Feminism Goes Mainstream: The Obligatory Lean In Review

I saved Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead until these final moments before my maternity leave because I like to match books with times in my life to the extent practical, I was reading other things first, and I’m not as mainstream as the feminists who received advance copies that allowed them to review the book in a more timely fashion.

Within 10 pages of reading, I started getting misty-eyed with happiness. Sheryl Sandberg is not another generation’s replacement for Gloria Steinem — nor, for a variety of reasons, is it particularly relevant or useful in this modern feminist era to try to anoint a new one — but what she and coauthor Nell Scovell have created is a game-changer: Feminism has gone mainstream. Specifically several feminist ideas have gone mainstream. They are being read and talked about by people outside the women’s movement and outside the progressive movement. Lean In is sparking much-needed conversations, some of them uncomfortable, within settings where everyone otherwise politely agrees that women are equal while men hold most of the power, as if no disconnect exists between professed ideals and glaring reality. This is huge.

In the form of a memoir peppered with statistics and practical advice, Sandberg gives other women permission to say to themselves, I’m going to step up and believe in my professional ability. Not every woman has a fear of sitting at the main table, or negotiating a salary, or taking on a leadership role when they know they might want to have kids someday. Not every woman, many of them due to multiple discriminations that cannot be mitigated by a change in attitude, can even dream of having these problems. But for those who do, and there are a lot of them, Sandberg’s message is inspirational. We must believe in ourselves.

Self-esteem is an irreplaceable ingredient in any march toward justice. When you are taught to believe that women have not achieved equality and parity — that you are getting paid shit, that you got raped and your military commander dismissed the charges, that the president has taken multiple breaks from running the country to force you to show a driver’s license before you can buy a birth control pill — not because of systematic discrimination against women but rather because there’s something wrong with you, personally (oddly, all of us), believing in yourself is a radical act.

A great deal of internecine debate exists within the feminist community, I think partially from a fear that Lean In will be seen as a canon on modern feminism, which it is not. Sandberg is a business leader who wants to help other women overcome self-doubt and fill executive leadership roles. This is not a book that was written to advance feminist theory, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. So many feminists have criticized this book that I don’t need to feel the need to recap all of their criticisms. A few: Systemic change requires institutional-level solutions (not negated by Sandberg’s book). This book is more relevant to upper class, heterosexual white women (yes, this is true, but Sandberg wasn’t trying to speak for all women; if anything Lean In suggests that women who don’t fit Sandberg’s profile, especially women of color, need to be supported by the feminist community in publishing mainstream-level books, and sign me up as someone willing to help).

My primary criticism of the book is that in a few places, Sandberg asserts that women in power will help bring other women up. That’s simply not true. How many years has it been since Sarah Palin stepped into the cement shoes of that outdated liberal feminist assumption and threw it into the river? A feminist agenda must include law and policy, which may be acknowledged by Sandberg herself as outside the scope of the book, but that doesn’t mean she gets a free pass to claim something that’s untrue. Women who lead often don’t bring other women up with them, and it’s routinely suggested that’s because it’s easier to admit a token woman who displays patriarchal behaviors, or women want to make sure other women don’t crowd them out of their uniquely successful position (what I call the ‘there’s only room for one smart girl in the room’ theory). In the first place, we shouldn’t promote women for the purposes of resolving sexism for other women. It’s not fair to let men currently in power off the hook like that. We should have women represented equally in leadership because we as a society have a moral obligation to do so.

Lean In is an easy, quick read designed to bring feminist ideas that women should believe in their potential to a mainstream audience. On those grounds, it has succeeded wildly. I’m happy to celebrate that from my maternity leave, whenever it begins. Many of the issues she wrote about are becoming realer to me than I could have imagined just one year ago.

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