‘The Female Persuasion’ Relies on an Outdated Model of Mentorship
Meg Wolitzer’s novel ignores the reality of modern mentoring: We get our guidance from our friends
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I n October of last year, I attended a press event for Meg Wolitzer’s new novel The Female Persuasion. At the door, the guests, mostly women, were asked to write their name as well as the name of their female mentor on their name tags. “Or a woman who has inspired you,” said the woman behind the table, perhaps sensing I was drawing a blank. “It can be anyone.” I ran through some of my favorite writers in my head. Carson McCullers had inspired me, but so had many others. If I was being honest, Mildred D. Taylor and Gertrude Chandler Warner probably did more to make me a writer, during those important elementary school years, than Flannery O’Connor did in college, when I was already committed.
The arriving guests began to bottleneck behind me as I stood, second guessing. I hastily scribbled something in Sharpie before heading into the private room already packed with writers and media professionals. On other women’s lapels I spotted the names of publishing executives and famous writers. At the bar, I ordered an “I Get to Decide” cocktail and surveyed the room, hoping to spot someone I knew.
“Who’s Bonnie?” a woman, who I later learned worked for a glossy women’s magazine, asked me. I looked down at my name tag, having already forgotten what I’d written. “Oh! She was my coach in high school,” I explained, just stopping myself from adding that maybe I didn’t understand the assignment. The woman told me that her mentor was the woman who first hired her at another magazine, but, she added kindly, “it could have been Lisa,” her high school basketball coach.
I hadn’t spoken to Bonnie (or almost anyone else I could have written on that name tag) in years. The truth was, I felt the same way about not having a mentor as I did about not having friends from high school: that it revealed a deficiency at my core somehow related to my disinclination to join clubs and teams. I’d thought of Bonnie because she was the first woman I’d ever known who ran her own business and worked hard doing what she loved. She pushed me to succeed in ways that took into account my particular temperament and hangups, a key quality for a mentor to have, in my view.
Implicit in the title of “mentor” is a singularity and hierarchy: the one person, more successful and senior, who helps you achieve your true potential.
But implicit in the title of “mentor” is a singularity and hierarchy: the one person, more successful and senior, who helps you achieve your true potential. I thought of the many trusted advisors I had in different parts of my life, and felt I was being ever so subtly encouraged to ignore them in favor of elevating a single person whom better fit the bill.
That weekend, I settled in to read The Female Persuasion, ready to discover the true meaning of a female mentor. The novel centers around the relationship between Greer Kadetsky, a young woman beginning her career after college, and Faith Frank, a second-wave feminist “a couple steps down from Gloria Steinem.” Faith Frank is the founder of Bloomer, a “less famous little sister to Ms.,” and is noted for her activism and influence as well as her trademark knee-high suede boots.
Greer learns about Faith from her friend Zee Eisenstat, and knows “shamefully little” before she goes to hear her speak. The night before her campus lecture, Greer researched Faith online, but even with Zee’s cultural instruction, the information proves disappointing: “While Google provided timeline and context, it gave her no real sense of how a person like Faith actually became her whole self.” And thus, the project of the novel is laid bare: for Greer to discover and become her whole self.
Eventually Faith hires Greer at Loci, a foundation funded by a venture capitalist for the purpose of hosting “summits” for women. Greer isn’t so much motivated by Loci’s mission as she is infatuated with Faith, who gives her attention like the sun in winter: rarely but with great intensity when it shows up. Greer subjugates herself in large and small ways to curry Faith’s favor, including, on a staff retreat, eating a steak Faith prepared rather than speaking up to say she’s a vegetarian.
The project of becoming her whole self is so intertwined with her idolization of Faith Frank that Greer can’t imagine sharing her mentor. Before her first day of work, Zee asks Greer to a deliver a letter she wrote to Faith, asking to be hired too. It’s an overreaching request, but instead of simply admitting that she’s not comfortable being used as a networking opportunity so early in her career, Greer tells Zee she will deliver the letter and instead lets it languish in a drawer. She even confesses the transgression to Faith, who doesn’t contradict her choice.
Over the next few years, as Zee follows her own path to a Teach for America type program, Greer is promoted through the ranks of Loci, and her relationship with Faith remains warm and convivial but not especially close. Greer imagines a connection between them, formed the day Faith first saw her potential as an insecure college student, but their interactions lead the reader to conclude that this connection is largely one-sided. Greer has imprinted on Faith as her mentor, but there as been no mutual agreement. In fact, there’s little to suggest Faith distinguishes Greer from her many anonymous fans. Suffice to say that if Greer had been at The Female Persuasion party, should would have had no trouble choosing the name for her name tag. But had the roles been reversed, and mentors were asked to write the names of their protégés, Faith might have listed dozens of names, or “young women everywhere,” or no one at all.
After years of working together, their relationship ends when (spoilers ahead) Greer discovers that a project for which Loci collected a significant number of donations doesn’t actually exist. Greer wants to go public and return the money; Faith opts instead to avoid the scandal. Greer quits in protest, and Faith humiliates Greer by revealing to a room full of her colleagues how Greer betrayed Zee years earlier. The lesson Greer must learn in order to confront Faith is to think independently, based on her own code of ethics. Wounded but armed with a newfound sense of self, Greer takes what she’s learned at Faith’s knee and applies it to her own project, a Lean In–type book called Outside Voices that becomes a bestseller.
Wolitzer is clearly interested in puncturing the idealized definition of a mentor — Faith’s admonishment of Greer is cruel, and her motives complicated — but falls short of questioning the innate flaws of this very model of mentorship. At the end of the novel, Faith and Greer haven’t spoken in years, and yet, barely in her 30s, Greer is personally and professionally successful: a best-selling author (with a brownstone!), married to her highschool sweetheart, with whom she has a child. This portrait of “having it all” is depicted as self-actualization: Greer has become her own version of Faith Frank and has discovered her “whole self.” By the assessment of the novel, the mentorship has succeeded. But what the novel doesn’t ask is if Greer might have succeeded in spite of Faith, rather than because of her. If it were up to Faith, Greer would not have struck out on her own. She would still be working in her morally compromised job on projects further and further removed from the mission of helping women that initially inspired her.
Wolitzer is clearly interested in puncturing the idealized definition of a mentor , but falls short of questioning the innate flaws of this very model of mentorship.
In February, I participated in a Lit Hub roundtable of women editors; one of the questions we were asked was whether we’d had mentors who’d helped in our careers. Jennifer Acker of The Common answered that she’d had only male mentors in her career, and wondered why. “While I have had two strong women as bosses in my editorial career, they did not become mentors,” she said. “My real and enduring mentors in the publishing world have been men.” Was it, she wondered, “a question of scarcity, or a question of attitude? Scarcity could mean two things,” Acker explained, “that there are fewer women in positions of power, or that the women who do fill those roles are not in a position to be good mentors,” either because they are overextended or do not feel secure enough in their positions to invite the competition.
As I considered Acker’s experience, I found I was once again hung up on the same question that gave me pause at the doorway of the press party. It wasn’t her questions about why female mentors were harder to come by that fascinated me. Acker’s confidence in who her mentors have been, and who they might have been, felt alien. When did a boss, or an editor, or a professor, become a mentor? Was mentorship something two people agreed upon, like exclusivity in a romantic relationship, or was it years of loyalty you suddenly looked back on with surprise, like a long friendship?
Was mentorship something two people agreed upon, like exclusivity in a romantic relationship, or was it years of loyalty you suddenly looked back on with surprise, like a long friendship?
At the Female Persuasion party, I ran into a women with whom I’d gone to graduate school. She told me she now works for a national nonprofit, and had recently been asked by a younger women, in a very formal way, to be her mentor. My former classmate spoke about her new protégé with glowing pride, and told me about their monthly meet ups and how she occasionally bought her presents, such as a journal or a nice pen.
My reaction, at first, was to feel embarrassed for them both. How quaint, how formal, how rigid, and really, how useless. What would the arrangement lead to, other than a quick answer to a get-to-know you game at party?
For my part, my professional career has been aided by a long list of men and women: professors, bosses, and editors who have hired me, accepted me to graduate programs, introduced me to the right people, offered advice, published my work. Their contributions to my advancement have often been enormously important, but none of them sprang to mind when I was asked to list my mentors — maybe because their influence is usually confined to a specific time in my life. There’s always the knowledge that when the semester ends, when the job is over, when the issue comes out, our relationship will shift quietly into the past tense.
And yet, the people who have truly mentored me — supported me, encouraged me, held me to high standards and pushed me to embrace what I’m capable of—have been my friends. My peers who evolve alongside me, who have no institutional allegiances on my behalf, can advise me without ulterior motive, and I can advise them in return.
The people who have truly mentored me — supported me, encouraged me, held me to high standards and pushed me to embrace what I’m capable of—have been my friends.
After finishing the novel, I wondered how I might have approached it differently, had it not been for the conceit of press party. If only it had been positioned as a book that questions the value of traditional mentors, rather than one that valorizes them, I might have been less inclined to distrust the extent to which Faith had actually supported Greer. Not very much, I concluded by the end. Beyond the initial act of hiring her, Faith had done little to cultivated Greer’s passions and talents and usher her toward a career path that would be the best possible fulfillment of Greer’s ambitions. Rather, Faith had supported her own career path, and supported Greer’s insofar as their goals aligned.
Throughout The Female Persuasion, there are glimpses of the alternative, peer-to-peer mentor structures that have meant so much to me: Greer’s high school boyfriend Cory, who quits his job to take care of his mentally ill mother shows Greer the value of caregiving and domestic work; Greer’s best friend Zee, who has found her calling as a trauma counselor, demonstrates the value of direct, human-to-human services. And beyond their vocational roles, Cory and Zee have consistently demonstrated a conviction of character that Greer lacks, as she seeks the approval of a more public-facing form of success.
Nonlinear professional development requires nonlinear mentorship, in which peers in different stages of life advise one another equally.
Traditional mentorships, which are usually supported by institutions, rarely survive the kind of winding path it takes to make a career these days, when mailroom to corner office is yet another fantasy most people have long-since abandoned. Greer’s unicorn career — hired straight out of college into a prestigious job where she spends four years before quitting and publishing a national bestseller — is the millennial fantasy that has replaced the corner office. By contrast, the millennial reality is much more complicated. A more typical path to Greer’s level of success would require jumping around from job to job and proving oneself in smaller publications before getting a book contract. This nonlinear professional development requires nonlinear mentorship, in which peers in different stages of life advise one another equally.
After Greer quits, she confesses to Zee about the letter. At first Zee doesn’t even remember it, but is then shocked as disappointed. Without making excuses, Greer points out that Zee wouldn’t have even like working at Loci, still failing to quite see that for a long time, she hasn’t liked working there either.
Zee thinks of Greer as “an acolyte of Faith’s” who should have anticipated Faith’s betrayal. And yet, despite Zee’s implicit criticism, the fact and value of Faith’s mentorship goes unquestioned. Zee expounds that there are two kinds of feminists, “the famous ones, and everyone else,” arguing, essentially, that pursuing fame from feminism is an inauthentic, and that mentors — particularly famous mentors — are false Gods. But she admits that she wants one anyway: “I don’t have a mentor, Greer, and I’ve never had one. But I’ve had different women in my life who I like to be around, and who seem to like me. I don’t need their approval. I don’t need their permission. Maybe I should have had a little more of this; it might have helped. But I didn’t, and well, okay, fine, you’re right, I’m sure I would have hated it there [at Loci], and I don’t think I would have stayed very long. But I would’ve liked the chance to find out.”
Zee has had the support of horizontal mentors, yet still lusts after the more traditional, hierarchical structure. And ultimately, the novel validates that lust. At the end of the novel, Greer imagines writing to Faith and thanking her for “crack[ing] her head open in college” and pouring her strength, opinions, generosity, and influence into other women, as a part of “the big, long story of women pouring what they had into one another.”
Zee has had the support of horizontal mentors, yet still lusts after the more traditional, hierarchical structure. And ultimately, the novel validates that lust.
Greer, even with her newfound appreciation for the value of Zee’s friendship, still holds Faith on the ultimate pedestal of of influence, crediting her with the very first acknowledgement in her book, an acknowledgement to which Faith never responds. Greer’s experience has led her to accept the a view of mentorship in which “the older one first encourages the younger one,” until “one replaces the other.” This conclusion is presented as an insight, acknowledging the shortcomings of hierarchical mentorship but failing to fully imagine any alternative. The Female Persuasion falls disappointingly short of upsetting these outdated power structures; instead, it further invests in a future bound by the same roles that have been so limiting to its characters.