By E.J. Graff
Susan Faludi does not like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, not one little bit, no sir. And until I heard Faludi’s keynote speech at the Baffler’s conference Feminism for What? Equality in the Workplace After Lean In, held September 13, 2014, at John Jay College in New York City, I didn’t understand why there was so much rage against the Facebook CEO’s blockbuster business advice book for women.
Until the conference, I had thought of Lean In as a relatively generic business advice book that very slightly distinguished itself from its peers by calling itself feminist, using that term in the mildest, most corporate way possible. Sandberg’s book acknowledged that most of the barriers to women’s equality are on the outside, and have to be fixed through social policy and organizational change. But she also noted that many women have been socialized to hold back from self-promotion and other efforts that advance us in work, finances, and career. Sandberg knew she was talking to and about other women in the corporate and upper-middle-class world; she wasn’t trying to fix or talk about everything. But the bonus of the relatively anodyne book was that she noted a host of serious feminist research, delivering Joan Williams, Shelley Correll, and many other heavy hitters to readers who might never otherwise stumble across them.
So why the outrage? Would reviewers attack Tom Peters or Jack Welch for writing books that ignored the vast majority of men? What, I wondered aloud as I moderated the first panel of the conference, what was so wrong with serving a drop of feminism lite to people who would never touch the hard stuff?
Faludi’s keynote and the other brilliant speakers made me see that many are reacting to Lean In not as one among many business books, but metonymically, as a stand-in for a debate over who owns feminism and what feminism is.
The conference had its inception in Faludi’s Baffler article “Facebook Feminism, Like it or Not,” a scathing and deeply reported takedown of Lean In. Faludi offered an outline of economic feminism that she dated from the Lowell Mill Girls’ strike—women standing up for their own independence and freedom—to modern advertising’s attempt to transform feminism into consumerism, selling cigarettes and miniskirts by associating them with liberation. Faludi’s piece excoriated Sandberg’s so-called Lean In Circles that are essentially Facebook products, branded as feminism but advancing the Facebook takeover of all social and political life; she attacked the Lean In corporate “partners” that endorse Sandberg’s “movement” without having to make any commitment to improving policies for women at work.
Her keynote, “From the Lowell ‘Mill Girls’ to Lean In: The Long Dance of Feminism and Capitalism,” sounded like the outline or advance notice of her next book—which we should all be eagerly awaiting. In her complex and carefully explicated thesis, which I hope will be published somewhere soon, Faludi examined feminism’s history through a class lens. She discussed recent feminist uprisings in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, where women have taken to the streets to protest poor working conditions, miserable wages, and sexual harassment—much as the Lowell Mill Girls stood up for their rights against their bosses long ago. This kind of grassroots, working-class feminism, Faludi maintained, was in direct opposition to Sandberg’s corporate feminism—something she meant literally, saying that the Arab women in the streets are protesting against Lean In’s corporate supporters’ pay and policies. Why, Faludi asked, has there been so much media attention to Lean In and other manifestations of feminism that affect only women whose income puts them in the top ten percent, and so little to the women in the streets abroad? Why are we so obsessed with affluent feminism when even at home female poverty rates are at historic highs?
The answer, as Faludi sees it, is the shift from early industrial capitalism, which enabled early feminism, freeing women from family control by giving them individual salaries and one overseer to organize against—to today’s consumer capitalism, which Faludi believes, has sapped feminism of meaning, isolated individual women, and hijacked their desires for freedom, attempting to redirect those desires to the marketplace and career ladder. The thesis was more brilliant than I can recapitulate, although I suspect I’ll end up differing with her somewhat. Here’s my chart from her talk:
Industrial capitalism = unions and feminism
Consumer capitalism = cooptation and individual isolation
I would argue back that feminism wasn’t really born in the Lowell strikes; they were among many manifestations of female rebellion against gendered strictures, undertaken by women of every class, in many different ways. Would you write out of feminist history the fight for the vote, for married women’s property rights (the denial of which affected every class), the pursuit of legal birth control, the fight to define rape and battering as crimes? These were not necessarily class-based movements; they affected women from bottom to top. But maybe Faludi’s next book will put all these in context.
The rest of the conference offered a prismatic look at what feminism is and should be, with a luminary array of speakers—luminary, that is, if you are, like me, excited by economically left-of-center feminist public thinkers. The conference, of course, solved nothing—but it did allow many lively ideas to cross-fertilize among speakers with an incredible range of demographics and perspectives. (Props to Kathleen Geier, editor of the Nation’s feminist economics blog, The Curve, who lined up all the speakers.) I can’t offer a recap but I can give you a view into some of what struck me.
Organizers are happier and more optimistic than abstract thinkers. Who would have imagined this possible? We heard from Maureen Boyd, from SEIU; Andrea Cristina Mercado, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Hayden Mora, formerly of SEIU and now at the Human Rights Campaign; Sarita Gupta, of Jobs with Justice; Nancy Folbre, University of Massachusetts economics professor emerita; and others who struck me as upbeat to various degrees, as they talked about the last few years’ exciting organizing and uprising of the overwhelmingly female groups of fast food workers, care workers, hotel workers, and domestic workers. Of course there is a lot more to be done but they seemed both energized and practical, in a way that contradicted Faludi’s thesis. Meanwhile, more abstract thinkers like Duke University marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks emitted gloom about the prospects for social transformation.
Women of color are just a teensy bit annoyed at being left out of yet another “feminist” analysis. I was excited to meet such cutting-edge thinkers as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check, and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell. Cottom and Gandy in particular suggested that Sandberg’s advice would backfire for anyone who isn’t pale-skinned. Cry in the office? Be aggressive? Such privileges, they noted, are reserved for a particular skin color, since emotion is coded very differently based on the emoter’s race. Gandy pointed out that she and many of the black women she knows have been trained since childhood to be aware that they'd have to be twice as good to get half as far, and had already spent their lives “leaning in.” Cottom tartly dismissed the kind of feminism in which one woman discovers unfairness and starts chirping about that as if there were no history to the movement, saying, “My feminism can’t start the day you discover it; I need it to start about 300 years ago.” She’s interested in tying feminism to economic reparations, since income can’t make up for the way the accumulation of wealth has been systematically denied people of color.
We need to talk about paid sick leave, family leave insurance, a higher minimum wage, social supports for care work, and other intersections of work and family life. Economist Heather Boushey, a feminist policy analyst who has spent years in DC crafting and advocating for policies that enable working women to survive, said that she needed our help in defining “family” in a way that included the myriad forms in which we care for one another now. She praised the recent White House Working Families Summit, which brought together 1500 people from around the country active on the working families issues like paid family leave, better schedules and pay for low wage workers, and discussed what basket of policy issues was needed to help families deal with eldercare, childcare, fair pay, care pay, paid sick leave, and so on. “Every top official at the White House spoke,” she said, suggesting that we’ll see some policy action.
Weeks and Folbre had testy exchanges about the meaning of work; Weeks wants a life less confined by work, while Folbre argued that we can be critical of careerism and workaholism while respecting work as a channel for our creative and caring energies. Folbre argued that family is work, of a kind that benefits society as a whole. She went on to note that some people say care work is underpaid because women do it—but that the inverse is also true, and that women are underpaid because they do care work. Some in the audience seemed surprised by the fact that women make up two-thirds of minimum wage earners—and that an increase in the minimum wage would be an essential feminist advance.
And much more. Fordham sociology professor Micki McGee told us about the thesis of her book Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life: that self-help books have been on the rise precisely as real wages have fallen—and these deceptive tracts are misdirecting our attention, encouraging us all to blame ourselves for our lot rather than to join together to make change. She argued that the dream of winning the lottery or becoming a billionaire is a failure of imagination, and asked us all to dream bigger—of collective change rather than individual economic boons.
Linda Hirshman, the author of Get To Work and general feminist troublemaker, stood up for Lean In, arguing that we can change ourselves and the world at the same time, adding that the real self-help moment is when you realize “your oppression is not your fault.” MSNBC’s Irin Carmon suggested that two virtues of Sandberg’s book were that she allows women to talk about feminism in spaces and places that the rest of us might not reach or like, and that it calls upon men to step up too.
Overall the conference had a lot of love for intersectional and redistributive feminism, for social justice feminism as opposed to (and I use “opposed to” intentionally) liberal equality feminism. But of course the two have always existed in parallel; liberal reformism versus radical redistribution has been a tension running through feminism as it has through so many social movements. Many at the conference, I realized, regard Lean In feminism as a kind of “four legs good, two legs better”—selling us a vision of equality with one hand while taking it away with the other, confusing us with sparkle dust so it can put a hand in our pockets and bank accounts. I’ll have to think about that.
A video of the conference, which was livestreamed, has been promised. Keep your eye out at The Baffler’s main site—it was worth it.
E.J. Graff, senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, collaborated on former Massachusetts Lt. Governor Evelyn Murphy’s book Getting Even: Why Women Still Don’t Get Paid Like Men—And What To Do About It, which launched Murphy’s campaign to close the gender wage gap.