So Sheryl Sandberg, who's enormously wealthy and successful, published a book called Lean In
, which is supposed to help women achieve career success in the context of a sexist environment.
This sounds politically charged, but it isn't. Any woman who has been in any primarily-male workplace ever
has likely been made to feel uncomfortable, put down, come onto, or passed over for reasons that somehow tie back to her gender. It is not something I or any of us really complain about, it just is, and among the many talents of being a career woman is learning how to dissuade people, change perspectives, or find other loopholes to achievement without making this a "gender" thing. Because making this a "gender" thing can result in the worst alienation of all.
That is just life in the workplace today, and there are plenty of reasons why it is thus, and they are not really the subject of this post.
I haven't read Lean In
, but I did read an enormous number of angry reviews about it -- most written by women. There have been so many, in fact, that Michelle Goldberg of The Daily Beast
wrote a takedown
of these critics, arguing that they're "aimed less at what the book says than at who Sandberg is."
Sandberg, as I mentioned above, is now filthy rich. I don't know if she was born rich, but she certainly wasn't born COO of Facebook. (Or VP at Google, or a Harvard MBA.) That happened later. When she was small, she went to public school, like a lot of us, and studied hard. That's something lots of women can relate to.
It's understandable that many women now feel she's out of touch with your average chick on the rise, but this isn't a critique we make of wealthy men who write success how-tos. Some also tout Sandberg's "war on moms", despite Sandberg repeatedly expressing respect for mothers. As Goldberg nicely puts it, "Her message isn’t that all women need to be corporate executives or high-powered lawyers or political leaders. It’s that we’d be better off if more corporate executives, high-powered lawyers, and political leaders were women."
Why did the book, or the idea of the book, piss so many girls off? I'm gonna cite Goldberg (and Sandberg) one more time before getting to my point:
Women are conditioned to compare themselves with one another. When we’re not wholly at peace with our own choices—and who is?—those comparisons sting. “There is always an opportunity cost, and I don’t know any woman who feels comfortable with all her decisions,” Sandberg writes. “As a result, we inadvertently hold that discomfort against those who remind us of the path not taken. Guilt and insecurity make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another.”
All this got me thinking of girl-on-girl violence: its insidiousness, its ugliness, and the way it hurts women: as children, as teens, as adults.
In college I learned about female genital mutilation (FGM) -- from a woman, who was French, and who taught it through an optic that a male American sociology teacher wouldn't have. This is what was most telling about that lesson: studies and journals reviewing the act of female circumcision find that it is the women
who most often perpetuate the tradition today.
I'm not taking the blame off men, who obviously got the ball rolling on this bad-boy. But give it a generation or two, and they don't have to do a thing
. When you're a young girl in a culture that embraces FGM, the pressure you'll feel is from the women, who tell you that your honour is tied to this act. A woman is often also the one who orchestrates the circumcision.
It's the same with slut-shaming in high school: the trauma associated with being called a "slut" usually finds its roots in other girls. I was a "slut" in high school: girls gave me that name, it had nothing to do with promiscuity, and there was nothing I could do about it. I'll venture to say that the adult female equivalent of those chicks who sullied your reputation because they didn't like how you dressed is today's "war on moms" instigator. She's not the only species, but this is the one that rears its ugly head in the Sandberg story.
Working mothers sometimes, and guiltily, lament that the toughest thing about going to PTA meetings are the stare-downs from the "stay-at-homers". They get this enormous sense that they aren't really doing their jobs as "real" mothers because they haven't made that same 24/7 commitment. I'm sure that stay-at-home moms also feel pressure, intentional or not, from women who seem to be able to "do everything", even though we all know this is never the case: nobody can do everything
. There is no choice that's easier to make than any other, particularly when it comes to how you're negotiating your household.
All this shit about Sandberg has been needlessly tied to "feminism" and how she's somehow hurting The Cause, but I'm going to argue that anytime a woman hates on a life choice some other woman made, however different the path, that
is what hurts feminism.
Like Sandberg I have trouble calling myself a "feminist" because the word is loaded. A lot of people look at me stupid and say feminism is just about believing that women are equal beings, and that's just dandy. I'm all for equal beings. But I also know that identifying as a "feminist" carries a lot of baggage that I'd rather not be associated with: abusing women you don't consider to be "feminist" is one of the biggest. But it's really just the same old demon: garden-variety girl-on-girl violence. The act is so prevalent that some women pride themselves on "having no girl friends" or being "unable" to get along with women -- they think it makes them look less passive-aggressive and more pragmatic. That is a shame, but it's also not their fault: women can be vicious
to other women.
At Berkeley, some women behaved like I was carrying the patriarchy on my shoulders because I shaved my legs and wore high heels (I had a job at an office, which I usually ran off to after school). They whispered about me in class and gave me mean looks when I walked into a room. That was pressure I didn't need to feel; it's not like I was doing it to please some guy back home on some tigerskin rug by the hearth (and if I was, who cares?)
. I like to shave my legs, and I like it more than not shaving my legs. We can go into why I feel that way and the history of hair removal and constricting footwear and how it's all very patriarchal, but this post is not about that either.
In this life, you pick your battles, and you decide who you're comfortable being based on an unending number of negotiations with yourself and with the society at hand. There are no easy decisions. So why fight each other over the ones we did or didn't make?
Being a woman, and making another one feel terrible about some choice you would never have made, is not a constructive or empowering act -- the feelings that should fuel
feminism. It's demeaning and shaming -- the emotional WMDs that keep patriarchy ticking. It's a vicious, horrible thing we've been taught to do to keep other women in line, and it improves the lot of exactly no one
, including the perpetrators, who feel just as shitty as the perpetrated do.
So ladies, lay off Sandberg. If you don't like her book and don't feel it applies to you, then you're in luck: you don't have to read it, change who you are, or wage some misguided war to protect the honour of Women Like You. It doesn't have to be any of your damn business. And if you read the book and didn't like it, write about the contents of the book. Don't write about Sandberg. We don't need to invent another cafeteria slut.