How do we define feminism? A discussion of The Female Persuasion

I’ve heard the word feminism defined in many ways over the years, and I admitted to our group that I found the descriptions of feminism in The Female Persuasion very intriguing. I asked the group how they defined feminism and if they agreed with the delineations in the book, and, this question spurred such a strong and deep dialogue on the meaning of feminism.

By Jaclyn Margolis

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The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer follows the life and relationships of Greer Kadetsky, from her bookish, uncertain teenage years to precocious, forward-thinking adulthood. Her life is forever changed when she meets Faith Frank, an icon in the women’s movement who becomes her role model despite their 40-year age difference.

At the core of the book is feminism, both directly through the jobs and personas of the main characters and indirectly through the actions and discussions that occur. There are many conceptions of feminism presented throughout the novel. Faith, when speaking to a group of college students, including Greer, offers the following take: “I meet young women who say, ‘I’m not a feminist, …’By which they mean, ‘I don’t call myself a feminist, but I want equal pay, and I want to have equal relationship with men, and of course I want to have an equal right to sexual pleasure. I want to have a fair and good life. I don’t want to be held back because I am a woman’…and I always want to reply… ‘what do you think feminism is, other than that?’” (p. 29). Much later in the novel, Greer is facing difficulty with her boyfriend Cory, who has turned his life upside-down to take care of his family after a tragedy. When Greer is feeling uneasy about the situation, her mother says the following: “Here’s this person who gave up his plans when his family fell apart. He moves back in with his mother… and takes care of her. Oh, and he cleans his own house and the ones she used to clean. I don’t know…I feel like Cory is kind of a big feminist, right?” (p. 377).

Since I’ve heard the word feminism defined in many ways over the years, I admitted to our group that I found these descriptions and others from the book very intriguing. To start our conversation, I asked the group how they defined feminism and if they agreed with the delineations in the book. Excitingly, this question spurred such a strong and deep dialogue on the meaning of feminism that it ended up spanning the majority of our time together.

A few interesting points emerged. First, although we all supported the formal definition of feminism (which a book club member Googled during our time together), many felt that the ideal of feminism is continuously evolving. Some pointed out that their grandparents’ fight for feminism may well have looked different from how their younger siblings’ fight looks today.

Second, there are difficult moments in the book where female characters, even the dedicated feminists Faith and Greer, undermine or undercut other women. We recognized that these incidents are hard to read and digest, but we also acknowledged that being a feminist doesn’t mean being perfect; we all make mistakes.

Third, although many of us recognized the progress made by the Women’s Movement, we also recognized that challenges still exist. Book club members offered personal anecdotes about unfair pay, biased policies, or exhausting work environments. We ended the night with some ideas of how to move forward with educating and helping women, including through our financial literacy and professional development programming with LA’s Network!

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Jaclyn Margolis is a board member for the Los Angeles chapter of the Young Women’s Leadership Network. She joined the network and the board slightly after the chapter launched in 2017. She leads the chapter’s Book & Wine Club, which meets every couple of months to discuss books about women and Judaism. This column chronicles those meetings. Outside of JWI, Jaclyn is a professor, teaching classes and doing research on teamwork, leadership, and personal development. She loves living on the  L.A.’s Westside with her husband and adorable dog. For more information about the book club, please feel free to reach out to [email protected]


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