Maybe it’s the fuel in the gaslights, or maybe my if-i-had-a-dime jar has just cracked from the weight of the coins. You know, the jar for every time i have to endure “Well, I am not a feminist but I believe in equality.” Followed by how womyn who care about dismantling oppression inherently hate all men, and fuss too much, and really, what’s with the armpit hair?
I’m done with “equality.”
I’m done with people thinking a woman for Bishop means sexism isn’t still real in the church, that the apple cart shouldn’t be rocked so the church can grow (and get whiter and richer), done with the idea that in our post-racial society talking about prison and the new Jim Crow is bad dinner manners.
I really don’t like bashing other womyn, especially when i’m venting to a keyboard and not to breathing bones. But Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In phenomena (however passé that is in summer reads) just doesn’t cut it for me.
At first glance, the rise of Lean In on bestseller lists seemed to be a cause of feminist celebration.[i] But one deeper look into her mantra reveals a sad sight: Sandberg is no feminist revolutionary. As bell hooks wrote on The Feminist Wire, “Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system.”[ii] Sandberg does not acknowledge her own racial privileges in working her way to the corporate top, nor does she in any way acknowledge her considerable wealth informing her ability to “lean in.” As hooks illuminates:
“From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.”
Fundamentally, Sandberg, and the folks cracking my if-i-had-a-dime jar, are not doing that messy work, the work of realizing that “merely” ordaining womyn (or enabling womyn to be COOs or CEOs of major corporations) does little to confront the underlying structures of inequality, because it makes the claim that feminism begins and ends with a first-order change. And first-order changes alone do little to acknowledge the intersectionality of oppressive structures in race, gender, education access, nationality, and class.
The sad fact remained for me: feminism had been mottled in the mainstream media under the guise of “equality.”
And in my life, the people i hear the most say they support “equality” (while shying away from the f-bomb) slap around womyn-in-the-kitchen jokes like they’re harmless. Tell me i’m overreacting when i say such jokes are offensive.
Claim a little sexist joke is not, in fact, part of a wider social structure that privileges their amusement over my worth, words, and work.
Feminism, for me, was never “just” about equality – equal access to healthcare, equal pay, equal treatment under the law (though, let me be clear: we still don’t have those things). Feminism was, as bell hooks wrote, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.”[iii]
Focusing on equality within a patriarchal framework is hardly the ultimate goal – the ultimate goal of feminism, womanism, and movements against systemetic and normative oppression is rebuilding society so that we do not have inequalities.
I think it is seductive to think that feminism is as simple as Sandberg claims. Seductive, because it erases the messiness of all that second-order change that has to come after “we” lean in. But her ideas are also seductive because she is not entirely off-base: womyn do have to participate in our own liberation.
Sandberg’s movement has come part and parcel with a wave of similar “faux feminist” literature. Wonder Women: Sex Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora L. Spar is a more complicated take on the modern woman, though Spar fundamentally ends up in the same white privilege camp as Sandberg. Spar argues against two aspects of modern society: that womyn are expected to “have it all,” and that we are expected to do so without male help. She calls this the “Charlie myth” after an advertisement she grew up with in the 1980s.[iv]
Womyn now have to be brilliant enough to beat out all their male competition, sexy enough to win male attention, and, apparently, still be interested in dating/marrying/mothering children with [cisgendered] men. The engine that drives high-achieving women has fostered a culture of confidence in our abilities to “do anything” without, often, pausing to ask why we have to want everything. But living this kind of “Charlie myth” requires male participation.
On this argument, i agree with Spar. Cisgendered men, and people of all gender identities, must be invited to the table of feminist deconstruction because feminism is about eradicating oppression. The oppressors and oppressed alike have to work to eradicate sexism. Assuming womyn are the only ones who can care about feminism implies womyn are the only ones capable of confronting sexism, and therefore places all the burden of dismantling oppression and privilege on the shoulders of people marginalized by the system.
Expecting womyn to do all the grunt work is still a patriarchal assumption, one of capitalistic feminine individualism rather than feminist collectivism. Besides, hyper-masculine gender norms are constrictive for men as well, denying men access to the traditionally feminine traits like being emotional, vulnerable, and tender.
And if all we want to talk about is “equality,” then the conversation becomes limited to how womyn can act more like men. “Equality” can imply gender binaries, “equality” does not explore how the crisis of white masculinity is destructive to men and relationships and emotional health, and “equality” doesn’t take a step back to ask that million-dime question:
But what, exactly, do we want a just society to look like?
This is an adapted excerpt from my senior thesis, Feminism, Womanism, and the Christian Liturgical Year: A Trinity of Spiritual Memoir, Exegesis, and Theology advised by the brilliant Jane Crosthwaite. No reprinting, in any form, is permitted without my express written permission. Thanks!
[i] Sheryl Sanberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. (New York: Knopf, 2013).
[ii] bell hooks, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” The Feminist Wire, October 28, 2013.
[iii] hooks, “Dig Deep.”
[iv] Debora Spar, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013).