The chatter of the room full of girls and a few out-of-place guys quieted down as Alyce Miller of the College Feminists executive board stepped up to introduce the speaker. Elizabeth Wurtzel is the renowned author of Prozac Nation and Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. I leaned back in my chair, preparing to take in what I expected to be an angry diatribe about the evils of men, the awful society in which we allow them to take control and the ways in which women across the country are failing to stand up for their rights. Instead, I was taken aback as a woman who looked every minute of 41 years old wearing high-heeled boots and a little too much make-up strode across the stage, ran her fingers through her bleached blond hair and began nervously to speak.
Elizabeth Wurtzel, graduate of Harvard College and as of last spring, Yale Law, hadn’t given a lecture in a few years due to her enrollment in law school, and it showed. According the Facebook event for the speech, Wurtzel had been brought to speak about her novels, her recent decision to attend Yale Law and her role as a feminist in society.
Instead, though, she spoke about “the opt-out revolution,” women who leave the workplace to become stay at homes and what she deems as the “sexist and crappy” way people are treating Sarah Palin now that the election is over. In a speech that was chock-full of “ums” and lip smacking, she jumped from politics to racism, saying that “racism is the most pernicious sin of this country, but sexism is worse and it affects more people.” She later retracted that claim in order to clarify that the fight against sexism has taken a step backwards, while fighting against racism takes the center stage. As she floundered about from topic to topic, the crowd nodded along anyway, agreeing with almost every word.
Finally came the highlight of the evening: a reading from her current work-in-progress, an essay entitled Failure; A History of Love Gone Wrong, which Wurtzel declared could become another “depressing book about myself that lots of people can relate to.” She read for close to ten minutes about the tragedy of failed love and the unjust way that time treats women. The topic seemed out of place in the speech, especially compared with Wurtzel’s later definition of feminism as “men and women being equal.” She complained about her poor choice in men and why she ended up alone and feeling so old.
Not only was the topic stale, but it seemed not to fit with the independent woman she had previously portrayed herself to be. As she read, I began to question: Why is a feminist focusing on the men in her life? Why is she complaining about the unjust way nature treats the fairer sex, when there is nothing we can do about it? Ultimately, I wondered why this successful and clearly intelligent woman seemed so sad.
Wurtzel waxed nostalgic for her youth during the Q&A session that followed her reading. Her life is a cautionary tale, she warned, between large gulps of water. “I wouldn’t do anything differently. Everyone else should do it all differently… Something is to be said for being more careful then I was.” This is not the feminist anger I was expecting to hear.
I went into the lecture hall expecting to leave angry. When someone says “feminist,” I automatically think of the stereotypical bra-burning hippie of the 60s, complaining about how women aren’t treated equally in the workplace, or how the media objectifies the female form. While I’m all for equality, the feminist tirade comes off to me as a bitter complaint from women unwilling to actually do anything about it.
Wurtzel never expressed any anger though. The closest she got to the cliché feminist rant on equality was a short response to a question on the objectification of women, during which she worried a lot “about the success of Girls Gone Wild.” But she redeemed herself in my eyes during a post-talk interview, when she regaled a few of us with the necessity of separating feminism and the bedroom in regards to Brazilian waxes, acknowledging that “it makes sex more fun” with a knowing smile. One can easily picture her sitting around couches in a sorority house, gossiping with the best of them.
Elizabeth Wurtzel is a likeable feminist. Instead of the angry extremist I expected from my Wikipedia search, in front of me sat a talented writer, with good advice to those of us who aspire to be the same. “The hardest thing is to have your own voice, but that’s the whole trick. It’s not part of the trick, it’s the whole trick,” she said, with her eyes flitting around the busy room. She’s not angry, nor is she crazy. Instead, she’s just a middle-aged woman who’s made a lot of mistakes, hoping to teach the newest generation of feisty young females not to do the same.
Corrected Nov. 13 at 4:57 p.m.: The article originally misspelled Alyce Miller’s name.