Why The Female Persuasion and Make Trouble are a perfect (feminist) match
The final chapter of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persusasion, out today, was written as a last-minute reverse-course in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and refers to that November night as “the big terribleness.” The section serves as a coda, amending the previous ending of a novel that was crafted during the throes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and imbued with the giddiness felt by women across the country who thought they were sprinting toward history.
“They just could not believe what had happened,” the narrator says of the women gathered at a Brooklyn book party. “Indignity after indignity had taken place, constant hammer-strikes against everything they cared about, and they had been marching and organizing and raging.”
If it wasn’t clear by the book’s title or the perfectly Instagrammable jacket cover, The Female Persuasion is a tome for a very specific portion of the population: those who were giddy and are now less so. Once you have that fact out of the way, and as long as you have already let yourself do the marching and the raging, it’s an inherently optimistic book, one that will fill (at least for a moment) the hole in many hearts that people had hoped to fill with the first female president. It may even satisfy whatever urge it was that sent people into the Chappaquan woods, desperate for any interaction with, and reassurance from, the former candidate.
The Female Persuasion follows Greer Kadetsky, a young girl from small-town Massachusetts who enters college as a typical apathetic bookworm and leaves — after pivotal events including a sexual assault horribly mishandled by the school’s administration and a ladies-room meet-cute with a famous leader of the women’s movement — as a politically active, capital-F Feminist. Greer is the main character and the story’s heart, with her career struggles and relationship drama and an inner monologue that is jarringly familiar. But it’s the character of Faith Frank, the Gloria Steinem-esque revolutionary who winds up becoming a mentor (and later, boss) to Greer that feels the most prescient.
While readers are curling up with Faith’s fictional heroine, they’ll also be able to cull advice and inspiration from the real-life version, thanks to Cecile Richards’ new memoir, out April 3 as well. Make Trouble is part biography, part resistance handbook, as it follows both Richards’ childhood with her late mother, venerable former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and her work as the longtime president of Planned Parenthood and her time on the Clinton campaign.
As if we needed any more proof that these books are fatefully intertwined, both Clinton and Steinem provide the leading blurbs on the cover of Make Trouble. The tome was written in tandem with Lauren Peterson, Richards’ longtime speechwriter at Planned Parenthood and a director of digital content for Hillary For America.
The shared experiences of the fictional Frank (as well as her protégé Greer) and the very-real-indeed Richards run the gamut from the awe-inspiring to the frustrating to the hilariously on point, down to the fact that both make references to the proliferation of public service employees who all seem to be “several years out of Wesleyan.” Wolitzer didn’t specifically model her any of her characters on any one real person, uncanny as they may seem. As she told EW last winter, she wanted Faith Frank to be an original creation.
“Of course she’s a famous feminist, but I wanted to create a parallel universe in which there’s room for many feminists of that era,” she said. “I had to make that world. The feelings that Greer gets when she’s around Faith, that has a relationship to the feelings I’ve gotten from several older women in my life, where I’m inspired and want to be my best self.”
Wolitzer also said that beyond creating an inspiring female lead and depicting a relationship that was based on mentoring and support — it’s worth noting that while Persuasion has romances, the most important relationship is the one between Faith and Greer — she really wanted to write a treatise on being a powerful woman in today’s world, and the misogyny that comes along with it.
Richards, for her part, is no stranger to the complexities of being a trailblazing woman. In Make Trouble, the plot points should be familiar to anyone who has followed politics even mildly — the Planned Parenthood congressional investigation, Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the Texas capital, the fight to pass (and then save) Obamacare — but Richards shares the behind-the-scenes frustrations and triumphs we weren’t privy to. Like the heavy security required to travel as someone who protects the health rights of women, or the constant mansplaining she was subjected to by lawmakers.
There are aspects to Persuasion and Trouble that can feel eerily predictive of each other. Richards spends much of the chapters that are devoted to her mother’s gubernatorial tenure explaining why it was so moving to see a woman bringing compassion to the Texas capital; early on in Persuasion, Greer’s inner monologue feels like a call-and-response.
“Maybe that’s what we imagine it would be like to have a woman lead us,” she muses. “When women got into positions of power, they calibrated and recalibrated tenderness and strength, modulating and correcting. Power and love didn’t often live side by side. If one came in, the other might go.”
In another section, Richards writes, “I firmly believe that when half of Congress can get pregnant, we will finally stop arguing about … Planned Parenthood — and we might even fully fund women’s health care.”
Wolitzer’s answer is Faith Frank’s talk show speech: “I think men are afraid that if women are doctors and lawyers and the openers of jars, then the men will have to do so-called women’s work, and God knows that scares them out of their minds. There’s nothing we can’t do, but there’s a lot that they’re afraid to do.”
Just when a reader might feel that the intertwined novel and memoir are bordering on preachy (and, to be fair, there are people who have probably already come to that conclusion), the correlation enters lighthearted territory: skirts. Richards spent much of her childhood arguing with her mother about unnecessary business-casual wear, including a traumatic incident that involved wearing a tweed number to her first day of college against her will; it was an argument that Richards then passed down to her own daughter, Lily.
Wolitzer’s answer is Faith’s description of the many ill-advised skirts she’d donned over the years: “The plaid kilt and the Indian-print cotton, the slit leg and the ruffly peasant midthigh, the transgressive crotch-high micromini and the long dark sedate one she called First Violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
So what is a reader supposed to do with these books? Well, Make Trouble offers several rallying cries and even practical advice for the organizing and marching that is inevitably still to come for members of its target audience. The tips range from the lighthearted, like knowing where the best ice cream is in any given airport terminal, to the more dire, like putting one’s identification inside their undergarments in case of arrest during a protest. She also offers up some diversions that can be used to feel better about the world, such as scrolling through Instagram accounts of adorable animals (like @harlowandsage), meditating, and picking up an inspiring novel.
For The Female Persausion’s part, its wisdom comes less in the form of practical advice and more in the form of escapism. Take Cecile Richards’ own advice and use it on those days when you just can’t. Both of these books will remind you that a little optimism goes a long way.