It was lame when Betty Friedan was criticized for not writing about working class women or women of color in “The Feminine Mystique.” And it’s lame that Sheryl Sandberg is being attacked right and left for being too privileged to have anything valuable to say about working motherhood.
Sandberg, the massively influential COO of Facebook, has written a new book, “Lean In,” which aims to tackle the issue of why women still have so much trouble getting to the top of the ladder in business, government and pretty much every other high-powered field. I haven’t read the book, because it’s not out yet (March 11 is the release date), but from my understanding, it’s main gist is that women need to be more assertive and willing to toot their own horns in order to succeed in competitive fields. Sandberg acknowledges the structural issues that can make success difficult – no paid maternity leave, inflexible policies, etc. – but encourages women to band together and fight these. She even suggests weekly “lean in” sessions (which sound like a modern update on 1970s consciousness raising groups) for women to get together and talk about their successes and failures together.
Not so fast. Apparently, Sandberg is a Marie Antoinette in Louboutin heels, too blind with her “privilege” to offer anything of use to “real women.” Because she has “a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own,” her interest in supporting fellow ambitious women is merely a useless “vanity project.” She is a mere “pom-pom girl for feminism,” whose Prada boots and access to private planes make her impossible to take seriously.
This is bullshit.
Betty Friedan was writing for and about a specific demographic of women – middle-class women, most with college educations, who found themselves shunted back into the home due to postwar pressures to return America to safety and normalcy via domestic goddess-dom. Sandberg is writing about women who want to succeed in the upper realms of business and industry, a place where they are sorely underrepresented. Criticizing either of them for what they didn’t write about strikes me as grossly unfair, an easy – and yes, sexist – way of diminishing their message.
I am 1000% in favor of making structural changes that will help ALL women (and men, for that matter) – ambitious and non-ambitious, rich and poor, black and white and Hispanic and Asian and native, educated and not – be better able to balance work and family. I think Sandberg would completely agree. But just because that’s not what her book focuses on doesn’t mean it’s worthless. There are so few people addressing the ways women are socialized to fail in the workplace – being afraid to ask for raises, not applying for ambitious enough positions, etc. This is important stuff!