Novelist, gender studies expert explores ‘faces women wear’
Women “live and die in a patriarchal society,” said Susan Shapiro Barash, who has devoted decades to studying, teaching, and writing about gender roles and women’s struggles to survive and thrive in a male-dominated society.
“While there has been a very recent questioning of the power of white males, for the most part, male supremacy is male supremacy,” said Barash, a professor of gender studies at Marymount Manhattan College.
Through 13 nonfiction books — in which she explores the relationships of women of varying economic, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds with their daughters, mothers-in-law, men, friends, and others — Barash has become intrigued “with the faces women wear as daughters, sisters, friends, wives, and mothers.”
The results of her research motivated her to plunge into the world of fiction; writing under the pen name Susannah Marren, she has authored two novels, “Between the Tides” (2008) and “A Palm Beach Wife,” which was published in April.
On Wednesday evening, July 31, Barash will appear at the Barbara Kagan Littman Book & Author Series of the Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
In a phone interview with NJJN from Long Beach Island, where Barash was vacationing and where she grew up, the Manhattan resident said she chose Palm Beach as the setting of her book because “it is such a rarified place.”
“It is so privileged and beautiful there, and it’s a place where supposedly nothing can go wrong — but in fact, that is just not the case,” said Barash.
The novel centers on spousal loyalty and female rivalry. Its central character, Faith Harrison, is a “quintessential” Palm Beach woman — beautiful, an ideal wife to her elegant and wealthy husband and a perfect mother to her college-age daughter. She owns a couture designer consignment shop on trendy Worth Avenue and is adored by women of all ages. However, her world starts to crumble after she learns of her husband’s impending scandal, as her own lifelong deception begins to surface.
The book also focuses on a complicated mother-daughter relationship, a subject Barash plumbed in her nonfiction book “You’re Grounded Forever… But First Let’s Go Shopping.”
Barash has spent decades delving into “pervasive” societal expectations of female behavior that can be “crippling” for women struggling to gain equal pay or engaging in what is regarded as typically male behaviors of assertiveness and power. She said one of the most recent examples came in the last presidential election, when Hillary Clinton appeared to be judged more harshly because she did not conform to societal expectations of femininity.
“Palm Beach Wife” is a book about “female survival,” said Barash, “which is one of the most curious topics in my research: how women survive and prevail very cleverly with inner resources they don’t even know they have until the day comes they need them.” She described the book as “a good summer read,” with its inclusion of feelings and reactions of women that, she found, often defy ethnic, social, or regional boundaries.
“The feelings of women are so fascinating and diverse, whether it’s how you feel about your mother-in-law, or the best friend who betrayed you or was there for you,” said Barash. “It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor or if it’s your daughter-in-law or female colleagues. These are the emotional experiences for women, and it doesn’t matter if she went to Harvard or high school or if she’s Jewish or not.”
In the novel, Faith discovers who her real friends are and finds her own inner strengths.
“In Palm Beach many women don’t have big careers, but they have a husband,” said Barash. “I’m accentuating this idea that women do have power, but they don’t know it because of how they’ve been raised. This is a story about betrayal and surprise and about no matter how hard you work, perfection is no guarantee.”
Barash is familiar with Palm Beach society because her parents owned a second home there and the family spent vacations there when she was a child.
She recalls walking with her mother on Worth Avenue, where “everyone is perfectly coiffed, sophisticated, and elegant.” Even back then, she often wondered what was beneath all that perfection.
Barash’s first novel was about the secrets women have and their tendency to put aside their own wants to find a husband. Building on that notion, Barash decided to focus this time on Palm Beach, where, she said, “it is remarkable what sexism and tokenism is all about. There is a hierarchy placed on you depending on how successful your husband is and how successful the family is. Faith gets her status through her husband, but interestingly has her own shop, Vintage Tales, where women can find high-end goods….”
The subject of women and their struggle to find their place in society has a remarkably familiar feel. For her nonfiction book “Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth About Women and Rivalry,” Barash interviewed women in a Midwest bowling league and others in a tennis league in a tony community in Florida.
“The complaints and rivalries were exactly the same,” she said. “What we are talking about are pervasive societal expectations for women and what effect they have on each of us.”
If you go
Who: Susan Shapiro Barash, author of
“A Palm Beach Wife”
What: Book & Author Series
Where: Tinton Falls home of Amy Mallet
When: Wednesday, July 31, 6:30 p.m.
Cost: $36, includes signed book and light refreshments
Contact: Lisa Adler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-588-1800