The Wave metaphor and beyond. Feminist agendas of female protagonists in Meg Wolitzer’s "The Female Persuasion"

Term Paper, 2019
12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Defining Second- and Third Wave feminism
2.1 The Second Wave
2.2 The Third Wave

3. Primary Analysis
3.1 Faith Frank as part of the Second Wave
3.2 Greer Kadetsky as part of the Third Wave

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Meg Wolitzer’s 2019 novel The Female Persuasion explores the past, present and foreseeable future of the women’s rights movement in the USA, which is commonly categorized into three Waves. The author focuses on the Second Wave and the Third Wave, for which she exemplarily uses two protagonists of not only different generations but also with very contrasting personalities - Faith Frank and Greer Kadetsky.

Wolitzer, given her birth year of 1959, is to be allocated with Second Wave feminism and says that she „feels like a feminist and therefore writes like a feminist“ (O’Kelly 2018). She portrays the difficulties the two generations need to overcome to unite for the same cause. This paper explores to what extent the protagonists align with the characteristics of the Waves they are ought to represent, and in what ways they might act contrary to them. Furthermore, it will analyze the relationship between Faith and Greer which represents the attitudes of Second Wavers and Third Wavers towards each other. This paper will include the definition of the Second Wave and the Third Wave, as well as the main analysis of the novel. The analysis will not only include the points mentioned, but will also contain a general analysis of each of the protagonists’ personalities and behaviors which will continuously be drawn back to the individual Waves.

The aim of this paper is to show the parallels between Wolitzer’s novel, which is oftentimes based on facts just as much as it is fiction, and the patterns of real-life feminism in the USA. It is supposed to underline the dynamics of the movement and how changing times may change people’s beliefs as a result.

2. Defining Second and Third Wave Feminism

2.1 The Second Wave

The conceptualization of different feminism eras into Waves is a useful, yet limited tool. Useful, because it helps to bring order into the history of the women’s movement, limited because there is no existing consensus on the exact definition of either of the Waves. That being said, especially the definition of the Third Wave is oftentimes a matter of confusion.

The term Second Wave Feminism describes „a new period of feminist collective political

activism and militancy which emerged in the late 1960s“ (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 144). The Wave metaphor itself was not applied until the emergence of the Second Wave, which shows that the Second Wave signals a shift in the key political issues for feminists (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 144). The leading activists of the Second Wave were mostly

„literary scholars and teachers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s“ (Heywood & Drake 1997: 25). Arguably the most important issue of the Second Wave was the female body itself (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 144) and relating issues, such as abortion, sexuality, rape and domestic violence. The political discourse was shifted and included

more personal matters for women, such as education and gaining power in the workplace. Furthermore, the rhetoric changed from achieving rights for women to the liberation of women „from the oppressiveness of a patriarchally defined society“ (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 144). Another key element of the Second Wave is the notion of sisterhood as an expression of the solidarity between women and their connection due to common issues. Heywood & Drake (1997) stress, that even though

the notion that all women were ‚sisters‘, bound together across ethnic, class, generational, and regional lines by their common experiences as an oppressed group, was the most powerful, utopian, and, therefore, threatening concept feminists advanced in the 1970’s (p.43)

this concept was also problematic and hard to execute, because women were brought up with the opposing concept of female hierarchy and competition and still to some extent are until this day.

The strength of the Second Wave was, that it created an environment where potentially many subgroups could flourish, however its weakness was that it still mainly consisted of white, middle-class, heterosexual and educated women who „seemed at times reluctant to give anything but token space to dissenting or critical voices.“ (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 146). This lack of diversity is oftentimes criticized by Third Wave feminists who aim for creating a more diverse movement.

Overall, something fundamentally changed in the 1960s in the general mindset about gender which continued to shape public and private life (Nicholson 1997: 147).

2.2 The Third Wave

The Third Wave can be defined as a direct product of the Second Wave movement. Pilcher & Whelehan characterize it as „the feminism of a younger generation of women who acknowledge the legacy of Second Wave Feminism, but also identify what they see as limitations“ (2004: 169). Harnois (2008: 121) stresses that Third Wave feminists frequently identify themselves by contrasting their agenda to the agenda of the Second Wave. Another frequently mentioned aspect to being a Third Wave feminist is growing up „massively influenced by feminism“. For instance through the presence of feminist mothers or other relatives and therefore being familiar with related issues such as race and class as well (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 169).

The main limitation identified in Second Wave f eminism is the lack of diversity and the assumption that “white experience could stand for all experience“ (Heywood & Drake 1997: 43). Therefore it is a quite prescriptive movement which not only excludes women of color for instance, but also prescribes being a feminist and enjoying feminine aspects of self-expression as contradicting. Race, ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and nationality are all significant factors when discussing feminism at this day and age and certainly have been since the Third Wave evolved in the 1990s (Drucker 2018). Third Wave f eminism proceeded to „include people who had previously been excluded from social justice movements“ (Harnois 2008: 122).

Furthermore, Third Wave feminists voice their concerns about the historical and political conditions of the Second Wave no longer existing (Pilcher& Whelehan 2004: 169) and therefore the movement no longer resonating with younger women. The Second Wave, on the other hand, certainly used to be a young movement too, consisting „mainly of women in their twenties and thirties during its height“ (Pilcher & Whelehan 2004: 172). However, these women have since grown older and presumably cannot imagine that the issues that were essential to their generation might not be easily communicable to Third Wavers. Therefore, Pilcher and Whelehan identify a generational conflict as central to the Third Wave in the form of „claiming their own space and fashioning the movement in its own image“ (2004: 171).

Despite the opposition to the Second Wave movement, most Third Wave feminists seem to even further distance themselves from post-feminism and acknowledge that while they may be better off than their preceding generation, the „lack of social consensus“ (Rhode 2014: 158) about women still being disadvantaged is a significant problem. This dilemma between appreciating the achievements of the earlier days of the movement and still not being willing to accept the status-quo and wanting change is characteristic of the Third Wave.

3. Primary Analysis

3.1 Faith Frank as part of the Second Wave

Faith Frank is one of the two main female protagonists of the novel and is ought to be a representation of Second Wave feminism. Faith embodies an essential role within the novel as a mentor, role-model and person of absolute admiration to Greer.

The author states clearly that Faith is part of the Second Wave, having started her activism in the late 1960s, but is even more so a relict of an era that has ended. This becomes clear in the opinions of the college students who visit her lecture who mostly

„had come because their professors had made the lecture mandatory“ (Wolitzer 2019: 27). They see Faith as someone who belongs to the past and underline this in stating that she „represents this kind of outdated idea of feminism“ which „focuses on issues that mostly affect privileged women“ (ibid: 24). These attitudes embody the opposition of the Third Wave to the Second Wave. The accusation of merely fighting for issues that refer to educated, white, middle- and upper-class women becomes evident to be true in the course of the novel, with Faith’s foundation Loci engaging in exactly this kind of privileged, money-driven type of activism. Faith is well aware of this, however also conflicted with her urge to stay relevant: „rich women attending conferences with massages and wonderful food doesn’t get us anything. […] And yet, we have to grow“ (ibid: 267). Also, the antipathy of the Third Wave to Second Wavers, is portrayed realistically. Faith seems aware of the opinions of the students, therefore in the speech at Greer’s college, which introduces the reader to Faith’s personal feministic agenda, she carefully avoids to mention any specific issues. Instead, she stresses what it means to be a feminist and that most people are, even if unconsciously, already feminists (ibid: 29). This is a quite modern rhetoric - inclusive and therefore very similar to the agenda of the Third Wave, which includes a more diverse group of women and also men. Third Wave feminism does not display feminists on one side of society and everyone else on the other, but changes the narrative to a matter of equality rather than solely women’s liberation.

Faith’s personality is portrayed as bilateral: „attentive, kind, patient and interested“ (ibid: 52) on the one hand but with the tendency to „get angry very quickly“ (ibid: 27) on the other. This is summed up by the description „she was depicted as kind but human, sometimes difficult, always generous and wonderful“ (ibid: 27). Even though Greer notices Faith’s negative attributes immediately, they are overshadowed by Faith’s positive energy and her warmth. In some parts of the novel, one gets the impression that said warmth and generosity is calculated and manipulative behavior to build a following of young and impressionable girls to find interest in her and not see her as outdated and irrelevant, as the general public appears to do. For instance, when Greer tells Faith about refusing to pass on her friend Zee’s application, instead of staying true to her own motive of sisterhood, Faith reassures Greer in her actions. She even goes as far as offering Greer a promotion to make her forget about the letter and feel validated instead (ibid: 156). A n interaction which strongly supports this claim is when Emmett notices the box of fan-mail and gifts in Faith’s apartment and she is not able to recall any of her long-term supporters and does not seem to care about the amount of support and appreciation she receives from her followers. When asked what she „gets out of these young girls“ she simply states that they „keep her in the world“ (ibid: 403) which seems quite selfish given the sacrifices made by these girls. This explains why she never contacts Greer after their argument, since for her, Greer only appears to be one of many: „you take them under your wing, if that’s what they seem to want“ (ibid: 401). Even though she does say that she “liked” (ibid: 401) Greer, this expression does neither seem to do their relationship justice, nor Greer’s sacrifices.

However, in Faith, the author creates a well-balanced character and does not depict her as a person of pure evil. Wolitzer manages to weigh out Faith’s negative qualities, such as being manipulative, vain and emotionally unavailable, with even more positive qualities. This way, the negative qualities merely occasionally shine through – they may even be missed entirely by an inattentive reader. However, they become more evident at the end of the novel, when the reader learns that Faith knew about the injustice done by Shrader Capital, but does nothing about it and is instead still willing to continue the collaboration. It becomes evident that Faith seems to have lost touch with the movement completely when she furiously asks Greer if she “wants to give her Millions of dollars” (ibid: 342), because that strikes her as the only way to continue her activism for women’s rights. She complains that money is what it takes to “get something done in the world“ for the cause of women” (ibid: 343). This supports the claim made by Pilcher & Whelehan (2004: 172)

about the inability of Second Wavers to adjust and change their agenda with time. The fact that Faith mostly used the money to host expensive and high-profile summits for wealthy women anyway, shows that the accusation of her only caring about “rich white ladies” (Wolitzer 2019: 344) seems to be accurate. Especially, since in the world of Third Wave feminism, there are certainly many options to attract attention and to create a more grassroots-based approach to activism, especially through social media like Twitter or the internet in general. In direct contrast, it becomes clear that Faith is not as idealistic about her work as Greer, who questions Faith’s choices and eventually stops working for her.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Wave metaphor and beyond. Feminist agendas of female protagonists in Meg Wolitzer’s "The Female Persuasion"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar 1)
Flappers and Philosophers: American Modernist Women Writers
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Feminismus, Meg Wolitzer, Feminism Theory, Feminism Waves
Quote paper
Katharina Spreier (Author), 2019, The Wave metaphor and beyond. Feminist agendas of female protagonists in Meg Wolitzer’s "The Female Persuasion", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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