Most awesome feminist (IMHO) Jessica Valenti writes in the Washington Post, “Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what?” And she raises a really important point about the usefulness of the feminist backlash against Sheryl Sandberg’s soon-to-be-released book Lean In. Does Sandberg’s writing on her experience in the business world really serve as a detriment to the feminist movement? Valenti, who has been able to read an advance copy of the book, notes that Sandberg admits her limited scope as a successful and privileged women, and she isn’t trying to write about the experience of more marginalized groups of women. I’d venture to say Sandberg would never argue that these experiences aren’t also valid and need to be discussed in a public forum. Furthermore, I think this is a lot more likely to happen with women like Sandberg rising in power in both the business world and the public debate over the role of women in the economy.
Some of the criticism of Sandberg comes from her placing the onus on women to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. If women acknowledge they can be empowered, then they wil be. Of course, women’s empowerment also requires fighting back against the sexism that places greater barriers on women’s success compared to men. But even if the point of Sandberg’s thesis is that women need to “lean in”, she’s stillarguing for a social change that supports women’s empowerment too, like men needing to take on half of domestic responsibilities. Also, she’s calling herself a feminist, and bringing feminism back into the mainstream debate. These are really important conversations to be had, even if there is still more in front of us that we need to address.
Valenti goes on to discuss in-fighting in the feminist movement. She quotes Buzzfeed’s Anna North in writing, “feminism is a movement founded on women’s status as a marginalized group,and as a woman moves closer to the centers of corporate or government power, she can come to seem like, for lack of a better word, the Man.” And Danielle Henderson of Feminist Ryan Gosling, “instead of addressing the flawed system that promotes this sort of feminist ideal [of a successful business-oriented rich white woman], we start to attack individual people, many of whom agree that there should be a more diverse portrait of the feminist movement and are actively working to change that.” The backlash within the feminist movement risks us losing our focus on creating a more equitable society where women have opportunities without barriers. The debate over the importance of Sanberg as a feminist figure should be about how we can use her popularity and public pull to work toward the goals of feminism – Valenti writes, “instead of focusing on what Sandberg’s book doesn’t do, we should be thinking about what it could do.”
I buy Valenti’s argument argument that it’s not constructive to debate whether we think Sandberg is a perfect feminist. Does she need to be? Feminism is not a zero-sum game. Greater focus on women in business doesn’t automatically need to mean less focus on less privileged women and marginalized groups of women. I don’t see how more women in traditional positions of power could in any way be bad for women who are still without power. Can we all get along and work together?