Melissa Gira Grant is a contributing editor at Jacobin, and has written about sex and politics for the Nation, the Atlantic, and Dissent.
She had it all — a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own. But there was one thing Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have.
“I always thought I would run a social movement,” Sandberg said in the PBS/AOL documentary series “Makers.” So to launch her first book, “Lean In” — the subject of a front-page story in Friday’s New York Times — Sandberg is calling on women to contribute unpaid time to her public relations campaign by joining “Lean In Circles.” In small groups reminiscent of feminism’s pre-corporate days, they’ll gather after work to share success stories, view webinars and learn how they can rise to the top of their careers without forsaking “self-fulfillment” — Sandberg-speak for marriage and childbearing. Sandberg has set a rigorous schedule for each group – “three minutes for personal updates” at each monthly meeting, followed by 90 minutes of instruction – to be supported by videos and inspirational quotes on her “Lean In Foundation” website. Buy the book, lean in, and share – or click it.
As others have pointed out, this is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line. The “movement” Sandberg seeks to lead with Lean In resembles a social movement only so far as it supports the growth of her brand as leader.
There’s nothing wrong with a savvy marketing campaign that recruits an audience to evangelize for you by asking them to share their own stories. It’s the same practice that Facebook, which Sandberg is credited with bringing to profitability, is built on. And this movement is on trend with how (far too) much social change is now marketed: something to accumulate, to Instagram, to be praised, no matter how well it succeeds. The personal is the political is now the post-post-feminist social movement: “Just ‘Like’ here to be added to our list,” says the Lean In Facebook group, naturally.
I still believe, though, that women are attracted to feminist ideals beyond driving vanity projects. We don’t find feminism only when we somehow win the leisure time to develop a political analysis; we do it because we can’t afford not to. But when Sandberg asks the women in her movement to share only “positive” stories (as the Lean In Circle materials stipulate), where women always overcome the odds through their individual mettle, when do women get a chance to identify the obstacles still in front of them, those structural barriers that do not melt before positive self-regard? Without naming that which is still not won, what is this movement actually struggling for? To make change, or to be celebrated as women who adopt the mantle of “changemaker” in Sandberg’s world?
It seems that the consciousness raised and solutions offered in Lean In Circles will be isolated to actions individual women can take to support their own ambitions and desires, rather than wondering about the ambitions and desires of, say, the women who keep house for the women spending their time “leaning in.” There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women.