“Lean In” to the New Mainstream Feminism
By: Hannah Smith
Earlier this month, Sheryl Sandberg launched the next installment on her list of Lean In initiatives:Lean In Together. This iteration of Lean In offers a new twist to past tactics by calling on men to play their part in gender equality. The initiative features a partnership with the NBA, offers an array of tips for men via LeanIn.org, and includes a hashtag (#LeanInTogether) to gain traction on social media. While none of these aspects of the initiative are overtly wrong, we always need to be alert and remain skeptical in our society.
LeanIn.org offers six tips, two of which are along the lines of “Be a 50/50 partner” and “Be an active dad.” Is there anything wrong with these tips? Of course not. Should they be considered common sense? Definitely. The fact that these should-be-common-sense tips are spreading like wildfire is an indication that a bigger issue is at stake. Positioned prominently on the tipsheet is an introduction that reads, “Women still do the majority of domestic work, yet research shows that everyone benefits when men lean in for equality. Men who are active fathers and caregivers enjoy better health. Couples who share responsibilities have stronger marriages. Children with involved fathers are happier, healthier, and more successful.” Not that these benefits aren’t true, but it’s a shame that promised results are necessary in order to be a decent human being. Sarah Seltzer of Flavorwire writes, “Beyond the very class-exclusive and extremely heteronormative assumption about what a family looks like, none of these tips is distasteful in and of itself. Yet there is something depressing about efforts to sell a social movement to the masses based on the awesome “results” it will have… Of course, equal treatment produces encouraging results — namely, equality! But presumably we should afford each other fair treatment because all people are deserving of fairness, not because it will be great for business.”
A big issue with the Lean In initiative comes from its idea of feminism. Because there’s nothing about Lean In Together or the previous Lean In initiatives that anyone would object to, it completely steers clear of any political message or hard-hitting stance on bigger, current issues in our society. Emily Greenhouse of Bloomberg writes “But while Lean In, little by little, broadens to include men as well as women as it hones a message of generalized social uplift, and features political heavy-hitters in its videos, the group carefully steers clear of an explicitly political message…Truly, Lean In Together offers nothing to object to. And that’s the genius of it: I may stop, I may balk, but it’s designed to be purely unobjectionable.” Doesn’t that go against the entire history of the feminist movement? Feminists have gone against the norm, taken a side, and fought for it. This initiative has been so quickly accepted by the masses that Sandberg and her campaign aren’t really associated with the common stereotype of feminism at all. So what kind of feminism is this?
Let’s turn our attention to the original Lean In campaign. Greenhouse also writes, “Lean In is mainstream feminism in 2015, the kind Bey and Tay can stand behind, then still sell records to schoolchildren. [Rachel, co-founder and president of LeanIn.org] Thomas sees herself, and her organization, as feminist, “by the true definition of what feminism is,” she said. Here is a Ferberized Silicon Valley feminism that emphasizes better results, that emphasizes what is possible—what is, in the sense of product, productive—more than the older goals of social solidarity and genuine liberation. There’s nothing angry about it, which can make a gal angry.” This feminism isn’t relatable for all women, which completely goes against the concept of feminism.
Because feminism is in favor of promoting individuality, it is possible for each person to simply have a different understanding of feminism. The commonality in all these different understandings is equal opportunity for everyone. While Sandberg conveys that is her purpose, the population her campaign relates to are only a small portion of women, specifically elite, white women. These specific women face oppression and inequality on a daily basis, just like any woman. There’s nothing wrong with her advocating feminism for these women, but she promotes the campaign as relatable for all women. If she promoted it honestly for what it is, there would be a lot less criticism of her work.
This certain kind of feminism is catered to an incredibly small percentage of women. Susan Faludi of The Baffler writes, “Even when celebrating more laudable examples of female leadership, Lean In’s spotlight rarely roves beyond the uppermost echelon. One looks in vain through its website statements, literature, and declarations at its public events for evidence of concern about how the other half lives—or rather, the other 99 percent.
As Linda Burnham observed in an essay on Portside.org, Lean In “has essentially produced a manifesto for corporatist feminism,” a “1% feminism” that “is all about the glass ceiling, never about the floor.” The movement originally forged to move the great mass of women has been hijacked to serve the individual (and privileged) girl.” While this feminism may be beneficial to that small percentage, it’s not exactly helping the majority in the way Lean In emphasizes it does.
Race is an issue that Sandberg barely sheds light on, adding to the reluctance of the organization to become a key advocate for women of color. In an article published by The Feminist Wire, bell hooks writes “Sandberg’s refusal to do anything but give slight mention to racialized class differences undercuts the notion that she has a program that speaks to and for all women. Her unwillingness to consider a vision that would include all women rather than white women from privileged classes is one of the flaws in the representation of herself as a voice for feminism. Certainly she is a powerful mentor figure for fiscally conservative white female elites. The corporate infusion of gender equality she evokes is a “whites only” proposition… To women of color young and old, along with anti-racist white women, it is more than obvious that without a call to challenge and change racism as an integral part of class mobility she is really investing in top level success for highly educated women from privileged classes.” Should Sandberg take the time to understand that not all issues for the privileged, corporate white women are relatable between women of different social status and race, then we might be getting somewhere. She is only advocating on behalf of the experiences she’s had, which results in a great majority of women being left out of the movement and feeling like they don’t belong in this exclusive club.
Julia Carrie Wong of Salon sums up the initiative best with, “The campaign is a feel-good sales pitch for men to support gender equality that sweetens the deal with promises of higher profits, better sex and the chance to be on the same team as LeBron James.”
There’s nothing in this campaign that hasn’t been said before. Sandberg is using her success to re-visit concepts that bring men into the picture. There’s nothing wrong with that. But her overall Lean In campaign introduces an incredibly exclusive white corporate feminism that simply isn’t helpful to all women. The reason so many women (and men) identify with the traditional feminism is because it’s all-encompassing. It encourages individuality. It is accepting of each and every gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and race. This mainstream feminism that picks and chooses only the specific kinds of people it wants to incorporate is harmful and needs to be modified immediately.