Though Spar is careful to use hedging words like “perhaps” and “inclined,” analyses built on gender essentialism, the idea that there are characteristics inherent in a person’s sex, are retro and unhelpful. (At one point, she suggests that men are naturally more averse to domestic chores! That’s not biology; that’s mama’s-boy laziness.) She also can’t work through the biology argument: Spar says it may be in women’s natures to leave unforgiving jobs, but she also she recounts that Elena Kagan’s first “great act” as Harvard Law School dean “was to put free tampons in all the school’s bathrooms,” a helpful amenity that likely wouldn’t occur to a man. Spar bypasses the whole “sex and gender are distinct” thing—the concept that women’s “inclinations” are social norms rather than sex characteristics—though viewing societal gender roles as accidents of history has long been a mainstay of feminist criticism. That is, Spar is arguing that biology makes women have babies and then drop out of a patriarchal workforce. But unforgiving jobs aren’t inevitable; imagine how much a critical mass of Kagans would change things.
But the most disappointing aspect to Wonder Women wasn’t Spar’s resorting to biological excuses, it was her realtalk to young women. Again, rather than counsel the upcoming generation to work toward restructuring the workplace for work-life balance—something millennials are doing anyway—she recommends tempering their dreams:
Want to be an investment banker or technology entrepreneur? That’s fine. But assume ninety-hour work weeks and, if you want children, more than full-time childcare. Assume you’ll work nights and weekends and that the guy across the hall will have an easier time than you. Assume the baby will come down with croup the night before your major presentation and have a backup plan in place. If you don’t want to live like this—and let’s be honest, most people don’t—then don’t become an investment banker or technology entrepreneur.
Spar is convincing when she posits that it women shouldn’t feel crushed by unrealistic standards—that this wasn’t what earlier generations of feminists intended when they fought for gender equality. And she intersperses her reductive biological arguments with compelling first-person anecdotes that illustrate how overwhelming it is to “have it all.” These attributes, and an articulate rendering of statistics and studies, make Wonder Woman an overall enjoyable read. But Spar—a wife and mother of three with a prestigious academic career—never makes it clear what part of her “all” she would give up to live a more reasonable life. It seems unfair to try convincing younger generations to settle.