The New York Times ran a front page story by Jodi Kantor on Friday about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, and her effort to create a women’s social movement through the Lean In foundation. The book won’t be out for another two weeks, but the framework for thinking about the book is being formed now by journalists. We are to think of Sheryl Sandberg’s book and organization as a salvo in a war (or, worse, a catfight) with Anne-Marie Slaughter. An intra-feminist debate.
The issues raised by Sandberg (and Slaughter) are of the first importance, and I’m glad to see major publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic give them prominent attention.
Yet it’s a terrible framework, and I think Kantor’s article has some pernicious, even if unintended, consequences.
First, it doesn’t surprise me when hacks reduce large and important social issues to personal squabbles between high profile people, but it does surprise me when smart and significant journalists do so. It is a mistake to make Sandberg’s book and mission into a personal disagreement between her and Anne-Marie Slaughter. It is a mistake to suggest, as Kantor does, that this has the makings of “perhaps the most notable feminist row since Betty Friedan refused to shake Gloria Steinem’s hand decades ago.” It seems to me to stoke controversy for the sake of selling newspapers and making headlines. It turns the debate from the tensions between feminism and reigning social norms into an intra-feminist squabble. And it mistakes the personal interactions of the authors rather than the substantive issues that divide or unite them for the real story.
There will be plenty of people — men especially — who will seek to make any feminist argument into a story about women fighting other women. Smart journalists like Kantor shouldn’t aid and abet that cause. On the very broad map of attitudes about feminism in our society, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg are in much closer proximity than a story about a “the Sandberg-Slaughter match” would suggest.
Second, on the substance of Sandberg’s book, I’d like to see more people say the following in print. The basic premise of the book — indeed of feminism in general — is completely unassailable: women are the moral and political equals of men and deserve equal opportunities for success. When we see educational achievement by females exceed that of males, and yet we see stalled progress in female representation in the workplace and in politics, a natural question is to wonder why. People can differ on strategies to realize the basic feminist premise, but the premise itself seems to me beyond criticism. THAT is worth reporting on. THAT is a central lesson of the book.
And what of the strategies? It’s true that many strands of feminism have explained women’s unequal success in the workplace and in politics as a consequence of both background gender discrimination by men and the failure or absence of social policies (e.g., child care policies) to support working parents. Sandberg, by contrast, calls attention to the psychology and ambition of women, asks women to look inward at themselves in addition to looking outward to social policy or cultural norms. Sandberg’s book is alive to gender discrimination and she’s hardly against ending cultural stereotypes about women or advocating for policy change. It is false to suggest (not that Kantor did so) that Sandberg thinks women themselves are the whole problem by failing to “lean in”.
John Stuart Mill in his 1869 ”On the Subjection of Women” famously wrote
“I deny that any one knows or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. Until conditions of equality exist, no one can possibly assess the natural differences between women and men, distorted as they have been. What is natural to the two sexes can only be found out by allowing both to develop and use their faculties freely.”
Is it not possible that — as a consequence of centuries of gender discrimination, cultural stereotypes about women’s proper place, and the failure of social policy to grant men and women equal opportunities for success — that some women have internalized attitudes about their proper place? Is it not possible that they have, as social scientists call it, “adaptive preferences”?
As I read Sandberg’s book, she is exhorting women to show the courage of the basic feminist conviction — that women are the moral and political equals of men — and that they can and should make decisions large (about the kind of partner they want in life) and small (negotiating for a salary increase) with this in mind.
The message I take away is that women should “lean in” to careers and not let themselves be the “fall guys” (girls) for the bind that happens when kids come. That men should play a role at home, that social policy needs to change to accommodate two working parents, that women can learn to negotiate better at work to achieve salary parity. These are not radical ideas.
Are Lean In Circles a good strategy? I have no idea. Maybe they’ll flop. But is it an idea worth trying? Hard to criticize Sandberg, or the book, for the effort.
This paragraph in Kantor’s article is the important one, but it comes at the end, after the earlier parts have the feel of a catfight story:
The Slaughter-Sandberg match may represent what some may see as a welcome new phase in the debate over work and motherhood. The “mommy wars,” with working and stay-at-home mothers sniping at one another’s choices, may have finally run their course. Instead, Ms. Sandberg, Ms. Slaughter and many others are arguing about the best strategy for fulfilling feminism’s promise.
So let scholars study and journalists examine Lean In Circles, and lots of other strategies too. Let’s hear from academics and journalists about other stuff too. More Joan Williams: Slaughter vs. Sandberg — Both Right.
Let’s not turn this into a catfight. It’s not a catfight. It’s a situation where two prominent, influential women are talking — a lot and influentially — to two different audiences about the same problem. Young women, listen to Sheryl Sandberg. Corporations, listen to Anne-Marie Slaughter. And let’s bring men into the conversation. Until men feel they have more freedom to buck the ideal-worker norm, ladies, nothing’s going to change.
In addition to Jodi Kantor and Maureen Dowd, let’s see David Brooks, Eduardo Porter, Joe Nocera, and Ron Lieber write about the Sandberg book.
It seems to me that Anne-Marie Slaughter may feel the same way. A few hours after the appearance of the New York Times’ article, she tweeted:
I respect & like @sherylsandberg & want her to succeed. No Steinem/Friedan feud here! I see issues thru a different but complementary lens.
— Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) February 22, 2013