Mentorship & The Female Persuasion
If you pick up Meg Wolitzer's The Female Persuasion expecting a political novel on the state of feminism in the world today, you're bound to be disappointed. The novel does engage with contemporary feminism, but it does so from a handful of limited and ultimately privileged perspectives. It acknowledges – or rather implies – that contemporary feminism needs to be intersectional thanks to frequent acknowledgements of a fictional website throughout the novel, commenting on and criticizing the actions of the main characters. It seeks to diversify. But at its heart, the novel isn't actually about feminism. Instead, it is about human relationships. The Female Persuasion revolves around the experiences of four characters: Greer Kadetsky, the young protagonist; Faith Frank, an ageing Second Wave feminist; Cory Pinto, a Portuguese Princeton grad-turned-housekeeper; and Zee Eisenstat, a queer activist. It is the relationships between the three latter characters and Greer – respectively as her idol, her boyfriend, and her best friend – that drive the novel and that make it a force of human emotion.
Perhaps most striking is the storyline between Greer and Cory, not for any traditional girl meets boy narratives, but for the way it delves into a shocking family tragedy. Grief and all that follows in its wake are explored without reservation, in an exquisitely painful but human manner. Greer is kept at a distance in these passages, but – without touching on any spoilers – they are the novel's most striking. Yet, grief remains the novel's subplot.
At its center is a rarely-explored human dynamic – that not just of simple female mentorship but of intergenerational idolization. While Cory grapples with tragedy, Greer focuses on her career and idolizes Faith Frank. (This isn't something that's presented in a good or bad light in the novel – true to its feminist undertones, there is no expectation that Greer is meant to look after Cory in his grief. Instead, her shift in focus is seen as something that's natural and right for them both.) Greer meets Frank shortly after her feminist awakening during her first year of college, after she and other young women on campus are assaulted by the same young man and the university fails to do anything active about it. Later, she goes to work for Frank. She is inspired by her confidence, but her true connection to the older figure comes not from her feminism but from the fact that she feels that she "gives her permission" by validating her plight. Frank listens to Greer, and so in turn, Greer hangs on her every word.
Greer observes just before the novel's climax that so many women have women like Frank in their lives, who've inspired them and allowed them to develop their potential. And she's right. How many of us have clung to the approval of older, successful women while trying to find our own footing in the world? How much have we invested in these mentorships, stuck in one-way dependencies of validation? How much pain have we gone through when these relationships have gone south, feeling the need to be silent in their wakes, sure that we're alone in a weird situation? The Female Persuasion addresses the good and the bad in these scenarios in a way that I had yet to see in literature. It is refreshing and it is comforting, and it makes up for the rest of the novel's shortcomings.
Indeed, while many articles about The Female Persuasion seem to see the positivity in female mentorship, it's also possible to read implicit and explicit criticism of the phenomenon throughout the novel. On the surface, Greer emotionally suffers from mentorship fallout, but far more interesting things happen with her best friend, Zee. Like Greer, Zee idolizes Faith Frank early in the novel, but she does so because of the good Frank has done for feminism, not because Frank once gave her approval. In fact, Zee meets Frank for the first time along with Greer and is barely given the time of day. When Zee is rejected, she takes action, and she goes off to find work in the world that will allow her to fight for her cause. She acts independently and she makes a difference. She – perhaps the most initially privileged character in the novel – readily gives up her comfortable lifestyle and goes to work with underprivileged women first hand. She doesn't need mentorship, and as she acts as the novel's intersectional conscience, one could argue that she and not Greer is the novel's true hero.
The Female Persuasion is a confusing novel, at times triggering and at times frustrating, but it is a realistic and deeply human novel. While it doesn't directly engage with contemporary feminist ideology, it explores the human dynamics that go into it. The Second Wave is acknowledged, but it is seen as lacking – a stepping stone that has been worn away by flaws and that needs to be intersectionally restored to meet our actual, contemporary needs. It acknowledges the problems that come from White Feminism, from privilege, and by concentrating on the human aspects of its characters, it paints a picture of why all these outdated forms of feminism are not enough. (Without going into spoilers, the novel's epilogue seems to be read in different ways, and I personally think that there is a parodic aspect to it.) The traditional feminists of the novel are at its center, but its progressive ones are its actual stars. I highly recommend reading it.
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