Jessica Valenti is the author of four books on feminism and a contributing editor at the Nation.
Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” — a book advising women to embrace ambition — hasn’t been released to the public yet, and already a backlash is brewing.
Sandberg has been called out of touch, her book a “vanity project.” She’s been slammed as being too interested in building her brand and for advising women on work and family issues while having the temerity to employ a nanny.
What’s remarkable about these criticisms is that they’re not coming from the usual right-wing anti-feminists, but from feminists themselves.
The feminist backlash against Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and a former vice president at Google, reveals a big and recurring problem within the movement: We hold leaders to impossible standards, placing perfection over progress. And a movement that does more complaining than creating is bound to fail.
There are certainly substantive critiques to be made about Sandberg’s book. “Lean In” is mostly tailored for married women with children and may not resonate with women who aren’t upper-middle-class or elite, something Sandberg acknowledges up front: “The vast majority of women are not looking to lead in the workplace, but are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families.”
Critics have also knocked Sandberg for putting the onus on women to lift themselves up, rather than blaming society for being sexist. But in her book, she frequently identifies how internal and external forces keep women from advancing in their careers. She also supports structural change, citing economic inequalities, discrimination, and the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child care as problems that need to be addressed.
And yet, swift and biting attacks have become the default for feminist discourse, so much so that writers at Forbes, at the New Republic and in The Washington Post didn’t even read “Lean In” before writing about its presumed flaws. (Yes, Sandberg’s TED Talkthat inspired the book has been widely watched and publicized, but eagerness to get shots in shouldn’t be more important than doing your homework.)
In this kind of culture, the snarkiest takedown wins. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has called Sandberg a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.” In USA Today, Joanne Bamberger wrote that Sandberg wants women to “pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps.” (Sandberg does not discuss fashion or her shoe choices in the book.) Sandberg’s foray into workplace inequities has been framed as a catfight between herself and Anne-Marie Slaughter, of the blockbuster Atlantic article “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” Melissa Gira Granteven implied in The Post that Sandberg wrote “Lean In” because of sheer selfishness: “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.” Because if there’s anything wealthy women are desperate for, it’s the chance to lead a social movement.
The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience. When was the last time you heard someone with a platform as big as hers argue that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care?
The view that Sandberg is too rich and powerful to advise working women is shortsighted; it assumes that any sort of success is antithetical to feminism. The truth is, feminism could use a powerful ally. Here’s a nationally known woman calling herself a feminist, writing what will be a wildly popular book with feminist ideas, encouraging other women to be feminists. And we’re worried she has too much influence? That she’s too . . . ambitious?
The cutting down of feminist leaders is nothing new. Writer and activist Jo Freeman said in a 1976 Ms. magazine piece that “trashing” within the feminist movement had become a toxic, yet accepted, form of policing other feminists — especially those perceived as successful.
“To do something significant, to be recognized, to achieve, is to imply that one is ‘making it off other women’s oppression’ or that one thinks oneself better than other women. . . . The quest for ‘leaderlessness’ that the Movement so prizes has more frequently become an attempt to tear down those women who show leadership qualities, than to develop such qualities in those who don’t.”
Gloria Steinem’s contemporaries in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, resented her media popularity — and with some reason. Women of color, lesbians and those who weren’t as telegenic as Steinem were largely ignored while their white, straight, middle-class peer became a star. But to Steinem, an activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine, the criticism diminished her achievements.
Steinem told an interviewer in 2007: “The hard part about the pretty part was that it made me feel that people didn’t think I’d worked. I came to feel that no matter how long and how hard I worked, it would be attributed to my looks.”
Not all intra-feminist criticism is without merit. The exclusion that existed in Steinem’s time still reigns, and the women anointed by the media as feminist leaders are often society’s most privileged. This narrow model of feminist success understandably breeds frustration.
So today, when younger feminists online call out others they see as failing in their activism or writing, it can be productive. I say this from experience. As a feminist author who’s had some success, I’ve been criticized by peers — some of it has felt over-the-top, but a lot of it has helped me become a better writer and activist.
“A lot of feminist criticism is valid; when people are marginalized within a marginalized movement, there needs to be some examination of why we allow that type of behavior to persist,” says Danielle Henderson, the founder of the popular blog Feminist Ryan Gosling. “But more often than not, it’s simply a disagreement or difference of opinion framed as a way to shame people into acquiescing.
“Instead of addressing the flawed system that promotes this sort of feminist ideal,” Henderson says, “we start to attack individual people, many of whom agree that there should be a more diverse portrait of the feminist movement and are actively working to change that.”
It’s clear that when Sandberg sat down to write “Lean In,” she expected some of this resistance. In her introduction, she acknowledges that “it is much easier for me to lean in since my financial resources allow me to afford any help I need.”
That’s true. Few of us host dinners for Nobel Prize winners or count former Treasury secretaries among our mentors. But just because most women can’t relate to Sandberg’s life doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. In fact, her achievements may make her a perfect feminist spokesperson. Sandberg’s power as an evangelist and organizer of American elites is profound. Like it or not, a social justice movement needs power behind it — on the ground and from the boardroom.
Part of the hesitance to embrace powerful women is embedded in feminism itself, says Buzzfeed’s Anna North. “Feminism is a movement founded on women’s status as a marginalized group,” North writes, “and as a woman moves closer to the centers of corporate or government power, she can come to seem like, for lack of a better word, the Man.”
But shunning anything that has roots in powerful places or powerful people is a mistake. Will Sandberg’s book or work speak to all women? No. But the last thing the feminist movement needs is a leader who universalizes women’s experiences — this has been part of the problem with feminism in the past. No one woman can speak to the diversity and nuance of all women’s lives. Instead of focusing on what Sandberg’s book doesn’t do, we should be thinking about what it could do.
Kathryn Poindexter, a political strategist who’s worked with women’s campaigns, calls this embracing the “yes, and . . .” rather than the “okay, but . . .”
“One of the keys to improv theater is never saying no — whatever scenario your partner comes up with, you say, ‘Yes, and.’ We can do that in our movement,” Poindexter says. “We can both support women who stick their necks out and add nuance to their viewpoints.”
Sandberg is providing feminists with an incredible opportunity to add to her ideas about women, work and ambition. Do we really want to discard it in favor of unproductive ideological one-upmanship?
I found it fitting that, toward the end of “Lean In,” Sandberg addresses how women cutting each other down can undercut our progress as individuals and as a movement.
“Every social movement struggles with dissension among its ranks, in part because advocates are passionate and unlikely to agree on every position and solution. There are so many of us who care deeply about these matters. We should strive to resolve our differences quickly, and when we disagree, stay focused on our shared goals. This is not a plea for less debate, but for more constructive debate.”
I second that emotion.
Read more of Valenti’s articles in Outlook: