Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion is written with a parodic and often scathing eye turned toward contemporary feminism and what it means to be a “good” feminist. Throughout the novel, being an ally toward other women—loving them, helping them, teaching them—is held up as the main tenet of “good feminism.” As the story progresses, however, the triad of women at its heart—Greer Kadetsky, her mentor Faith Frank, and her college friend Zee Eisenstat—find themselves at odds with one another’s concepts of feminism and understanding of what makes one a good female friend or mentor. Greer, Faith, and Zee struggle to be good to one another but ultimately find themselves betraying and disappointing one another, as well as complicating one another’s ideas about what it takes to be a good feminist. Wolitzer argues that generations of stifling oppression and misogyny have made female relationships deeply fraught and difficult to honor in the way they deserve to be.
Greer Kadetsky is thrust into feminism when she and several of her friends and acquaintances at Ryland College find that they have all been sexually harassed by the same boy—Darren Tinzler. Greer and her friend Zee Eisenstat, enraged that the administration is letting Darren off with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, immerse themselves in outlining their own concept of feminism. Neither seems to know much about feminism or its history, but their excitement about embracing their power as women and railing against the patriarchy is both palpable and genuine. When the legendary feminist activist Faith Frank delivers a lecture at Ryland, Zee brings Greer along, excited by the prospect of seeing her longtime feminist hero in the flesh. It is Greer, however, who is first to raise her hand to ask a question in the lecture and who connects with Faith in a women’s restroom following her speech. Later, when Greer lands a job writing speeches for Faith Frank to deliver at biannual summits organized by Faith’s new women’s foundation, Loci, Greer believes she is changing the world. However, Greer slowly realizes that these conferences amount to little more than an echo chamber for the watered-down brand of feminism Faith has adopted after years of failing to institute change as a radical. Thus, Greer comes to see that “good” feminism is not something that can be bought, sold, neatly packaged, or performed, and that the duties of female friendship and mentorship take a lifetime to understand and uphold.
A major plot point in the novel is Greer’s betrayal of Zee in order to keep Faith all to herself. Though it was Zee who first brought Greer to Faith’s lecture and Zee who encouraged Greer to find Faith in the bathroom to make a connection with her, Greer is the one who ends up serendipitously reconnecting with Faith years later and earning a job at her feminist startup, Loci. When Zee finds out about Greer’s good fortune, she asks Greer to pass along a letter she has written to Faith, expressing her longtime admiration of Faith’s work and her desire to also join Loci. Knowing what the letter contains, Greer—intoxicated by the attention she is receiving from Faith and desperate to have it all to herself—tells Faith that she has a letter from Zee addressed to her, but does not want to pass it on. She asks Faith if this makes her a bad friend or a bad feminist, but Faith insists that the choice of whether to hand the letter over is up to Greer. Greer keeps Zee’s letter to herself and continues to chase success and validation from Faith while leaving Zee to figure out her own life and career. Years later, Greer has become disillusioned with Faith’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the ways in which corruption amongst Loci’s investors is beginning to affect the company. As a result, Greer quits her job, and Faith, feeling attacked and belittled by Greer’s idealism, tells Greer that her statement-making departure from the company means nothing, and that Greer is a bad friend and a bad feminist because of her decision to withhold Zee’s letter. “You make it sound like you care too much about women […] to stay here,” Faith says, “yet look at what you did all those years ago. To your best friend.” Rather than respond to Faith’s accusation, Greer simply flees the office, leaving Faith’s harsh criticism hanging in the air. Later, Greer visits Zee in Chicago and reveals everything to her. Although a rift opens between the two women for a time, it is eventually repaired through Greer’s repeated apologies and Zee’s realization that she has, despite or perhaps even because of Greer’s neglect, made a meaningful life for herself. Through her work in traumatology, Zee helps women directly, a goal which neither Greer nor Faith is able to accomplish.
Faith’s role as a mentor is one that she inhabits rather uneasily, despite her work as a feminist activist and all of her talk about the need for women to support one another. From her very first appearance in the novel, at the lecture she gives at Ryland College, her brand of feminism comes across as trite, weary, and canned. As Faith’s extensive backstory is revealed, it comes to light that her years of fighting for equal pay and women’s reproductive rights have indeed drained Faith and forced her to realize that there is only so much one woman can do to accomplish her dreams of “spread[ing] the word about the plight of women everywhere.” Faith has had to make compromises—moral as well as financial. Faith ultimately botches her role as a mentor to Greer, lashing out at one of her most devoted acolytes in a moment of pain, embarrassment, and shame. This uneasy conclusion to Greer and Faith’s relationship reinforces Wolitzer’s argument that relationships between women are often negatively impacted by the pain and trauma that women have experienced in the past.
As the female relationships at the center of the novel take root, blossom, and wither, Wolitzer depicts the realm of female friendship and mentorship as tense and difficult to navigate. The characters in the novel struggle to overcome the many ways in which society pits women against other women. The novel also highlights how these characters often hurt themselves most of all when they fail to avoid societal pressures. Wolitzer does not argue in favor of a clear or correct way forward for contemporary feminists, instead using her novel to cast a light on the more shadowy, difficult aspects of what it means to be a woman, feminist, friend, and mentor.
Female Friendship and Mentorship ThemeTracker
Female Friendship and Mentorship Quotes in The Female Persuasion
Greer Kadetsky met Faith Frank in October of 2006 at Ryland College, where Faith had come to deliver the Edmund and Wilhelmina Ryland Memorial Lecture; and though that night the chapel was full of students, some of them boiling over with loudmouthed commentary, it seemed astonishing but true that out of everyone there, Greer was the one to interest Faith. Greer, a freshman then at this undistinguished school in southern Connecticut, was selectively and furiously shy. She could give answers easily, but rarely opinions. “Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,” she’d said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions. She’d always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did. For most of her life it hadn’t mattered, but now it did.
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.
Then, beside her, in the pew, Zee’s arm went up too. Of course she had a real question, a political one; she probably even had follow-ups. Faith nodded her head in their direction. At first it was unclear which of them she was calling on. But then she saw Faith seem to zero in on her, specifically her, Greer, and Greer looked quizzically at Zee, making sure she was reading this right. Zee gave her a quick, affirmative nod, as if to say: Yes. This is yours. Zee even smiled, wanting Greer to have it.
Greer got busy cutting a perfect cube and then spearing it. To eat meat when you hated it and when you hadn’t eaten it for four years was an aberration, nearly a form of cannibalism. But also, she told herself, it was an act of love. In eating this, she was being someone Faith would want to continue to confide in and listen to and rely on; someone she would want to cook meat for […] Goodbye, cow, she thought, picturing the distant green blur of a meadow. She swallowed hard and forced herself not to cough it up. The steak went down and stayed down.
“Yum,” Greer said.
“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.”
Greer wondered why Faith was giving her this gig. She remembered something Faith had said to the team once, early on: “Men give women the power that they themselves don’t want.” She’d meant power to run the home, to deal with the children, to make all decisions about the domestic realm. So maybe Faith, like one of those men, was giving Greer something she didn’t particularly want. Maybe Faith had no interest in giving this speech, and so that was why she was giving it to Greer—passing the power on to her in order to get rid of it.
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.”
“It must be a burden to you to be the most important person to people who aren’t all that important to you,” he said.
“I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation. I get a lot from them too, remember.”
“What do you get?” he asked. “I’m curious.”
“Well, they keep me in the world,” she said, and that was all she wanted to say.
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.