Has “Lean In” Made Feminism Cool?

When I first decided that I wanted to write about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead and begun the process of researching, I realized something very difficult: just about everything that one can say about Lean In has already been said. Every color of agreement and disagreement has been articulated in blog posts, newspapers, and journals. So amongst all of discussion, and even analysis of the discussion, how should I enter this complicated conversation?

I think the only way is to dive in, head first, guns blazing and metaphors mixing because there is no way to mildly address the subject. The first thing I want to do is acknowledge that Sandberg is an absolute genius. And not just in her own right as former Chief of Staff or COO of Facebook, but for the way she has championed ‘leaning in.’ Why? Because Lean In is not just her opinion, it is the epicenter of a conversation. Every single time a critic, or a journalist, or a blogger tries to dismantle one of her arguments, they fail. They may be successful in voicing a dissenting and cogent opinion, but they cannot remove her ideas from the conversation. Even the most intelligent misogynist cannot tear her down. By responding to Lean In, I am owning my own opinion, and that is exactly what Sandberg is challenging me to do, whether I agree with her or not.

One of the arguments that people often make against Sandberg is that she is ‘blaming the victim’ by holding women “responsible for holding themselves back in the workplace” ( Sandberg says,

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

Honestly, I think a better choice of words would be championing the victim. Sandberg is saying that she thinks that women have more power than societal institutions and corporations. It might be fairer or more accurate to ‘blame’ society, but that blame will not initiate social change.

Some have also suggested that Sandberg doesn’t have the right to hand out advice because she doesn’t speak to every milieu of woman. I’m not going to attack this accusation because many other people have already attested to the fact that “not all books by women and for women need to be for all women. We certainly don’t expect books by men to speak to and for all men” (Tania Lombrozo).  I think this particular comment speaks to a much larger critique. Critics are holding this book to impossible standards, as though Sandberg is claiming to have written some magical manuscript that she’s jamming down every woman’s throat. Lean In is based off of her personal life experiences; it’s not a ‘For Dummies’ book. I also have trouble with the response that she’s somehow overqualified to offer guidance to women. Gloria Steinem fairly retorted, “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

The point I want to get across is not that anyone who criticizes Sandberg is wrong and should be harangued, but that many people have already weighed in and this discussion is popular. I think that is awesome. Sheryl Sandberg has brought the feminist rant up to date and ‘leaning in’ has gone viral. The Lean In community has created via social networking sites a network of peers who champion achieving their goals and owning their opinions. Feminism is now “a global community committed to encouraging and supporting women leaning in to their ambitions.” Even those who disagree with Sandberg have to appreciate the magnitude of the movement.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be delving into some of the more popular excerpts from Lean In. Even if you haven’t read the book, it’s likely you’ve heard about the “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” YouTube videos, watched Sandberg’s TED Talk, or seen one of Facebook’s “Done is Better Than Perfect” posters.

Why am I doing this?

I too want to change the conversation from what women can’t do to what we can do.

Caroline Vexler is a Ms. JD Board Associate. The Board Associate Program aims to give young women who are either interested in non-profit management and social enterprise or in law the opportunity to work directly with a Ms. JD Board Member. Through that work, these women will get the opportunity to see how a non-profit works and a taste of what the legal profession is like. Caroline is a recent graduate of Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and will be attending Brown University starting in the fall of 2013.

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