In Praise Of Slowing Down

It feels funny, from my maternity leave, to write in praise of slowing down. I am occupied. My left forearm, at times, is numb from rocking my baby in the cool, silent dark. During the day we walk outside and observe the slime mold in the mulch. We practice cooing and tracing our eyes around the room. We have one play mat with a hanging stuffed elephant, giraffe, bird and monkey, and it is so stimulating when I lay her down beneath them! We sing songs and look up and learn one new word from the dictionary every day. The world is small and new.

Within the confines of the adult world our activities are not particularly cognitive. I used to spend most of my leisure time reading books that kick my ass. Now I have a baby who depends on crying and screaming to communicate that she is tired and needs my help to calm down. In this space we have discovered silence, quiet, deep breaths, relaxed muscles and gliding on the balls of my own two feet. If the crying escalates I will whisper to her, “We’ll get through this. We always do. Every single time.” We are together and there is nothing else.

During the course of my life, I have found the most happiness in radical presence: immersing myself in the actions of love; running and other physical activities in nature; being totally and completely taken over by ideas and stories. While all of these activities could mean work (caring, physical labor, mental labor), they are typically devalued. During my life I have run in circles with a generation of women for whom “breathing out” is as much of an issue as “leaning in.” We haven’t been trying to have it all so much as prove that we can do it all. From racing from one extracurricular activity to another and then homework into working after hours to please a boss who is under (or not) paying us, and sticking to exercise, and a commitment to the arts, and social time, and the constant streams of unpaid volunteer work, and being in touch online with everyone and all the time, the world is actually so large and frantic as to make noticing the slime mold impossible. Which, I have learned, actually moves around — and quite quickly, if you keep tabs on it.

Anecdotally, men I know seem less likely to suffer from the need to “breathe out.” I don’t think this is because women are stupid. I think it is because we are undervalued within a culture that is held up as a meritocracy. It is unfortunate all this hard work has not translated into fair acknowledgement, much less happier lives.

Innately, my little girl has excellent focus. When she is crying, she is crying. When she is looking, she is looking. When she smiles, it takes effort, and it makes my whole day. I am so fortunate to learn from her.

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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.

Shulamith Firestone, Sheryl Sandberg And #femfuture (Oh My)

“Sisterhood is powerful. It kills. Mostly sisters.”  – Ti-Grace Atkinson

Ti-Grace Atkinson

Madness, rivalry, wobbling (and ultimately collapsing) on two legs alone — reading Susan Faludi on the life and death of radical feminist Shulamith Firestone is no trip to the Thomas Kinkade kiosk. One theme I’d like to unpack, which is oddly prescient, has to do with fighting feminists, a topic that gets a lot of attention and little resolution.

There’s actually a simple solution. Ready?

Don’t be an asshole.

No really, don’t be an asshole.

I consider myself to be a cultural feminist, by which I mean that practicing feminist values is an inextricable ingredient of my fight for political and social equality and justice for women and girls. By practicing feminist values, I refer to an orientation to elevate the softer voices in a room, to treat others with accommodation and inclusion and respect, not a “dos and don’ts feminism” that focuses on feminism as a means of correcting the behavior of feminists and/or women. Dos and don’ts feminism, I believe, suggests that we can choose our way out of systematic discrimination against women, if only by not wearing that slutty thing or taking his last name or, if you’ve been listening to the gun lobby, buying a gun. This, in my opinion, leads to judgement and stigma and is the antithesis of inclusive feminism.

A feminist framework of power must in my opinion be culturally feminist, built upon principles of inclusion — let’s empower everyone — rather than dominance, or an approach that says let’s have the loudest voice and shout the others down. At its core, being an asshole is a particularly disagreeable way of exerting dominance over others. And, disgustingly, it happens within the women’s movement all the time. Oftentimes this takes the form of attacking feminist women who in good faith try something new with the goal of helping women advance, like Sheryl Sandberg and the authors of #femfuture, a new report with ideas about how to make online feminism more sustainable.

Do Sheryl Sandberg or the authors of #femfuture perfectly represent my views? No, they don’t. I’m sure they don’t represent yours perfectly, either. And I’m also pretty damn sure that insisting they do or you’ll shout them down in a sea accusations about why they personally are “problematic” in lieu of offering additional perspectives about the problem they attempt to tackle is not productive. In a movement built upon inclusion, everything is a starting point. (I don’t mean to minimize some good concerns that inclusion could be increased — in both works it could, which would improve them very much — but am calling for feminists with additional perspectives to proactively add their voices to the topics at hand rather than declaring the intentions of the speakers to exclude them.)

Within the feminist community, please, let’s not let problematic be the enemy of progress. And let’s focus on the progress.

Faludi’s piece references Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood, a piece by Jo Freeman that I have read and reread several times over the years.  One of the best conclusions is:

Isn’t it time we stopped looking for enemies within and began to attack the real enemy without?

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

Encouraging women to believe in themselves and their own power? Yes. In what universe should we not?

From my own experiences as a manager and mentor, as well as employee, I can tell you some of the best returns on human capital investment I’ve seen come from encouraging younger women to believe in their worth. That they deserve to be in the room. That they should air differing perspectives. That they must be treated (and compensated) fairly.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. I want women to be openly ambitious. No, I don’t think ambition alone is going to end sexism, along with racism, homophobia, class privilege, ableism and other discriminations that interact with  sexism to hold women down. But it is a necessary ingredient.

In the short term I would like to make the preliminary observation over how perplexing it is to see that the feminist blogosphere and feminist publications have been lit up with a “controversy” over whether or not Sandberg’s book is “good for women.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine asks if we shouldn’t hate Sandberg because she is successful. And a few nights ago Bill Maher had four men and one woman discussing the book. It was its own joke. No one said the punchline.

As someone who has held a variety of big feminist titles, something I started doing from a pretty young age, I’ve had a number of young women ask me how I did it, because they want to “lead feminism.”

My primary piece of advice for anyone who wants to “lead feminism” is to take your ambition and “lean in” to the real world. Generational shifts, owing to the work of older feminists, have made a strong feminist leader’s options much larger than running a women’s organization, which is always going to be more insular in reach.

Go lead a business. Go become a creative director. Go run for public office. Go become a school principal. Go follow whatever your heart tells you to do, but go out into the real world, and do it where women feminists are not the only leaders. I wish we saw more feminists on Bill Maher, discussing women in the workplace with a broader group, than we are seeing discussing, in many cases, themselves within a smaller group.