There’s an argument that the American women’s movement has been having with itself on and off since since the late 1800’s, and it looks like we’re in for another round this week. It’s an argument about authenticity and the movement’s true purpose, about what qualifies as a real feminist concern and, by extension, who qualifies as a real feminist. In the 19th century you would have heard Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone shouting each other down (politely, over tea) about the enfranchisement of African American men; in 2013 you get feminists tweeting (less politely, beer in hand) about Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” which was released today and is causing quite the uproar in ladyblogger circles. Critics take exception with the Facebook COO writing a feminist book for aspiring executives because corporate feminism isn’t real feminism, since it supports an economic system that’s fundamentally unequal. In the opposite corner, Sandberg’s supporters are thrilled that the movement has such a powerful ally, and attribute the fuss to a feminist tendency to distrust conventional success. Both arguments have their merits, but to me the most interesting thing isn’t which side is right, but why we can’t seem to stop having this particular kind of fight.
Let’s look at the facts: Sandberg’s book has an explicitly feminist goal: to start a movement to help women overcome gender barriers in corporate America. And Sandberg herself happily identifies as a feminist, which after all is what feminists are always saying we want powerful women to do (remember the Katy Perry pile-on?). But despite this, Sandberg’s reception by actual feminists has been decidedly mixed. So what’s the problem? The pro-Sandberg crew is framing the “anti” camp’s concerns as envy over her success and privilege, or even flat-out dismissing them as “absurd.” But I think those interpretations miss the real meat of the debate, which boils down to a question of whose reasons for being in the feminist movement are most legitimate. Is it the single mother who has to work two jobs just to make rent? Is it the affluent tech company executive who has to watch less qualified men promoted above her? Which grievance is most important? Whose struggle truly represents the feminist cause?
Now, the problem with the above inquiries is that, when looked at from a strictly rational perspective, those are pretty stupid questions. Feminism is, or aspires to be, a movement for all women, so no one category of social justice work can be said to be better than another in the ultimate sense. The female executive who’s being systematically underpaid deserves our attention as much as the hourly worker who can’t afford child care. But just because the questions are dumb doesn’t mean they don’t represent something real. When feminists ask seemingly unproductive things like whose suffering counts most? we’re not just indulging in infighting, we’re expressing a very real and ongoing obstacle to women’s unity and ability to mobilize. Namely, that we are one huge-ass demographic group, and the issues that divide us often outweigh, or at least outnumber, the occasions that bring us together. Sociologists call this mobilizing problem “structural isolation,” and it’s been the plague of feminist activism since always. With women dispersed across so many other sub-groups—religious, ethnic, professional—they’re likely to have lots of other identities and roles that claim their primary allegiance. In other words, women’s ability to organize is limited by the fact that they all live and work in different places, watch different TV shows, subscribe to different faiths, and this can make it difficult for them to come together and find common cause. So if feminism wants to actually function as a mass movement, which it frankly hasn’t done since the 1980s, it has to offer lots of different points of entry, or ways in to the movement, to accommodate lots of different needs, grievances, and yes, visions of feminism.
The times in its history when the US women’s movement was most effective (roughly 1910-20, and the late ‘60s through the ‘70s) were, not coincidentally, the times when it exhibited the most philosophical flexibility and tolerance for dissent, and a willingness to open its doors to new groups. So when people show up on the scene and ask us to think about something that’s not on the official roster of feminist talking points, I say we’d do well to give them a hearing. Diversity: it’s a feature, not a bug, and allowing movement ideology to evolve to better reflect the coalition of women it represents can only make it stronger.
So where do you stand? Are you pro- or anti-Sandberg’s feminism for the 1%? Tell me in the comments!