Political power and personal fortitude are, within the world of The Female Persuasion, rendered as two very different things. As Wolitzer’s characters navigate young adulthood, they struggle to discern the difference between what it means to have political or social power and what it means to be personally empowered. Those with traditional power in the novel are not necessarily strong on the inside or in possession of powerful convictions, while those with the most personal fortitude often possess the least amount of power. Wolitzer charts the ebbs and flows of her characters’ own personal empowerment and their perceptions of those around them who possess actual, bankable power—through finances, social capital, or political power. In doing so, Wolitzer suggests that it is often those in positions of power who are actually the least empowered, while those without a platform are often the strongest-willed individuals whose sense of personal empowerment and strong belief system mean they have the highest potential for enacting real, meaningful change in the world.
Faith Frank is, at first, presented as a figure who is both personally empowered and politically powerful. At the start of the novel, after the long-ago success of her “feisty” tome on feminism, female empowerment, and activism (also titled The Female Persuasion), Faith is now on the lecture circuit, resting on the laurels of her seminal text and the success it brought her. She appears to the naïve, college-aged Greer—who is searching for a means of empowerment after a difficult first year at her second-rate college—as an eminently and effortlessly powerful individual. As the novel unfolds, however—and as both Greer and the reader grow to know Faith better—it is revealed that Faith has never truly been in a position of power. Furthermore, readers learn that Faith’s own personal sense of empowerment has dwindled as, over the years, she has become more and more jaded by her failure to find a viable, respected platform for spreading her feminist message throughout the country and the world. Thus, Faith’s “feisty” message of empowerment is revealed as a watered-down version of the real empowerment she hoped to spread throughout the country and indeed the world. Faith’s fight for abortion reform was drowned out by the voices around her, which, at the time, were mostly focused on anti-war sentiment. In response, Faith and a small group of friends, created a vessel for their ideas of empowerment, a magazine called Bloomer, which also began to quickly dwindle when the editors found themselves unable to sell ad space. Faith then founded Loci with the financial help of her former lover Emmett Shrader and began to settle for a version of power that was attainable. However, even as the face and voice of Loci, Faith found herself unable to spread empowerment and inspire personal fortitude in other women with the pittance of social, political, and financial power she had at the organization, which was a capitalist sham and a paragon of “feel-good feminism” and false activism all along. Over the course of the novel, Faith reckons with her legacy and the struggles she has put herself through in order to attain a position of power for herself—ideally one which she would use to ensure the empowerment of other women. She ultimately comes to understand that power is a fickle and fluid thing, and that the pursuit of power often ends in disappointment, compromise, and an uneasy peace with the limitations of what power can provide.
In the novel’s final passage, after returning home from a book party in celebration of her own feminist text, Outside Voices, Greer contemplates the ways in which she has “replaced” Faith by achieving her own success and voice, as well as her own social, political, and financial power as a well-known feminist writer. Greer is powerful but does not necessarily feel the sense of personal fortitude she had always imagined herself feeling at this point in her life. As she watches her young, social-justice-oriented babysitter move through her home, Greer wonders who will one day surpass her in terms of both sociopolitical capital and personal inner strength to match it. “At Loci,” Greer thinks, “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 […] Power eventually slid away. People did what they could, as powerfully as they could, until they couldn’t do it anymore.” Greer dedicated a portion of her life to attempting to quantify, wrangle, appraise, and even redistribute power, and she has now come to realize that sociopolitical power—and even personal inner fortitude—is not something that can be held in an everlasting way. Power is an ever-changing mechanism that stands to both improve and devalue its wielder, while personal empowerment, though often more “real,” can be just as difficult to cultivate and maintain.
Over the course of the novel, Greer and Faith’s search for both sociopolitical power and personal empowerment yields strange and sometimes sad results. Faith is desperate to achieve a position of power that she can use as a platform for the dissemination of radical ideas meant to fuel female empowerment and inner strength. Instead, Faith is beaten down again and again by the structures that shape society and aim to keep women down. Eventually, she succumbs to the empty grasping for power despite realizing that it will not help her reach the goals she has for herself and for women everywhere. Greer, hoping to follow in Faith’s hallowed footsteps, comes to understand that her idol and mentor’s relationship with power—and with Faith’s own personal sense of empowerment or personal fortitude—is just as fraught and uncertain as anyone else’s. Greer, who has fought more for her own personal sense of inner strength throughout the novel and has not attempted to secure political or social capital for herself, ultimately finds herself in possession of it nonetheless. She feels a little bit like a sham, and as Wolitzer closes the novel on this somewhat uneasy note, she furthers her argument that sociopolitical power is not the end-all be-all when it comes to enacting real change, spreading a true message, and making a difference in the world.
Sociopolitical Power vs. Personal Fortitude ThemeTracker
Sociopolitical Power vs. Personal Fortitude 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.
In bed Emmett smiled lazily, opening his arms and enclosing her. “Come here,” he said, as if she weren’t already right there. But he wanted her even closer, wanted to be inside her at once, an idea that she thought she understood in that moment, because she not only wanted him inside her, she wanted to be inside him in some way too. Maybe even to be him. She wanted to inhabit his confidence, his style, the way he walked through the world, which was so different from the way she did.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
He took his little kit into the bathroom while she placed sheets on the mattress of the small foldout sofa. This was an era in which sofa beds were frequently opened and unfolded; at this age people were still floating, not entirely landed, still needing places to stay the night sometimes. They were doing what they could, crashing in other places, living extemporaneously. Soon enough, the pace would pick up, the solid matter of life would kick in. Soon enough, sofa beds would stay folded.
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.