The Sheryl Sandbergs of the world want us to 'Lean In,' but many women are still struggling just to get in the game.
Let the hate mail begin: I don’t like what feminism has become.
While I think the movement has swept me and most of my peers out of our mothers’ more narrow confines and into the broader world with spectacular, hands-down success, I hate what it has come to. Which is, as far as I can tell, a bunch of women at the top of the heap talking about why things are no fair in the uppermost stratospheres of professional success.
Because this is, comically, what popular feminist discourse, the stuff that comes to the rest of us via magazines and websites and heavily-publicized books, has come to. It’s no fair! I’m thinking in particular of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in The Atlantic, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, and another article in The Atlantic that argues that hooking up is “an engine of female progress.” Most recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling Lean In urged women to take the bull by the horns at work, full-speed ahead, no stopping until you reach the pinnacle, gals!
It’s true that things still aren’t fair—just ask your average working mother, not to mention single mother, not to mention the woman who’s working two jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table. But things tend to be pretty rosy for the women who occupy corner offices at various corporate law firms, medical practices, pharmaceutical giants, petrochemical plants, Hollywood entertainment shops, state governments, state departments, universities, and banks. But all we hear about are how rotten things are for professionally successful women who, on top of being a minority in the board room, still have to deal with overbearing men talking down to them, cutting them off mid-conversation, or, God forbid, complimenting their appearance.
There’s also the little matter of the help. You know, those kindly women, usually with skin darker than your average Scots-Irish, who do the dishes and the laundry and take the little ones off to nursery school. Who’s looking out for them? Not to mention that, even with two working parents sharing the housework and childcare, there’s only so much time, energy, and most of all, extra cash to go around. In other words, how many women other than those at the top can afford help to begin with?
Our current economy rewards the highly educated, the highly placed, the highly connected, the highly ruthless and the highly motivated, while spitting out pretty much everyone else, men as well as women, including people who may have graduated from Ivy League schools but still aren’t quite up to the challenges of working endless hours in order to achieve someone else’s idea of success.
It’s no coincidence that back in the 1960s when the feminist movement focused on equal opportunity in education, the professions, and the world at large, the economy was roaring along—underpinned by a tax code that demanded that the luckiest and richest among us pay taxes in accordance with their incomes—creating in turn a national demand for a shot at all those goodies. These ideas seeped into American society at the exact same time that reliable birth control, in the form of the Pill (introduced in 1960), came along, allowing great swaths of women, for the first time in human history, to go all the way without worrying about getting knocked up. This was the movement that swept me, and most of my female peers, not only into rewarding work but more profoundly into the understanding that the world was as wide-open to us as it was to the young men in our bio and Shakespeare classes.
But today, when girls as young as 12 are fully versed in the various forms of birth control, feminists don’t seem to speak for anyone other than themselves—or at least the loudest voices don’t. For example, where were the loudest voices—Sheryl Sandberg comes to mind—when, in recent years, Planned Parenthood has had its funding slashed again and again, thereby depriving countless thousands of poor women not only access to reliable birth control, but to Pap smears as well? In Texas alone, more than 60 clinics serving mainly poor and minority women have been closed for lack of funding.
It would be nice if today’s feminist banner-wavers would focus more on things like restoring funding to family planning clinics and breast-cancer screening for the poor, classes in childhood and maternal nutrition, jobs skills, and accounting, and less on, for example, why there aren’t enough women law professors being cited in legal publications. And while they’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt if those who fly the feminist banner stopped degrading women who decide that they’d rather stay home with their kids and drive carpools after all.
Turn back the clock on women’s rights? Not in a million years. Equal pay for equal work; equal access to health, education, property and opportunity; the right to choose to bear children or not, and to appear in the world without being harassed, sexually intimidated, or otherwise used as objects of male lust or power? Yes, yes, yes, and a resounding yes. I’m not suggesting for even a nanosecond that it’s okay to pay a woman a penny less than her male counterpart, or that she should have to put up with even the smallest amount of sexual harassment in the workplace. But to return feminism to its days as a generator of social justice? For that, we women—and men—need to refocus on those who really need help: the barely-middle-class, the working poor, the destitute, the impoverished, and the millions upon millions of women in the Middle East and Africa and Central America who are regularly denied education, sold into marriage or prostitution, trapped in violence, mutilated, humiliated, violated, and worse.
In the meantime, sisters of the corner office, get a grip.
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