Sheryl Sandberg is on the front page of the NY Times again. If her new book generates as much buzz as this article implies, she’s going to be making headlines for quite a few weeks to come, and the only thing I can hope will come out of all of this is that as many voices will be raised in opposition to her treatise as in favor of it.
Unless you fit into a very, very specific mold, Sheryl Sandberg’s vision of a “new movement” for women is full of crap. Indeed, her idea that women aren’t doing enough to help themselves break the glass ceiling is toxic beyond belief, and so help me, if this becomes the new rallying cry for upper-middle-class white feminism I am going to scream.
This hits particularly close to home for me as a Barnard grad, as someone who loves her alma mater and believes in nearly everything that Barnard stands for. I learned so much there, grew and changed into the woman that I am today. Though I considered myself a feminist long before I arrived there, the conversations I had with professors, classmates, and friends shaped the way I look at the world, and my experiences there were more valuable than words can express.
Which is why Barnard’s support of Sandberg—President Spar’s in particular—upsets me so deeply. And you know, the Times article actually does a pretty good job of summing up my primary criticisms and problems with Sandberg. In quoting Aviva Wittenberg-Cox, the Times points out that Sandberg “does what too many successful women before her have done: blaming other women for not trying hard enough,” and that she “places too much of the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains.”
All of this is true, and I’m glad the Times at least paid attention to the other side. But here are a couple of things I’d like to add:
First off, the fact that a well-educated women like Sandberg re-read Betty Friedan as inspiration for her women’s manifesto is an embarrassment. Anyone who knows the history of Second-Wave feminism knows that Betty Friedan didn’t speak for anyone other than straight, white, middle-class women, and never tried to expand her vision. She made few efforts to reach out to women of color, and infamously railed against the “Lavender Menace” of queer women within the feminist movement. Friedan may have started the conversation, but she was a poor leader of a movement and frankly, in this day and age, is an offensive example to look to.
Sadly, though, it’s not surprising that Sandberg picked Friedan as her inspiration. Like Friedan, Sandberg chooses to speak for only a handful of women, and though she claims to want to reach a wider audience than that, she fails pretty miserably.
I didn’t graduate the year Sandberg spoke at Barnard, but I did work Commencement. I remember sitting in the back of the auditorium listening to her speech, hands clenched tightly in my lap, seething as I heard her tell me and my peers that, essentially, we were our own worst enemies when it came to success. I heard the implicit and explicit implication that women are “sabotaging themselves.” That we were too silent in group discussions, that we didn’t assert ourselves enough—as if we didn’t already know that from years of experience. She told us that if we wanted to be successful, if we wanted to make the world better for women, we had to follow very specific steps. We had to be aggressive, we had to not be silent—essentially, that we had to play by the rules of the capitalist system and had to play them well.
This might work well for some women, and I know a very specific set of my peers were left feeling inspired by that speech. But from my perspective, coming off of a very difficult year, it was hard not to take her words personally. For one thing, her speech was clearly only directed at women aiming to enter the business world—I could go on an entire tangent on that, about how there are so many other ways to be successful and powerful within society. But more importantly, her words about women being silenced and their own worst enemies were cutting and condescending. I know that I’m silenced on a daily basis in class and in groups, I know that women don’t speak as much in the classroom or in the workplace. I am reminded of it on a daily basis and I fight it. I am always conscious of it. Despite the fact that I’m shy, despite the fact that my hearing loss makes discussion groups far more difficult than normal, I work to speak out in every discussion, voice my opinion, fly past my comfort zone.
But it’s exhausting to do that all the time when patriarchal systems of power are still firmly entrenched place with no signs of changing. I can’t run on 110% aggressiveness and ambition that all the time, I couldn’t possibly. And I say that as someone with an anxiety disorder, someone with hearing loss, but also as someone who is still extremely privileged in so many ways. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be for women who have so much more holding them back than I do. For Sandberg to tell any woman that they’re the ones holding themselves back is so offensive as to be absurd.
And the thing is, Sandberg clearly doesn’t want to change the system—she works for Facebook and Google and clearly has no problem upholding capitalist values. She wants women to work within patriarchal capitalist systems of power and thereby uphold them. And people who support her will say what we’ve all heard it before—that you can’t change the system from the outside, that getting more women in power at corporations are important baby steps and will help to change the system from within. But that fails to grasp at the fundamental idea that the current system is designed to maintain the status quo! It is designed to keep white men in power. There are ALWAYS going to be glass ceilings in this system. And so long as a system is designed so that only a few women can rise to the top, and then only by conforming to it and being their absolute best, nothing’s going to actually change, not really.
So yes, Sandberg’s message is important for women who want to succeed in the world of business and politics. I knew plenty of my classmates at Barnard who will eat her words up and go out there and collaborate with each other, will be aggressive and rise to the top. And maybe, in some small way, that will contribute to change. But her words are relevant to such a tiny percentage of women. It’s just another trickle-down theory, and you only have to look at history to know how well trickle-down theories have worked in the past.
I want there to be a new women’s movement as well as the next person, but if we want the feminist movement to re-invigorate itself, we have to ignore what’s failed in the past. Something that’s constantly been ignored is an effort to make feminism an intersectional movement, an effort to take into account that women do not all come from the same backgrounds, that many women face multiple obstacles and oppressions due to race, class, sexuality, and disability, and that not everyone is an Ivy-League educated upper-middle-class white woman. This is crucial to anything that’s going to succeed in the feminist movement, nationally or globally. Sandberg is far from intersectional, and doesn’t appear to be interested in taking steps to become so.
And, I’m sorry, but any woman who’s in cahoots with Facebook is not one I am going to look to for advice.
Reader submission by Suzanne Walker