Recently the NY Times ran an article titled “A Feminism Where Leaning In Means Leaning on Others.” The author, Gary Gutting, interviewed a feminist who was critical of Sheryl Sandberg and her approach to business in her book Lean In (reviewed on this site). The interviewee was Nancy Fraser, professor of philosophy and politics at The New School. She is the author of Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis. Fraser said, “For me, feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society—above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity.”
First of all, this interchange provides a good example of how liberal feminists and radical feminists differ in their approaches—as different as Protestants and Roman Catholics. The liberal feminist works within the system to bring justice; the radical thinks the whole male-dominated system is corrupt and nothing short of revolution will fix this. A subset is Marxist feminism, which has as its special focus capitalism and work.
Now then, I think it’s unfortunate that Fraser summarizes Sandberg as trying to get more women into corner offices. The end result of her counsel may be just that. But the goal is not to make all working women CEO’s and COOs. Indeed, Sandberg is in no way down on being a stay-at-home mom, nor is she oblivious to those of lower socioeconomic class.
Lean In was written to the working woman. Its examples include mostly women of middle- to upper-class socioeconomic status, because that is where the author lives; but she does not call all women to have that status. The woman I know who cleans houses —Lean In’s principles apply to her too. If she needs to charge more because the value of her work has gone up, she benefits from Sandberg’s wise job counsel. If this woman needs a mentor to help her grow her business, she benefits from Sandberg again.
The book was not just about gaining corporate power or having a certain kind of job. It was not even saying a woman has to be in the corporate world to get ahead. This is a common criticism of feminism—that it undervalues the non-corporate woman’s work. But that is an unfair characterization. A stay-at-home mom needs the same principles. She needs to know how to avoid shrinking back. To learn to be unafraid of asking for something. If she needs a respite day—if she needs to do some self-care—ask for it. Plan for it. Know what she needs and not fear that doing so is unfeminine or selfish or that she is unworthy of it.
Yes, Sandberg leans on others. But she also pays them for their services. And every employed person being paid benefits from the same principles, regardless of where their work falls in the food chain. Just because some have more social power in their work—that does not mean the job they hold is the ideal. As I said, Sandberg does not expect everybody to become a CEO or a COO. What she does believe is that women can do a better job of strategizing and sitting at the table—including asking for what we need to meet any jobs’ demands.