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Barnard president discusses contemporary feminism

IMG_7750The pursuit of perfection is one of the biggest issues facing women in America today, Barnard College president Debora Spar argued at a lecture on Wednesday. Spar spoke as part of a discussion on her book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection,” which was released in 2013.

Spar began by explaining her motivation for writing the book, saying that she was motivated by two simple questions: “Where do American women stand today?” and “Why haven’t we come any further?”

Spar called herself a “reluctant feminist,” explaining that her reluctance stemmed from wishing that the movement would no longer be necessary. However, she said the feminist movement is still necessary, noting that the percentage of women occupying high-level positions is at around 15 to 20 percent across all sectors of society. According to Spar, this number, which she referred to as “the 16 percent ghetto,” is driven by tokenism, or the desire to have, for example, one or two token women on a board of 1o people.

Spar explained further that this number can no longer be blamed on the lack of educated women entering the workforce because girls now pursue degrees just as much as, if not more than, boys do, with women earning 70 percent of all Ph.D. certificates in the natural sciences in 2013. She explained that this was a “pyramid problem,” saying that while the percentages of men and women are not far apart in professional schools, many men go on to become captains of industry, while women do not.

Spar said that the women in her generation made two mistakes. The first mistake, Spar said, was that they privatized feminism, turning it into a quest for personal gratification rather than a political movement. Second, they perpetuated the “Wonder Woman myth,” which is the idea that women can be and do everything they want. She explained that this upped the ante for women, forcing them to hold themselves to a higher standard.

“I think we’re confusing the heck out of girls,” she said.

She also explained the issues brought about by sex and marriage, noting that she wasn’t sure that women were getting the best out of the hookup culture. Spar also argued that marriage doesn’t make much economic sense anymore, and she said that it has become more difficult recently.

Spar specifically cited housework as one of the biggest issues for women today, noting that women currently do 33 hours of housework a week. She said that, because women do so much housework, they don’t have enough time to put in the work necessary to attain high-level positions, such as that of managing partner.

Spar also cited aging as a factor, arguing that there are many more models for successful older men than successful older women. She explained that this was partly because women are still valued for their capability to bear children and their physicality, which decline with age.

However, Spar added that while there are a lot of issues facing women today, many of these issues are solvable. She explained that women need to give up on perfection and learn to make trade-offs. She also emphasized the importance of acknowledging biology, noting that divergence in career trajectory between men and women usually starts when women give birth.

Finally, Spar said that people need to remember the initial goals of feminism. Rather than being all about personal perfection, feminism should be a collective endeavor with the purpose of liberating women.

Spar spoke at Dodds Auditorium on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. The lecture, which had the same title as her book, was sponsored by the Wilson School.

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