The publishing house seemed to have gotten the cover right on the very first try. The woman in the white shirt and black pants was working at her laptop, but in a mind-boggling inversion position known in yoga as scorpion: legs in the air, forearms on the ground. This preposterous balancing act was the perfect visual illustration of the book’s subject, the crazy demands on women in the modern age.
“The shoes are wrong,” said the author.
And that is Debora Spar in a nutshell, a woman who casts such a wide net in her everyday life that she is capable of running Barnard College, researching and arguing the case against perfection mania—and focusing on the fact that the shoes on that cover model were dowdy. Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection inveighs against the myth of having it all: “Because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything,” it says. Deb does not do everything. She just does everything that she needs and wants to do, from the global to the quotidian.
I should have seen it coming a decade ago, when we were searching for a new president. There were two students on the committee, and each time another smart, articulate academic left the room, they would lean in and say, “She was great. But she wasn’t Debora Spar.” Our discussions with Debora were not only notable for her deep dive into the challenges of the College, but her insatiable curiosity about everyone arranged around the table and the way they envisioned Barnard’s future. The part of the process in which we asked “Do you have any questions for us?” lasted longer than the part in which we initiated the questions.
I look at the analysis of her first year written in my role as board chair, and I have to laugh. “Your engagement with outside power brokers must continue and expand so that Barnard will be better known and appreciated in the world,” I wrote. “You must make certain that initiatives you have emphasized in your first year are not seen as flashes in the pan: the Athena Center, for instance, and various international initiatives.”
No pan flashes here; she did it all. She is a public personality, talking about second wave feminism on NPR, reproductive technologies on CNN, women’s colleges at public forums, while also serving as a voice for women on the board of Goldman Sachs. The Athena Center has grown into a significant force on campus, with its student programs, power talks, and film festival. The Global Symposia have stretched from Beijing to Sao Paolo. By the numbers the College is more selective and diverse than at any time in its history. The numbers are important. I learned early on that if I wanted to discuss an issue with Debora, one of the first questions she would ask was “Where’s the data?”
I don’t want to say that she is fearless. That makes her sound a little reckless. But she is filled always with a sense of possibility. I think the students can feel that, that it’s why they’ve turned her into DSpar, an iconic female figure. (No. 11 in The Barnard Bulletin ’s list of “125 Things To Do Before You Graduate from Barnard” is “Spot DSpar eating at Absolute Bagels. Fangirl like crazy.”) When we first started working together, I talked to her about a series of what I saw as intractable problems, including a worldwide financial downturn that had devastated our endowment. At a certain point in the discussion, when I would talk about what we absolutely could not manage, she would ask, “Why not?” She sought my insights often, but she ultimately made her decisions on her own. An ambitious fundraising campaign. A new building. A book on women that, with its candid exploration of sex and its pointed criticisms of second wave feminism, could be guaranteed to make trustees nervous. She seeks counsel but not permission.
In the last few months I’ve remembered what we said when we hired her: the biggest problem we will have with Debora Spar as president is keeping her. Barnard got nine years, along with a vastly increased public profile, a curriculum overhaul, and, very soon, a new center for teaching and learning. I got a friend for life. And, naturally, when the book was published, the cover model got black stilettos. The right shoes. •