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Feminism’s Achilles’ Heel

Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar (2013)


I picked up Spar’s book with trepidation: another white woman draped in pearls writing about women and power. What will she add, I wondered, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? In June 2013 I wrote about Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, who encourages young women to join the ranks of leadership and go for the great jobs. She says too many women hesitate, back off and don’t dive in. Sandberg assures us that there is a way to balance career, family, and joy. Some days (I’d say years) are exhausting, she says, but you have to get in there, take jobs and leadership roles.

In Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College President Debora Spar adds to Sandberg’s dialogue. Spar reevaluates the legacy of the Second Wave feminists so dismissed by the generation (including herself) of young women born to think they have everything. Today’s girls, says Spar, just assume access, are blithely entitled and clueless about the work it took to achieve such opportunities and about how vulnerable everything is.

I appreciate Spar debunking anti-feminism, and articulating the deeper values at the core of feminist efforts. She contributes to the reclamation of feminism as something not to fear and as important for men as for women. I’ve observed that feminism is the “F” word in multicultural social justice circles—at high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. It is one of Rush Limbaugh’s and other patriarchs’ favored taunts, severely misconstrued for their purposes. The burning bra myth is hard to dispel (it isn’t true– and can you image the toxins in the smoke?) because it is such a visual icon of the Seventies. Ironically, many girls and women have unwittingly assimilated this contempt and dismiss women’s issues as irrelevant.

Yet Spar blames the trouble women have today — as they try to be perfect in body, career and family — on those very feminist dreams of having access to sports, reproductive rights, careers, family, et al. Sadly, she says, too many women still want to be precisely Mattel’s Barbie even after seventy. An elder feminist activist says to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so that you could have Botox.”

Spar writes about the cost of weddings, procedures for women having difficulty getting pregnant, and plastic surgery. She examines these practices with some incredulousness: Americans spend 72 billion dollars a year on weddings, only 16 billion on books. She also writes about women hell-bent on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on conceiving babies or achieving impossible body proportions.

She observes that women lawyers and corporate executives leave their coveted positions in droves, especially once a baby arrives. Spar admits this ‘opting out is limited to the elite of the elite.’ She notes with interest that the women who continue to work (after the kids arrive) are in fields that sustain their interest and sense of meaning. She says jobs and desire need to match, not mismatch. This is a really important point, I think —philosophically and economically. What does this suggest about women’s sensibilities and definitions of success? Women want balance, to have family and meaningful work. Spar asserts that they want work that will add value to others, often over enormous salaries and benefit packages. It appears that conflict and constant one-upmanship doesn’t sustain many women for the long haul.

But does this analysis really apply to all women? Spar clearly addresses a challenge with feminism. But perhaps unwittingly, she reveals what I think is in danger of becoming feminism’s Achilles’ heel. At least as evidenced by Spar and Sandberg, feminism is still white, rich, and heterosexual with access to everything. Spar seems to be saying, ‘I know you are out there—all you other women—but I’m telling my story. This is a feminism that is so squeaky clean and privileged, it’s inaccessible to many, many women. And why would they be interested anyway?

In this version of feminism, the sparkle of everyday heroines is silenced.  There is a lot of wisdom about power in the lives of women from all parts of our society. Spar only nods in this direction. Sprinkled through the book are statements which are meant to be acknowledging but sound dismissive, if not defensive, saying she knows there are poor women, women of color, and even some lesbians out there considering these issues of sex, power and perfection, but her generalizations don’t include them, she says, because she hasn’t lived those experiences.  There are absolutely no trans folks in her realm, and physical agility and economic abundance is assumed.

She certainly misses my experience when she describes menopause as the trauma of the end of childbearing. The women of menopause that I know are not feeling tragic; they’re giddy with the freedom from all that blood and worry. Sex is fun. They are hot- flashing-power-surging-open the car windows and sing women, determined to lead with their most interesting selves. Diana Nyad just proved that 64 is a fine time to break world records for long-distance swimming.

Feminism, not just Spar’s version, has a history of inclusion and exclusion. Education level, class, race, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation and fads of moral acceptance or intolerance play into this. I agree with Spar when she says the problem is really the system, not women per se. Can we create a more fully human and humane society? Let’s encourage all efforts, and I agree with Spar when she asks to give busy women a break, let the Ring Dings slip on to the table at the bake sale, support each other in the decisions we make about our lives, and work together. We know too well that plenty of “Mean Girls” lurk in Chanel suits in high places. We know wonderful women are ready to lead and work with power in new ways. They are all ages, from all communities, they look all kinds of ways and they are wearing fancy heels to mud boots.  They are working on promoting equanimity and non-violence, teaching, farming, and living diversity, writing, dancing, and singing democracy. Despite my frustration with the heterosexual and class assumptions, and abounding white privilege underlying Spar’s assertions, I am grateful for her fundamental point; it is important to note that women in positions of power sure struggle with issues of gender, authority, perfection and the conformity these require.

But those assumptions are more than frustrating. They could be dangerous to feminism itself. During the Trojan War, according to Greek myth, Achilles’ body was unassailable, except for his heel. He was slayed by such a small vulnerability.

Feminism is a crucial gateway philosophy to human rights for women, children, and men to lead safe and meaningful lives. Unless we really do the work of inclusivity, it will be impossible to create the harmony and well being across all the divides we are born to, all the divisiveness reinforced daily by nations and individuals. We’ve just got to do this work or we too will be slayed by our supercilious heel.





Lean In?

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)


The Slow Living Summit is an annual June event in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Its purpose is to encourage preservation of local farms and sustain rural landscapes. The parade through town includes little pink fairies, political activists, and Strolling with the Heifers. Youngsters walk along with their small calves donning flower leis; babies and big people join them in cow suits. This event offers a tremendous contrast and necessary addendum to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.


Sandberg is the fast-paced, smart, insistent and very successful COO at Facebook. She explores issues for women in leadership in the 21st century.   She cites YouTube videos, book titles and activists I admire, including the video of Riley bewildered by the color codes in the toy store. This clip is priceless. It says a lot about gendered marketing and proves how early the gender boxes begin. ( Marketers take heed. Young Riley is only four and she sees what is going on


Sandberg offers personal anecdotes as well as research and statistics about women in the workforce – but her passion really is with the high stakes, tippy-top leadership. She is aware of the whole spectrum of women working and consistently reminds the reader that most women dwell in environments that don’t offer flex time for parents, parking near the door for pregnant employees, or leave for elder care. A lot of women tone down their career goals or decide to stop working because their salary hardly covers day care for kids or elders, let alone any other expenses. Sandberg is sure that women could get these rights (I wonder if men would call them benefits?) if they had the power and designed equitable working conditions. She actually got the pregnant parking place by simply, while very pregnant, asking. Sandberg is quite concerned that women don’t even attempt to take on the top jobs. They capitulate before they begin. Returning home or working part time in order to provide care to family may be fulfilling and benefit society, but it sure puts a crimp in the women workers available to businesses, their earning power, and career advancement. A reminder: only 7% of American households are of the Father Knows Best design of the man going off to work to support the stay-at-home wife and kids. Sandberg wants us to struggle with all the complex and constantly shifting issues during our extended life span.


I appreciate this, as I’m all for struggling with the complexity of our lives and desires and innovatively figure out the dilemmas. But never once does Sandberg even almost mention that this creative realignment of the corporate world will require some major toppling of the patriarchal systems that have profited for thousands of years from the free and extensive labor of mothers, wives, aunts and grandmothers.  The excitement and adventure of Sandberg’s career is the surface story. The undercurrent of this narrative is capitalism at its most dynamic: to succeed one must work day and night so figure out daycare, have a husband who shares in the child and house care 50/50 as well as supports your career 1000%. (She says that of course same sex couples have this equitable household management thing figured out already. -Oh how we wish this were so!) Sandberg offers details from her own life about how tricky it is to pump breast milk while on a conference call; and how subversive it feels to take a trip to the bathroom to send an email during a play date.


I am exhausted by her schedule and furious at a society that deems this “success” when such a small percentage of the population make salaries of so many digits, let alone a planet that can survive such consumption and exploitation. Balancing family and career has always been a juggling act, but Sandberg is saying that now it has to be both parents juggling—not just the woman. According to Sheelah Kolhatkar in the June 3-9, 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, this is exactly what men have struggled with all along while being expected to financially support everything. Men want time to be Dads too, Kolhatkar insists, but they just have been too darn busy. Debates reign regarding the Peter Pan syndrome and lad culture with men acting like boys, while certainly the mothers suing fathers for back child support might wonder about Kolhatkar’s claims.  I’m glad to hear that men want in on fatherhood and the time it takes to really participate. I’ve been advocating men’s liberation for as long as I’ve been a feminist.


I also find myself wondering, why lean in when the work environments are so relentless? Not just the hours but the work climate and culture. For instance, according to Peggy Drexler in her March 2013 article “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” in the Wall Street Journal, 80% of bullying by female bosses is directed at other women. Is this internalized sexism the consequence of so few women being in top leadership? Drexler adds that men use fear to advance and women will too until the day women are routinely in the top leadership as men. Sandberg acknowledges the Queen Bee syndrome and calls on women to recognize this warp in the wonder of women leaders.


But I think this is too limited a perspective and too demoralizing a definition of leadership. A real plentitude and integration of women, people of color, gay, lesbian, trans, people with disabilities, ethnicity, religious backgrounds, and body sizes will change the dynamics of leadership, change everything. Everyone will have to engage with new paradigms about work, civility, and have an ability to work across all perceived differences. To make such changes we need to topple patriarchy’s favorite misnomer that only the strongest survive. Cooperation beats competitive in the healthiest communities around our globe, above or below sea level.


I also find it quite interesting that all visible differences are invisible in the realms of the social medias in which Sandberg has been a leader (Google and Facebook). Ironically? But in the boardrooms, the meetings in face-to- face times—visual markers all still matter a great deal. Being a woman matters.


Sandberg writes from the perpetually precarious perch out there on the gender limb. She is reviving many of the Second Wave feminist requests of the seventies but as a Third Wave feminist, she has so much going for her. She has access to a much larger tree of life, with many branches. Sandberg could be more convincing if she realized how inclusive and complex gender really is and how traditional and confining her framework remains. As an example, Sandberg writes that “First, women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and “appropriately” female”(p.46). The quotation marks around appropriately are nerve wracking. Does this mean that tall women, petite women, traditionally built women (to use Alexander McCall Smith’s definition of his main character in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), lesbians with short hair, and women with a preference for clothes generally marketed to men need not apply? My mind, despite myself, goes directly to two options for women in business: Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima—both purely fictional and updated over the years to reflect more “modern” or “appropriate” standards.


She admits that she was terribly disappointed when the Speaker of the House, the revered Tip O’Neill, patted her on the head rather than complimenting her hard work as a youthful page in Washington, D.C. She argues that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and men like her husband, Dave Goldberg, are proving that men in business are now striving as much for women as themselves. This is really exciting and hopeful, as the potential for balance, equality, and cooperation truly exist —for women and men—with the sensibility of such leaders.


So the really scary thing is that queen bee syndrome that Drexler’s Wall Street Journal article points out. It’s also highlighted in the 2004 film, Mean Girls  (check out the website of 40 Mean Girl quotes). It’s scary that high school behavior is so evident and unattractive in adult women in high places. That’s internalized sexism, and it exists with vengeance, especially when draped in power.


Sandberg cites studies that show women who are strong, clear, articulate, good at business, achieve and lead, are put down as “acting like a man” while just conducting good business.  Women can’t win: to act like a man is be a b*&^h. No in-between options (remember 2008 Mrs. Clinton vs. Mrs. Palin). People don’t like this; many folks don’t know what to do with a strong, insightful, creative woman, especially if she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll or act like a sex toy (neither to be taken seriously either).  So let’s go back to our young radical Riley in the YouTube video, who asks with great exasperation, “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different colored stuff?”


Young Riley clearly rubbed off on Sandberg, who dared to give the Ted Talk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Despite countless speeches on business and marketing, this one provoked concerned tweets and phone calls. Sandberg is reaching out to women. Go ahead: dare to disrupt the status quo, dare to sit right up at the corporate table, really split house and child care with your partner, dare to incite change in your organization so everyone, including the bottom line, benefits. Dare say, profits.


Sandberg truly wants women to have an equal opportunity to take the leadership positions and have a family life. Everything will work out—busy but happy, kids, career trajectory, school soccer games and dinner at home some nights. But again, she doesn’t take her analysis far enough into the complexity of our times. We know that whites hold the big jobs in disproportionate numbers (also listen: “Job Searching While Black: What’s Behind The Unemployment Gap?” NPR, May 25, 2013). Sandberg cites the statistics: of the Fortune 500 CEOs only 21 are women, women hold 17 percent of the board seats and comprise18 percent of our elected officials. She points out that women of color are more than 10 percent below those numbers Still, people think the workplace is a meritocracy, even though men are unaware of the benefits they receive just by being men, and women believe men are entitled to be there, and the hiring process is racialized and gendered.


In this context, is leaning in even possible? Is Sandberg writing about capitalism at the most extreme with a splash of estrogen?  Or is this something we ought to question, like Ariel Levy’s wondering about Girls Gone Wild in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)–is all that sex, drugs, and booze really liberation? Is Superwoman success creating new workplaces and transforming leadership? Can we balance everything so magnificently if we just sit at the table, keep our hands raised for questions, and persevere?


Miss Representation (2011), a documentary written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a perfect companion to Lean In. Many of the same celebrities and icons of the contemporary women’s movement are captured on film. The film show how especially intense advertisements are that diminish women, illustrate their bodies as beer bottles and airbrush their limbs into twigs. Such footage offers insight into how we are besieged with mixed messages about our bodies as we evolve from girl into woman. And as importantly, how boys are taught to see women as they become men.


We’ve come to expect Sandberg’s level of commitment and endless performance from entertainers, government officials, public school teachers, staff, administration, and corporate executives, as well as ourselves. It seems inhumane to be so 24/7. Are there ways to get the work done and still smell the coffee and the roses? Use our skills? Love our living? Do I want my daughter to lean in, take the risks, and go for the top? And my son?


If Sandberg and the next generation of leaders actually blend cyber speed and strolling with the heifers–it may just work out.





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