Wonder Women

Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Debora L. Spar

Sarah Crichton Books

Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, why are women still living in a man’s world?

Debora L. Spar never thought of herself as a feminist. Raised after the tumult of the 1960s, she presumed the gender war was over. As one of the youngest female professors to be tenured at Harvard Business School and a mother of three, she swore to young women that they could have it all. “We thought we could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats, and husbands in tow,” she writes. “We were wrong.”

Now she is the president of Barnard College, arguably the most important all-women’s college in the United States. And in Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection—a fresh, wise, original book— she asks why, a half century after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, do women still feel stuck.

In this groundbreaking and compulsively readable book, Spar explores how American women’s lives have—and have not—changed over the past fifty years. Armed with reams of new research, she details how women struggled for power and instead got stuck in an endless quest for perfection. The challenges confronting women are more complex than ever, and they are challenges that come inherently and inevitably from being female. Spar is acutely aware that it’s time to change course.

Both deeply personal and statistically rich, Wonder Women is Spar’s story and the story of our culture. It is cultural history at its best, and a road map for the future.  


Read an Excerpt


Growing Up Charlie
When I was growing up in the early 1970s, there was a commercial for Charlie perfume that appeared on all the network stations. I remember it vividly, as do many women of my generation. It showed a beautiful blond woman prancing elegantly down an urban street. She had long bouncy hair, a formfitting blue suit, and a perfect pair of stiletto heels. From one hand dangled a briefcase; from the other, a small, equally beautiful child, who gazed adoringly at her mom as they skipped along. The commercial never made clear, of course, just where Mama was going to



  • Barnard College President: 'No Woman Can Have It All'

    Debora Spar's explosive book delivers radical message to women trying to be good at everything.

  • Wonder Women by Debora Spar

    http://wonderwomenthebook.com/ | Wonder Women, a Book by Debora Spar, Video Trailer

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Praise for Wonder Women

“Barnard College president Spar (The Baby Business) skillfully addresses the state of feminism and suggests that, despite historic gains in education, the workforce, and equal rights, American women suffer under ‘an excruciating set of mutually exclusive expectations’ resulting, paradoxically, from the proliferation of options that feminism made possible. Drawing on her experiences as well as extensive research, Spar lucidly traces how the movement's ‘expansive and revolutionary’ political goals have evolved into a set of ‘vast and towering expectations’ that trouble women at every stage of their lives. Wisely forgoing hostility or blame, Spar finds women struggling, if anything, with the fantasy of ‘having it all.’ ‘We're doing this to ourselves,’ she writes, addressing, among other topics: the explosion of toddler princesses; eating disorders and hyperachievement among adolescents; the hookup habits of young adults; the ‘adoration of pregnancy’; competitive mothering; and the lucrative wedding, diet, and plastic surgery industries. Her solutions call for sanity and simplicity: to kill ‘the myths of female perfection’ and recommit to the goals of early feminism, abandoning the ‘individualized quest’ in favor of organizational and collective change. Tactfully navigating heated debates and effectively contextualizing historical trends and contemporary problems, Spar's book will be welcomed by readers who envision a world ‘driven by women's skills and interests and passions as much as by men's.’” —Publisher’s Weekly

“Spar uses her experiences of the feminist revolution of the 1960s as a scaffold for evaluating the situation of young women today . . . Spar addresses many issues facing working women—e.g., maintaining a fashionable appearance, sexual identity and aging in a world of shifting mores. For younger women who have accepted their entitlement to full equality with men, the conflicting demands of the roles expected of them, and their own ‘quest for perfection,’ can be devastating. A wise, worthy companion to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.” —Kirkus Reviews


“Debora L. Spar tackles—and dispels—the myth of perfection with intelligence and humor. Wonder Women is a terrific read.” —Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling Lean In


“Debora L. Spar has written the right book at the right time. We need to make all women’s lives less stressful and more rewarding. This brave, well-written book points the way. Spar reveals her most intimate history, yet stands back to see her whole generation—and mine—in perspective. Wonder Women will make many women feel deeply understood. And many men. It’s a warm, humorous, and lusty book, and I think many readers will be grateful for it. I certainly am.” —Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying


“Debora L. Spar has written a wonderful and wise meditation on women that draws on her own life experience and her deep intelligence as a scholar. She is a lively companion on an essential subject.” —Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World


“Debora L. Spar has done the impossible: written a fresh, thoughtful, and engaging book on the role of women in today’s society. In telling her own story she tells us where we’ve come from and where we must go next. A must-read for every woman on the move in life.” —Tina Brown, founder and editor in chief of the Newsweek Daily Beast Company


Wonder Women is the book I’d give my daughter as a guide to navigating the challenges of being a woman in twenty-first-century America. Debora L. Spar’s is a wise, calm, eloquent voice; she offers essential caution against the idea that anybody can live a life without trade-offs and imperfections, but she does this without ever losing hold of the righteous passion of the feminist movement.” —Nicholas Lemann, author of Redemption

Wonder Women is a refreshing and engaging reevaluation of the challenges facing women and feminism in contemporary America. With wit and historical insight, Debora L. Spar takes us through the female life cycle, exploding myths about ‘having it all’ through personal stories, social science studies, and critiques of popular culture. A compelling read, this book should be required for young women, their parents, and their future employers.” —Estelle B. Freedman, author of No Turning Back

In the Press

September at Glamour Means Leaning Into Shopping Hypocrisy
Opting out. Leaning in. Having it all. Women have so many choices for buzzwords these days!
- Jezebel
A Welcome to College Parents | Debora Spar
Over the next few weeks, parents across the U.S. will be taking their sons and daughters to college, a momentous event and a turning point that, once ventured upon, can never be reversed.
- The Huffington Post
Why College Costs So Much | Debora L. Spar
What has instead driven the rise, on our campus and elsewhere, are two crucial but little discussed trends: expanded access and extended student services.
- The Huffington Post
Women Don't Need to Lead Better Than Men. They Need to Lead Differently. - Debora Spar - Harvard Business Review
Business bloggers at Harvard Business Review discuss a variety of business topics including managing people, innovation, leadership, and more.
- Harvard Business Review
Why Women Can't Have It All, According to Barnard College President Debora L. Spar: Inspired: glamour.com
You know that girl who "has it all"--perfect job, relationship, body? No, you don't, because she doesn't exist, argues Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her explosive new book Wonder Women. Her radical message to you: Stop trying to be so good at everything.
- Glamour
Where Feminism Went Wrong - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
'Has feminism raised the bar so high that women are condemned to fall below it?'
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
Finding Satisfaction in Second Best - NYTimes.com
In her new book, the president of Barnard College says women have to stop trying to be flawless professionals, mothers, homemakers, cooks and athletes.
- The New York Times

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Debora L. Spar

  • Debora L. Spar is the president of Barnard College, a women’s undergraduate college affiliated with Columbia University. She received her doctorate in government from Harvard University and was the Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Spar is the author of numerous books, including Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Invention, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet and The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception.

  • Debora L. Spar © Steven DeCanio
    Debora L. Spar




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Wonder Women

Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Debora L. Spar