1 Growing Up Charlie
When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was a commercial for Charlie perfume that appeared on all the network stations. I remember it vividly, as do many women of my generation. It showed a beautiful blond woman prancing elegantly down an urban street. She had long bouncy hair, a formfitting blue suit, and a perfect pair of stiletto heels. From one hand dangled a briefcase; from the other, a small, equally beautiful child, who gazed adoringly at her mom as they skipped along. The commercial never made clear, of course, just where Mama was going to leave her child on the way to work, or how they both managed to look so good that early in the morning. Instead it simply crooned seductively, in the way of most ads, promising something that was “kinda fresh, kinda now. Kinda new, kinda wow
The perfume, if I recall correctly, was not particularly nice. But the commercial was terrific.1
So was another of the same vintage for Enjoli, a similarly unremarkable fragrance. This one’s heroine was even bolder, strutting home in a tight skirt after an apparently successful day and proceeding directly to the kitchen. As she cheerfully whipped up some kind of dinner delight, she sang a provocative little anthem, which most women of my age, I’ve discovered, still recall. “I can bring home the bacon,” she cooed. “Fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man. ’Cause I’m a woman. Enjoli.” Never mind the perfume. The lifestyle was enchanting.
Both of these commercials aired in the early 1970s, right at the edge of Watergate and the free love of Woodstock. They aired only briefly, selling products that slipped eventually from the public eye. But they stuck somehow in the public consciousness, or at least in the minds of schoolgirls like me, who simply presumed that life in the grown-up world would be just like the ad for Charlie. We’d have careers to skip to, kids to adore us, and men waiting to douse us with perfume the moment we waltzed through the door. Money and great shoes only sweetened the package.
This wasn’t, of course, the life that our mothers were living. In 1970, only 43 percent of women worked outside the home.2 In upper-middle-class white families like my own, the number was slightly higher, hovering by 1974 at around 46 percent.3 Most of these women worked in “traditional” fields such as teaching or nursing, and they rarely wore stilettos to the job. Yet somehow, girls growing up in that era believed—thought, presumed, knew
—that they would be different. That instead of replicating their mothers’ suburban idylls of parent-teacher conferences and three-tiered Jell-O molds, they—we—would go the way of Charlie, enjoying children and
jobs, our husbands’ money and our own. And through it all, we would be smiling and singing, gracefully enjoying the combined pleasures of life. In 1968, 62 percent of young women had expected to become housewives by the time they were thirty-five. By 1979, just eleven short years later, that percentage had plummeted to 20.4 The rest of us presumed that we’d leave the world of housewifing far, far behind.5 In 1979, fully 43 percent of American girls predicted that they wo
“Barnard College president Spar (The Baby Business
) skillfully addresses the state of feminism and suggests that, despite historic gains in education, the workforce, and equal rights, American women suffer under ‘an excruciating set of mutually exclusive expectations’ resulting, paradoxically, from the proliferation of options that feminism made possible. Drawing on her experiences as well as extensive research, Spar lucidly traces how the movement's ‘expansive and revolutionary’ political goals have evolved into a set of ‘vast and towering expectations’ that trouble women at every stage of their lives. Wisely forgoing hostility or blame, Spar finds women struggling, if anything, with the fantasy of ‘having it all.’ ‘We're doing this to ourselves,’ she writes, addressing, among other topics: the explosion of toddler princesses; eating disorders and hyperachievement among adolescents; the hookup habits of young adults; the ‘adoration of pregnancy’; competitive mothering; and the lucrative wedding, diet, and plastic surgery industries. Her solutions call for sanity and simplicity: to kill ‘the myths of female perfection’ and recommit to the goals of early feminism, abandoning the ‘individualized quest’ in favor of organizational and collective change. Tactfully navigating heated debates and effectively contextualizing historical trends and contemporary problems, Spar's book will be welcomed by readers who envision a world ‘driven by women's skills and interests and passions as much as by men's.’” —Publisher’s Weekly
“Spar uses her experiences of the feminist revolution of the 1960s as a scaffold for evaluating the situation of young women today . . . Spar addresses many issues facing working women—e.g., maintaining a fashionable appearance, sexual identity and aging in a world of shifting mores. For younger women who have accepted their entitlement to full equality with men, the conflicting demands of the roles expected of them, and their own ‘quest for perfection,’ can be devastating. A wise, worthy companion to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Debora L. Spar tackles—and dispels—the myth of perfection with intelligence and humor. Wonder Women is a terrific read.” —Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling Lean In
“Debora L. Spar has written the right book at the right time. We need to make all women’s lives less stressful and more rewarding. This brave, well-written book points the way. Spar reveals her most intimate history, yet stands back to see her whole generation—and mine—in perspective. Wonder Women will make many women feel deeply understood. And many men. It’s a warm, humorous, and lusty book, and I think many readers will be grateful for it. I certainly am.” —Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying
“Debora L. Spar has written a wonderful and wise meditation on women that draws on her own life experience and her deep intelligence as a scholar. She is a lively companion on an essential subject.” —Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World
“Debora L. Spar has done the impossible: written a fresh, thoughtful, and engaging book on the role of women in today’s society. In telling her own story she tells us where we’ve come from and where we must go next. A must-read for every woman on the move in life.” —Tina Brown, founder and editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company
“Wonder Women is the book I’d give my daughter as a guide to navigating the challenges of being a woman in twenty-first-century America.