured. This injustice drove Faith, once she graduated from college, to move out to Las Vegas with a friend, Annie, and rebel against the years of quietude her parents enforced. After a botched abortion endangered Annie’s life and filled her with unwarranted shame, Faith moved to New York and dedicated her life to the abortion reform and women’s liberation movements. By 2010, Faith is the head of the successful Loci—a hazy but well-intentioned organization which brings together artists, celebrities, activists, and downtrodden women from all over the world in twice-yearly “summits” meant to showcase female voices and debate the state of modern feminism. Greer Kadetsky is an employee at Loci and struggles from day one with her feelings of inadequacy and impotence within the organization as she watches the corporation bend repeatedly to the demands of its profit-minded investors, spearheaded by Faith’s former lover Emmett Shrader. Loci comes under fire for being an exclusive organization aimed only at “wealthy white people.” Later, the organization is revealed to have fraudulently claimed to have launched a mentorship program for Ecuadorian women—a program which does not, in fact, exist. Faith admits to Greer that she has “had to adjust [her] expectations about what [she can] do” for women. She reveals to Greer that one undertakes activism knowing that “for every dollar that’s donated ten cents is pocketed by some corrupt person, and another ten cents no one has any idea what happens to it.” Faith has accepted that the idealism of her youth does not translate to the real world, and that the type of activist she had hoped to be may not be possible. What remains promising, in Faith’s mind, is any sliver of real change. Faith reveals to Greer that she must “always weigh” what the costs of her attempts at activism will be against what good will actually come of them, knowing that even the greatest effort will only yield a small modicum of true good.
Zee proclaims herself an activist from early on in the novel. She constantly alludes to the activism she engaged in in high school, and at Ryland College, she attempts to make her mark by engaging in activism against sexual assault. Zee’s self-proclaimed activism, however, is always spoken of—by herself and by others—in nebulous, ill-defined terms, and often it seems as if Zee enjoys the title of activist more than the work of activism. This half-baked approach to activism is further compounded when Zee takes a teaching job at Teach and Reach in Chicago, where she finds herself wanting to make a change in the lives of others but unable to do so. Noelle, a guidance counselor at the school, points out the futile and offensive nature of organizations that feed their participants a sense of achievement while denying those in need any real benefit. In this way, Zee’s character arc reflects that of Greer: both women hope that they can become true activists and effect real change despite working for flawed organizations where they are beholden to the shadowy power of the rich people behind them. This botched attempt at activism is more about validating and serving the people who call themselves activists than the people in need of their “activism.” The hypocrisy of this paradox is the crux of the novel’s critique of contemporary activism.
Greer’s brush with false activism is a direct result of Faith Frank’s botched activism, and her willingness to get in bed—figuratively and literally—with the shadowy ShraderCapital, the source of Loci’s finances and the puppeteer pulling the strings behind their programming, outreach, and planning. When Faith, exhausted by the many demands placed on her, asks Greer to deliver the keynote speech at one of Loci’s summits, Greer accepts, thrilled to be able to introduce to the world one Lupe Izurieta, an Ecuadorian woman who escaped a horrific past through the help of activists affiliated with Loci and is now in a mentorship program, working toward a career in textiles. Greer helps Lupe to deliver her own speech at the summit, and Greer feels warmed and self-satisfied by the good Loci is doing. Later, it is revealed that there is, in fact, no mentorship program—the program never got off the ground, but to avoid embarrassment, ShraderCapital continued to accept donations meant for the mentors and their mentees, while proliferating the idea that the program was well and truly thriving. With the truth exposed, Greer realizes that she has been an ally to false activism for years. She takes a stand and decides to leave the company, but not before Faith Frank calls into question Greer’s own hypocrisy—Greer wants to take a stand against capitalism and greed, but in Greer’s own life, she has not been a true activist or ally to the women in her immediate life and social circle. Shamed, Greer leaves the company. Several years later, when Greer publishes her own book on feminism, activism, and “leaning in”—Outside Voices—she finds herself receiving some of the acclaim, adoration, and activist support that her would-be mentor Faith must have enjoyed in her own prime. Greer is pleased but also put off by this fact, realizing that perhaps true activism is dictated by power—unquantifiable, untenable power—and thus impossible to ever achieve.
As Greer, Zee, and Faith struggle to obtain the title of activist, their flimsy or failed attempts at helping others and bettering the world catch up to them and force them to reckon with the pain they have caused and the self-indulgence they have exhibited. Wolitzer’s novel satirizes forms of activism that require little-to-no real effort and are more focused on allowing one to simply skate through life beneath the label of “feminist” or “activist.” In doing so, she criticizes the proliferation of systems and organizations that serve to boost the egos of their adherents or members who are lured by the promises of change, validation, and feel-good feminism but do not actually prioritize the disenfranchised people for whom they purport to advocate.
Activism Quotes in The Female Persuasion
Soon the other girls rallied and came forward, and while the college initially tried to avoid any kind of public airing, under pressure officials agreed to hold a disciplinary hearing. It took place in a biology lab in the pale, leaking light of a Friday afternoon, when everyone was already thinking about the weekend ahead. Greer, when it was her turn to speak, stood in front of a glossy black table lined with Bunsen burners, and half-whispered what Darren Tinzler had said and done to her that night at the party. She was sure she had a fever from testifying, a wild and inflamed fever. Scarlet fever, maybe.
“So you’re saying I should quit now?”
Noelle looked at her steadily. “No, of course I’m not saying that. You shouldn’t do that to these kids, not in the middle of the year. They crave stability. You stay, and you finish the year, and you do your best, and then you decide. Look, I’m sure you’re a fine person, and I’m sure you’re a person who is trying hard to… what do you say to yourself, ‘get involved’? I know that feeling: I have had it myself. But sometimes the way to get involved is to just live your life and be yourself with all your values intact. And by just being you, it’ll happen. Maybe not in big ways, but it’ll happen.”
When they lay down upon the narrow mattress that Zee had purchased at a garage sale upon moving here […] she couldn’t help but think a little bit about power: who had it right now […] Power was hard to understand sometimes. You could not quantify it or calibrate it. You could barely see it, even when you were looking straight at it.
“That’s what everyone was talking about at the first Loci summit,” Greer had said recently on the phone when the subject came up. “The meaning and uses of power […] Everyone who was there said that it was clear that it’s a topic we’re going to return to because no one can get enough of it. It excites everyone. Power! […]”
To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.
“I do what I can,” said Faith. “I do it for women. Not everyone agrees with the way I do it. Women in powerful positions are never safe from criticism. The kind of feminism I’ve practiced is one way to go about it. There are plenty of others, and that’s great. There are impassioned and radical young women out there, telling multiple stories. I applaud them. We need them. We need as many women fighting as possible. I learned early on from the wonderful Gloria Steinem that the world is big enough for different kinds of feminists 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 at my disposal to fight in the way I know how.”
Faith thought that she didn’t have to like them all, but she also recognized that they were in it together—“it” being the way it was for them. For women. The way it had been for centuries. The stuck place. She sang along with them, her voice coming out in a loud quaver. But it didn’t matter that you quavered; it only mattered that you made yourself heard.
Faith traveled easily among radical women, among housewives, among students, wanting to learn, as she said. “What do you stand for?” a very young interviewer from a student newspaper once asked her.
“I stand for women,” Faith said, but while early on this was a good enough answer, later it sometimes wouldn’t be.
By now it was clear not only that Loci hadn’t kept up with all the galloping changes in feminism, but that the way it presented itself was also a reason for vilification. Loci was doing good business, and naturally people were writing things on Twitter like #whiteladyfeminism and #richladies, and the hashtag that for some reason irritated Faith most, #fingersandwichfeminism.
The day after Greer Kadetsky had fallen asleep at work and then expressed her work frustrations, Faith had called a meeting in the conference room. They had all sat around the table and she listened as one by one they told her why they had originally come to Loci, and why it felt different there now. They told her about their worries that the summits were elitist, that there was a kind of feel-good feminism in the air.
“I recognize that feminism can’t only be ‘feel-bad,’” said one of the newer hires, “but there’s too much of an emphasis on how everything feels, and less on what it does.”
Now Faith appeared like some foil-headed Martian, taking calmly about staying on at the foundation under the aegis of ShraderCapital, which had no problem pretending it was overseeing a nonexistent charity on another continent. “Maybe it’s not moral to keep working for ShraderCapital,” Greer said, actually lifting her chin slightly higher.”
“You think this is just about them?” said Faith. “Don’t you think I’ve had to make compromises before? My whole working life has been about compromise. I didn’t have access to real money until Loci, so I’d never seen it on a big scale. But it happens. All the people who work for good causes will tell you this. For every dollar that’s donated to women’s health in the developing world, for instance, ten cents is pocketed by some corrupt person, and another ten cents no one has any idea what happens to it. Everyone knows, when they start out, that the donation is really only eighty cents. But everyone calls it a dollar because it’s what’s done.”
“And that’s acceptable to you?”
Faith took a second. “I always weigh it,” she said. “Like with Ecuador. I’m ashamed of what happened. But those young women are free. I have to weight that too, don’t I? That’s what it’s about, this life. The weighing.”
“These are not shy-person actions, Greer, I’m just saying. They’re something else. Sneaky, maybe.” Coldly, Zee added, “You really know how to act in the face of power. I’ve never put that together before, but it’s true […] You went to work for Faith Frank, the role model, the feminist, and I didn’t. But you know what? I think there are two kinds of feminists. The famous ones, and everyone else. Everyone else, all the people who just quietly go and do what they’re supposed to do, and don’t get a lot of credit for it, and don’t have someone out there every day telling them they’re doing an awesome job. I don’t have a mentor, Greer, and I’ve never had one. But I’ve had different women in my life who I like to be around […] I don’t need their approval. I don’t need their permission. You want to know how often I think about the fact that I didn’t get to work for Faith Frank? Almost never.”
“We were all put on this earth to row the boats we were meant to row,” she said. “I work for women. That’s what I do. And I am going to keep doing it. I have no idea if this Ecuador story will ever leak. If it does, it will be an embarrassment, and perhaps it will shut us down. But the bottom line is that I’m not going anywhere.”
Kay wandered around, curious, excited, flipping through the different books on the shelves, finding ones that Greer hadn't lent her but which looked good, then eating from Greer's stash of cashews, swiping a couple of Greer's multivitamins from the big amber bottle on the kitchen counter, as if they might give her the energy, power, and stature that she would need, going forward. Kay went into the den and looked at the soft easy chair there, the reading lamp angled beside it. Sit in the chair, Kay, Greer thought. Lean back and close your eyes. Imagine being me. It's not so great, but imagine it anyway. At Loci, they had all talked loftily about power, creating summits around it as though it was a quantifiable thing that would last forever. But it wouldn't, and you didn't know that when you were just starting out. Greer thought of Cory sitting in his brother's bedroom, far from anything having to do with power, taking Slowy out of his box and placing him nearby on the blue carpet. Slowy blinking, moving an arm, craning his head forward. Power eventually slid away, Greer thought. People did what they could, as powerfully as they could, until they couldn't do it anymore. There wasn't much time. In the end, she thought, the turtle might outlive them all.