Frantz Society Lecturer: “Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist”

Barnard College president discusses her book, her experiences, and her observations on issues facing women today

In the inaugural lecture celebrating the new Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society, speaker Debora Spar cited the consistently low number of women who make it to the top of any profession and suggested ways society might “move the needle” on the  advancement of women.

Before Dr. Spar spoke and answered questions, John C.M. Brust, MD, professor of neurology and a 1962 graduate of P&S, shared his recollections of Dr. Frantz, who interviewed him for admission to P&S and taught him in the second-year introduction to surgery course. His class dedicated its yearbook to Dr. Frantz. Dr. Brust invoked the names of other women who were important to his education at P&S: Dorothy Andersen, Hattie Alexander, Helen Ranney, Beatrice Seegal, Rejane Harvey, and Virginia Apgar. He called the Frantz Society a continuation of a proud tradition at P&S.

The Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society evolved from the Committee for Women Faculty, explained Anne Taylor, MD, the John Lindenbaum Professor of Medicine and P&S vice dean for academic affairs. She explained the mission of the society (see related article) and presented P&S Dean Lee Goldman with a society pin to signify his membership in the society, which will include both female faculty and male faculty who share a commitment to career advancement of women.

Dr. Spar explained the genesis and substance of her recent book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection,” which she originally titled “Confessions of a Reluctant Feminist” because she came of age after the height of the feminist movement.

“I wish we didn’t need feminism anymore,” Dr. Spar said, “but the data show we’re stuck. We need to look at the complexity—the messiness—of women’s lives.” She cited data that show only 15 percent to 20 percent of women make it to the top of any sector (the engineering/ technology sector is even lower with 10 percent or less). The pipeline can no longer be blamed now that three generations of women have entered it. Part of the blame, she suggested, is in privatizing feminism and creating unrealistic expectations for the nothing-is-impossible opportunities women are now offered.

Society is confusing and exhausting girls today by ratcheting up expectations that they can “have it all”—a phrase Dr. Spar would like to see banned. The average number of hours of housework done by women after their professional work hours—33 a week—has not changed since the 1950s, while the number of hours devoted to child care has gone up. “The math doesn’t work,” said Dr. Spar. Men are doing more; their average time per week has gone from 17 minutes to 17 hours.

Feminism created choices, Dr. Spar said, but she suggested that women should say no as often as they say yes to the choices to alleviate the notion of perfection. “We’re selling our daughters a bill of goods,” she added, one that often manifests itself in anorexia, “the disease of the perfect girl.” She cited the prevalence among successful girls and women of anorexia, the disease that allows them to control their bodies, one of the few things they can control in an era of unrealistic expectations. College applications illustrate the quest for perfection among girls. “They have spent 17 years trying to be perfect.”

Bringing men into the conversation, as the Frantz Society will do, is one strategy to change the culture, Dr. Spar said.

Also at the inaugural lecture, four medical students—Sonam Dodhia’17, Chante Karimkhani’15, Kathryn Nagel’17, and Rathika Nimalendran’15—performed a piece on stringed instruments made by Virginia Apgar, the first woman to become a full professor at P&S, a 1933 P&S graduate, and creator of the Apgar Score used to assess the health of newborns.

More about the Virginia Kneeland Frantz Society for Women Faculty can be found at the society’s website.