Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

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Author Debora Spar talks to Ysabelle Cheung about busting the myth of the superwoman in today’s society

These days, the dreams of little girls stretch much further than beautiful white dresses and tiaras; the evolution of feminism has carved out a new stereotype for the female gender. Today’s ideal woman is a whip-smart professional and mother of well-adjusted children who not only admire and respect their mum’s boardroom skills, but also her ability to be a good parent.

Needless to say, that woman does not exist, except in the minds of the women trying to achieve this. But where did this implausible superwoman stereotype come from? Author and Barnard College president Debora Spar explores this subject in detail in her recently written bestselling book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. “It’s a horrible development – one of the things I’m really pushing for is to get rid of the phrase ‘having it all’,” Spar says. “After early feminism, people started telling girls that you can be whatever you want, you can have any career and yes, you can still be a mother. I think that well-intentioned focus was somehow transformed into this belief that anyone can do anything.”

Spar’s book deftly tackles the ideals assaulting the self-esteem of young women today. She writes ‘ostensibly liberated women often found themselves struggling with three full-time jobs: working inside the home, working outside the home, and trying to be thin’. In the book, Spar recalls her own experience pumping breast milk in a bathroom while on the way to a business meeting, and draws on reams of academic research to elucidate her points. She also experiences this phenomenon first-hand through her work at Barnard College, where she mentors hundreds of young students.

“I think the sad part of it is that [young women] are going to face the same obstacles as their mothers. Social reality hasn’t changed,” Spar says. “One of the things I’m trying to do in the book is try to get younger women to maintain their ambition and to just be more realistic. They have to say no to things.”

Although Spar’s research in the book mostly relates to America, the wider view of female roles in society is not just restricted to the West. Spar says the situation is slightly different – better, in her opinion – in Hong Kong, although undesirable dynamics still exist. “Professional women in Hong Kong have some advantages that women in the States don’t have, like accessible childcare through family networks or domestic help,” Spar says. “But what really struck me was the support system – the battle we see in the States, between mothers who work and mothers who don’t, seems more friendly in Hong Kong.”

Spar flies to Hong Kong again this March to join the much anticipated Intelligence Squared Asia debate, which explores the argument ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Cannot Rock the Boardroom’. Joining Spar for the motion is novelist Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It. Arguing against the motion is Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton Investment (and mother of nine), and Zhang Yin, CEO of SOHO China. The board will take an audience vote – for or against – prior and post-debate to gauge the persuasive power of each side’s argument. “I’ll be portraying a messier view of reality,” Spar says. “Women can’t have it all because no one can have it all.” Amen to that.

Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection published by Sarah Crichton Books, priced $216. Available at paddyfield.com.

The Hand That Rocks talk, Mar 3, Asia Society. Tickets: $300; hkticketing.com.

 

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