Sandberg might really do it

Skeptics be damned, the Facebook exec's idea for women could launch a movement. Here's how

By Linda Hirshman

Published March 6, 2013 9:11PM (EST)

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg               (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)
Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)

In the run-up to the publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book (and manifesto), "Lean In," the media have been full. Not so much of coverage of the book, which, it seems, many commentators have not actually read, but of the media firestorm surrounding the book. First the usual suspects (Maureen Dowd, and the relentlessly self-publicizing Pundit Mom) piled on. Then credentialed feminists like Jessica Valenti and Joan Walsh sprang to Sandberg’s defense.

The funny thing about the debate is the tone of surprise. Why in the world did this happen, the feminists ask. Who would have thought that Dowd would take an opportunity to smack down a stunningly successful (and stunning) woman? When did Pundit Mom start arguing that no one should say boo to the women who stay home, or, say, marry rich, work from home and self-publish?

These questions are not only naive, they do not matter. We need to give Sandberg credit for taking her task seriously, and not just as another narcissistic media moment. Sandberg is confessedly trying to jump-start the laggard feminist movement. If she succeeded, everything, as the histories of '60s feminism proclaim, can change again. Can this woman succeed?

I have written about social movements for decades now, most recently the stunningly successful gay revolution. Her plan has all the hallmarks of a successful social movement.

First, she has put a political frame around the problem. It’s not a law of nature that women are 14 percent of the executive suite and make 81 percent of what men do. It’s a combination of social policies, which are hard to change, and self-limiting behaviors, which are entirely in the women’s control. Anyone who’s ever taught in a coed college has encountered the brilliant girl students who aren’t planning their careers, because new babies smell so delicious. In refusing to buy into the women naturally love their children more narrative, Sandberg wound up in the opposite corner from former State Department honcho Anne-Marie Slaughter, who quit her job to take care of her 14-year-old son. Sandberg’s original contribution is to go beyond the Betty Friedan, old lefty fantasies that men are going to tax themselves to pay for full-time day care and say women can make some of the change themselves. No wonder male left historian Michael Kazin was critical.

Second, she is focused on one interest and one interest alone. This is not intersectional race/class/gender/save the whales feminism. She has identified a problem – too few women are making it into social leadership – and that’s what she aims to change. Nowhere in her book does she require that only organic snacks be served at the consciousness raising meetings she prescribes. Nowhere in her book does she embrace the suicidal doctrine that did in the Gay Liberation Front: No one is free until everyone is free. Occupy Wall Street.

Third, she is taking the moral high ground. While the feminist movement is gagging on its “choice” rhetoric and philosophy – everybody’s a feminist, opposing abortion is a feminist “choice,” bondage is a feminist “choice,” etc., Sandberg is saying there is a moral payoff to integrating women into social power. It’s fairer to them. And, boldly, she says, it will mean the institutions will be better institutions.

And finally, after all these years, she’s seen the fourth leg of a movement table: have weekly meetings. Even the doyenne of social media knows that there is an irreducible minimum of Face . . . Time that goes into establishing the relationships that fuel a long-term movement for social change. Don’t take my word for it: I just reverse engineered the two most successful movements of the gay revolution, the Gay Activists Alliance and ACT-UP.

Brava, Sandberg. Only one question remains: Is the female environment so toxic that no one can succeed? Are women in the late stage of revolution, where we are capable of nothing but simply consuming our own? In her good piece, Joan Walsh reminds us that social change movements usually consist of outsiders, which leads to a suspicion of, if not outright hostility to, people like Sandberg, who have made it. One of the great strengths of the gay revolution was the extent to which that tendency was constrained, if not eliminated. Very few people said, for example, “Easy for Ellen to come out; she’s a famous TV star.” The response to Sandberg’s call to action will be a clear indication of whether feminism has met the enemy and it is us.

If a revival of feminism depends on the collective upheaval from the second-shift-working, overburdened, underemployed and often single parenting female masses, it will never happen. A dirty little secret of the Friedan Moment is that those women were the idle rich. It was both their curse and their blessing. They had time to go to consciousness raising meetings, to hold them in their homes, to bake cookies for them. It was the richest period in American history. They could risk their financial survival by having what Nora Ephron called the feminist first divorce. The colleges were swelling with female students as never before. They could take the pill and screw around and join the freedom rides and taste freedom.

Those days are over. If feminism is to make strides on any front, it will have to come not from our backs but from the head. In the next few weeks and months we will see if women with a moment to spare can put their heads together or if a handful of columnists and bloggers will run a guillotine.

Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman is the author of “Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World” (Harper 2015).

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Facebook Feminism Sheryl Sandberg Women Women's Movement