That Happened: Feminism According to Sheryl Sandberg

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Column Until we remove the stigma around feminism and stop creating barriers between each other, we’re not going to achieve equality, no matter how far in we may lean.

The first act of feminism I witnessed was mortifying. I was at my Brownie Fly-Up ceremony, the celebration of our troop graduating from Brownies to Girl Scouts. There we were. On stage. And the leaders of all of the local troops were supposed to sing us a song before we walked the ceremonial bridge over a mirror, which is actually a little creepy when you think about it, to become Girl Scouts. I watched in horror as our leaders—one of whom was my own mother—stood silently staring into the crowd. Not singing.

Suddenly, Troop 310 was walking the plank. I glared at my mom and asked why she had done that to me. She replied, “Did you listen to the words of the song?” I had not.

It was a cheery rhyming number, the gist of which was that while we failed at everything from tent-pitching to sports, they were letting us graduate anyway. I looked for this song in the official Girl Scout songbook and came up empty. It was probably a local specialty.

At the time, I cared very little about the words and just wanted my mom to have sung and shut up about it. On the way home, we had a long talk about what it would have meant. I lived in a house where Ms. Magazine sat comfortably on the table with an assortment of novels, the New Yorker and newspapers. I distinctly remember an intimidatingly heavy-looking book called Backlash on the table for a while. When my mom explained why the song was wrong, I got it. I was still pissed because, at eight, being embarrassed is about the worst thing possible. But I got it: As a feminist, you don’t belittle yourself and your friends. This is a lesson I have had to relearn many, many times.

And it’s a lesson that seems to be getting lost with this new generation of feminism. This wave (I forget how many waves we’ve had at this point) started last year with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic: Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. Talk about backlash.

Cut to today. Marissa Mayer doesn’t identify as a feminist and is, I think, just trying to do her job. But she has been repeatedly criticized for not being a role model for real women, especially the working kind. Then we have Sheryl Sandberg a self-defined feminist starting a deliberate movement.

The criticism of Sandberg has been severe. She doesn’t understand real women. She’s judging us for not working hard enough. She doesn’t get what it takes to make it when you’re not the COO of Facebook (though I would argue that getting to that point in her own career means that she most certainly does get it). We’re picking her apart.

These new voices in mainstream conversations about feminism have a lot in common, which they talk openly about: they are wealthy, straight, attractive, white women. This is the same problem Gloria Steinem faced in the ’70s. Despite the progress Steinem made, she was accused of not understanding the plight of everyone else, of creating an elitist, exclusive movement dedicated to the advancement of a few. Sounds a lot like what people are saying about Sandberg’s book and social campaign, Lean In. Have we not progressed at all?

Once again, we are undermining ourselves because we don’t see ourselves directly reflected in Sandberg’s mirror. But, while our finances might look different, Sandberg argues that we all face the same struggle. In her recent 60 Minutes interview, she says that as women we all learned to downplay our accomplishments from a young age (hell, some of us were even encouraged to celebrate our alleged failures in song). Girls who displayed leadership skills were deemed bossy; as we get older bossy becomes bitchy. She notes that women hold themselves back to avoid these negative stereotypes. While we hold ourselves back, we also take down those women who don’t.

Sandberg is not saying, “Lean in and be me,” but she only has her own life experience to draw from. She’s saying, lean into your own life and ask for whatever it is that you want or need. And yes, it will be easier for women with supportive partners and good jobs. The best response, I think, to her advice about work is Jody Greenstone Miller’s piece in the Wall Street Journal: It’s about changing the structure of the American workday so that all people—parents and singles alike—can have a fulfilling life outside of work. Figure out a way to let people who don’t have Sandberg’s advantages leave work at 5:30, too.

There are many women (and men) just struggling to get by who might look at all of this and say, this isn’t about me. But it is. Feminism has long been about giving a voice to those who are silenced, and Sandberg has the stage. She acknowledges her status and said during the 60 Minutes interview, “Yes, it’s easier for me to say this, and that’s why I am saying it.”

It’s time we stop shooting the messenger and listen to her message. It’s time to stop saying, “I’m not a feminist, but of course I believe I deserve to have a place at whatever table I’m sitting at. I’m not a feminist, but I should be paid as much as my male counterpart. I’m not a feminist, but I think women are equal to men.” It’s long-past time to remove the stigma around feminism, stop creating barriers between each other, and get down to the real conversations about equality at work and at home. As long as we separate ourselves because of a word, we’re not going to achieve equality no matter how far in we may lean.

Image: Lean In

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