• Thu, Apr 4 2013

Why Feminism Must Be About More Than Careerism, ‘Leaning In,’ And The Glass Ceiling

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There’s been a lot of discussion as of late about Sheryl Sandberg‘s bourgeois and somewhat apolitical version of feminism, Lean In. It seems like everywhere I look, the feminist discourse has been taken over by discussions of the ways in which women hold themselves back at work, how we need more women at the top, why Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer won’t call herself a feminist, etc. As a feminist with some serious socialist leanings, I am mildly annoyed by this, but I’m also kind of happy, because it gives me a chance to discuss how and why feminism must go beyond talking about how the most privileged women should be allowed to self-actualize at the highest levels possible, to the issues that concern that vast majority of the female workforce.

As I see it, there are really two issues here: 1.) “Lean In” feminism isn’t feminism in any traditional sense of the word, and 2.) even if we do decide to think collectively (and hence politically) re: women in the workplace, that’s not going nearly far enough.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read Lean In, only various summaries of it, like this incredibly well-argued takedown of it by Kate Losse. But as I understand it, Lean In is not a feminist text so much as a manual on achieving your career goals that puts all of the onus on the individual woman for her success or failure, and doesn’t really deal with the very real ways institutionalized sexism is holding women back at work. Contrary to popular belief, just because someone 1.) aspires to have money and power, and 2.) happens to be a woman, that does not necessarily make her a feminist. It’s why I’m not mad at Marissa Mayer for refusing to identify herself as one of us, and why I don’t particularly care whether or not Condoleeza Rice does. The jump from “I want to achieve things for myself” to “I want to create collective solutions so all women can achieve things” is by no means a given.

But let’s say that, unlike Marissa Mayer, you do manage to make that jump. In the version of feminism you choose to focus on, you want to think about how women (yourself included, probably) can break through that glass ceiling and rise to the very upper echelons of society. Like Betty Friedan before you, you believe that the smartest women should be allowed to do the most impressive jobs they are able to do, leaving their domestic labor to be performed by other, “better-suited” women. From the boardroom to the oval office, you want women in positions of power, because more women in positions of power can only be good for women everywhere, right? What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong with it is the same thing that was wrong with Ronald Reagan‘s “trickle-down” economics: giving even more privilege to the most privileged people in society is never going to be an effective solution for helping everyone.

Let’s return for a minute to a concept I’ve referenced before, that of intersectionality. The idea behind that goes: If a social justice movement wants to help everyone in a large and diverse group (like, say, women), addressing the needs of the most marginalized first is the most practical way to do it, because that will ensure that everyone’s needs are being addressed. If sex workers, trans women, and women of color are being treated fairly by society, you can bet that white, college-educated, cisgendered women are, too. It’s not an either/or prospect, but one that seeks to be as inclusive as possible.

The women who are sitting in law offices wondering how to raise children at the same time as getting on track to make partner form a very small, very privileged subset of womankind at large. You know what the majority of women are wondering? How to keep themselves and their children alive on a minimum wage job with no benefits. The women working at McDonald’s do not give a shit whether the CEO trying to squeeze every last drop of labor out of them for the same shitty paycheck is a woman, a man, or an alien being that reproduces by mitosis. Bourgeois feminism has been successful in convincing the world that women can exploit workers just as well as men can; just because someone is a woman with children herself, doesn’t mean she is going to give her employees any more  time to spend with, or money to spend on, their families. Equality!

As Sarah Jaffee argues in this excellent article, labor is a gendered issue, and this is supported by the numbers, which she references extensively. Women are being disproportionately affected by both the shrinking of public sector jobs, and the exploitation of the ever-growing service economy. Who’s making all the food for the well-off women working long hours at their demanding and fulfilling jobs? Other, less rich, less white women. A practical feminism must concern itself with them first.

As service jobs become the norm for both women and men in America, it’s important to respect those people as workers, and to advocate for their rights to collective bargaining, paid sick time, and all the activities that make it possible for someone to remain human and sane even as they are being treated like cogs in the machine. The solution to women wanting time off to have babies isn’t to tell them to take less time off; it’s to extend the same courtesy to men, as they already do in several European countries. And for everyone but the most highly paid and specialized of workers, these are goals which are achieved collectively, not individually.

There are many feminist leaders who get this; Gloria Steinem, for instance, was recently in the news for pressuring Christine Quinn, an ostensibly progressive politician, into allowing a paid sick leave bill to come up for a vote in New York city council. But many other feminist voices fall silent when it’s time to make the connection between women’s issues and labor issues, despite the fact that they are often one and the same. In the end, I’ll admit that I dream of a post-work (but not post-passion) society in which everyone, male, female, and genderqueer, is free to fulfill their human potential however they see fit. (And in which everyone does his or her own housework, or lives in squalor.) But I realize that’s a long way off, and might not even happen at all. So in the meantime, I think it makes sense to focus on the concerns of the largest swath of humanity first, and that’s not the swath for whom “leaning in” is currently a possibility.

Photo: Wikipedia

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  • Eileen

    I want to start by saying I understand and agree with your article, although your vision of the ideal world is pretty different from mine. And I agree that Lean In isn’t about feminism – it’s a career self-help book aimed at women, which is a totally different thing. What I don’t understand is why we have to assume that “leaning in” and fighting institutionalized sexism have to be mutually exclusive, as most of my Sandberg-critical friends seem to.

    • jamiepeck

      They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The problem arises when people decide that “leaning in” on an individual basis is an adequate substitute for collective political action. And the next problem arises when feminists get myopic about the fact that labor issues are feminist issues.

    • MeghanM

      As a female attorney sitting in my law office tying to figure out how to make partner, my perspective might be different than yours. I think it is myopic, however, to think that just because I aspire to personal career success that I don’t also aspire to a level of social justice.

      Is it not unfair that women graduate from law school at almost equal rates to men, yet fill some absurdly low number of percentage partnership jobs? Is it not also important to allow the same opportunities for success at all levels?

      I suggest you read the first chapter of Lean In. Sandberg discusses how she asked for parking spots for expectant mothers, and the male CEO had no problem with it — but it never crossed his mind to reserve these spots. Having women in the higher tiered jobs creates an awareness of the needs of women in the workplace, which ultimately will help the lower paying service professions.

  • Maddi

    A well-written and on-point article. Too often the conversation about feminism ends at equality for women, not equality among women. Thank you Jamie!

  • MR

    Good article. “Collective solutions so all women can achieve things”. I have the privilege to have worked and continue to work with feminist women who have dedicated their careers to advancing working women’s rights. They’ve missed cultivating their children for 3 months a year some for at least 20 years in order to put their money where their mouth is. I’ve been happy to assist them in their endeavors. A very good friend of mine has a picture of Eleanor Roosevelt hanging on her wall in her office. No greater soldier of the Democratic Party than Eleanor Roosevelt. But they all remind me often, how there is still such a long way to go.