Prop Up

In the Balance

A lot of hay has been made this week in reaction to the release of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, “Lean In.”  As appears to be the case whenever any notable woman tries to impart a few kernels from her experience, Ms. Sandberg has been met with a range of zealous responses---from impassioned support to bitter resentment.  As these things go, water coolers everywhere have been trembling with activity and public focus has turned once again to the struggle of women to advance educationally and professionally in stride with men.  Inevitably, the word “feminist” enters the picture (at times, spat out like so much epithet) and questions abound as to whether the Facebook COO should be identified as such and whether she is the appropriate person to take up this mantle. Let me be perfectly clear: Sheryl Sandberg is a feminist.  I am a feminist and chances are, if you are reading this, SO ARE YOU.  According to Merriam-Webster:

Definition of FEMINISM


: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes


: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

In fact, we might be hard pressed to locate any person willing to go on record denying her feminist credentials based on the actual definition.  Imagine even Melissa Mayer, (I discuss her role in this conversation in a previous piece) with cameras rolling saying, “No, I don’t believe that women should have political, economic and social equality with men.”  And yet, when presented with the “feminist” moniker, in her interview for the film, Makers, she immediately rejected it as something toxic that didn’t apply to her and to which she couldn’t relate.  And she is not alone.

According to a Time/CNN poll conducted in 2009, only 24% of American women self-identified as “feminist” and only 12% considered being called a feminist a compliment.  Meanwhile, 82% of the women polled said their overall status was improved relative to 25 years ago and 69% had a sense that the women’s movement, in particular, had directly improved their lives.  Despite this, less than half the women believed that there remains a strong need for the women’s movement.  It would seem that many women understand the concrete ways in which the advocacy of “feminists” has created meaningful and positive change in their lives and simultaneously consider “feminist” a dirty word.  They also aren’t clear as to whether the movement is pertinent today.  What’s going on here?

My sense is that it is a confluence of factors. Conservatives have done an excellent job portraying feminism as something radioactive.  Women are still expected to subscribe to traditional roles and any deviance from the placid maintenance of home and family is seen as damaging to the fabric of society and even the well-being of children. Even with more subtle messages about returning America to its “former promise,” they describe a collective yearning for a tranquil era-gone-by, one in which women, people of color and “others” did not have a place at the table.

Women, themselves, appear to have internalized the notion that there is some archaic version of feminism that has 1) ruined the label for modern women and 2) might not even be necessary anymore.  Could it really be that our generation believes the problem is solved?  And why don’t we recognize how we got here or the work still to be done?  To decide that we no longer need people safeguarding the progress of women in this society is like a diabetic thinking that because she now takes insulin and her blood sugar is stable, PROBLEM SOLVED.  Somebody has to keep manufacturing that insulin, testing it, packaging it, selling it and you have to keep taking it.  Institutional inequality and gender bias still exist and still require the vigilance of activists on both a macro and micro scale. 

Sheryl Sandberg, then, is perhaps the perfect torch-bearer for the new movement.  She is a woman who has had phenomenal success and achieved impressive accomplishments akin to any and all male peers.  She has done this with many fewer barriers than the women who have come before her, but grants that the system remains stacked against her and conveys how conscious she has had to be along the way to claim her status.  She is receiving flak from every direction, including a most refined criticism that her message is only relevant for women of a certain social class.  I actually love this---the fact that there is an entire category of women with privilege to whom she might be speaking, is, in itself, a huge enhancement.  I also think it is false---she is specifically interested in shoring up women at all levels of the workforce (as well as domestically) and much of what she promotes requires more of an internal shift than access to actual resources.  Her ideas don’t solve the whole problem or even many of the problems, but they are a fine place to start.

I believe that with a message to women already in positions of power about reaching out to peers and subordinates still striving, Ms. Sandberg reminds us all that incorporating more traditionally “female” qualities, such as being supportive vs. cut-throat, lifts up everyone of any stratus.  Her ideas about women owning their authority, taking appropriate credit, keeping the pedal to the metal in their career trajectory and demanding better support at home and at work during the child-bearing years is at least 40 years old and still fresh as a daisy.  When a woman who has attended the finest institutions and flourished in the most demanding jobs stands on her pedestal, leans into the microphone and tells us we have a ways to go, we had better listen.