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The Superwoman Myth

Young women today are expected to be wives, mothers, housekeepers, excellent athletes, be entrepreneurial and save the world.       

In 1982, at the height of the feminist movement, Helen Gurley Brown published a book entitled Having It All: Love, Success, Sex and Money Even If You’re Starting With Nothing. A popular TV movie of the time was also entitled Having it Allwhich featured Dyan Cannon as a high powered fashion designer with a husband on both coasts. Oprah has said that women can have it all, but not all at once. And now 31 years after Helen Gurley Brown’s book, the debate still rages on. 

Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College, takes a fresh look of what is possible and and not for the woman of the 21st century in her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.

Spar finds that women feel guilty regardless of where they work and how much they earn and how many children they have. That is to say that women of baby boomer age have been expected to do it all (have careers, plus families). And yet, expectations have been raised even higher for Millennial women. They are expected to be wives, mothers, housekeepers, excellent athletes, be entrepreneurial and save the world. 

“We’ve added to expectations without taking anything off the table,” Spar tells Jeff Schechtman in this week’s Specific Gravity interview. 

Spar says the Superwoman myth grew out of the 1970s and persists in representations of professional women in popular culture today. “Every professional woman we see on TV is a wonder woman,” Spar says, “doing things real people don’t pull off so easily in real life.”

Young women are constantly being pummeled with images in movies and magazines that convey the message that if women are not “running the corporate law firm and putting the perfect dinner on the table and running the perfect home and being totally sexy all the time they’re somehow falling short.”

Fortunately, these are fixable problems. After all, “no one ever sat down and said ‘let’s confuse young women and baffle them with too many expectations,'” says Spar. We simply need to pull back a little bit, she says, so that young women don’t feel compelled to grab each and every opportunity in front of them.

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