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Monday, October 21, 2013

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Susan Faludi on Facebook Feminism & the Danger of "Individual Women Empowering Themselves by Deserting Other Women"

In case you missed this (I did), here's Susan Faludi at the Baffler, eviscerating the 1%-friendly, free-market feminism of Lean In:

The clipped, jarring shift from the collective grievances of working women to the feel-good options open to credentialed, professional types is also a pronounced theme in Lean In, the book. In the opening pages, Sandberg acknowledges that “the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet,” but goes on to stress that “each subsequent chapter focuses on an adjustment or difference that we can make ourselves.” When asked in a radio interview in Boston about the external barriers women face, Sandberg agreed that women are held back “by discrimination and sexism and terrible public policy” and “we should reform all of that,” but then immediately suggested that the concentration on such reforms has been disproportionate, arguing that “the conversation can’t be only about that, and in a lot of ways the conversation on women is usually only about that.”

I'd argue that the conversation is actually never about policy reform, but anyway. Faludi then goes back to the radical "mill girls" of Lowell, M.A., who "turned out" in 1834 to protest wage cuts and labor conditions, and started a movement that, for a second, was intersectional; they got into the abolitionist movement, and mobilized across classes.

Cross-class female solidarity surfaced early in Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the horrific building collapse of the Pemberton Mills factory in 1860, which killed 145 workers, most of them women and children... Middle-class women in the region flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women.

But then, in the 1920s, the "ascendant consumer economy" began to offer an "ersatz version of emancipation, the fulfillment of individual, and aspirational, desire."

Why mount a collective protest against the exploitations of the workplace when it was so much more gratifying—not to mention easier—to advance yourself (and only yourself) by shopping for “liberating” products that expressed your “individuality” and signaled your (seemingly) elevated class status?

Faludi makes the link between then and now neatly: "In the 1920s, male capitalists invoked feminism to advance their brands of corporate products," she writes. "Nearly a century later, female marketers are invoking capitalism to advance their corporate brand of feminism." The whole essay, like Nancy Fraser's piece at the Guardian from last week, is a must-read.

[The Baffler]

22 Comments / Post A Comment

TheBelleWitch

Bra-VO. The conversation really is never about policy reform.

As a side note, Sheryl Sandberg has blighted the world of management with the phrase "lean in." Now, as far as emails at my company have it, no one ever "does more of something" or "coordinates with" or "starts an effort." No, we lean in to [XYZ]. Kill. Me. Now.

LordHennyson

@TheBelleWitch The first time I heard the phrase "lean in" was Liz Lemon on going to an ex's wedding alone: "Maybe I'll just lean into it and bring a cat and a baby stroller" and that's the only way I've used it ever since.

Bunburying

"I'd argue that the conversation is actually never about policy reform, but anyway."

Yeah, unfortunately I'd agree.

Story #2

There was a piece in the Washington Post a while back I really liked -- "There’s simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women." http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-25/opinions/37281698_1_sheryl-sandberg-feminist-ideals-movement

And then people come back at you accusing you of being anti-feminist for "tearing down" other women, and asking you what harm it can do. Sigh.

Mae
Mae

@Story #2 Yeah, I've been disappointed to see some feminists say that the criticisms of Sheryl Sandberg are anti-woman "trashing". Pointing out the class and race implications of feminism by and for the one percent is not trashing, thankyouverymuch.

OhMyGoshYouGuys

@Mae How timely. Yesterday, Slate published an article called Stop Calling All Criticism "Shaming".

popsicletrees

@Story #2 Great article you linked to! Melissa Gira Grant's work is consistently good about connecting feminism with labor issues. I think what's so problematic with Sandberg's book is that those larger policy questions are subsumed by an ideology of the almighty entrepreneur. In other words, if a woman can speak up at work, with grit and a grin she can also rise to the top of her company, even if society routinely shortchanges her as a woman. It's just beyond Sandberg's deliberately limited scope to discuss why these opportunities to rise to the top are so scant for women as a group. It's also fascinating that she distances herself so strongly from "policy" when she worked under Clinton's administration in economic policy.

Mira

Susan Faludi continues to kill it! I had also missed this, so thanks for the link.

I found the material on early U.S. labor history/feminism so interesting, but I don't know much about that period in the Lowell mills. If anyone has book recommendations, I would love to hear them.

popsicletrees

@Mira The first book that comes to mind is _Loom and Spindle_ by Harriet H. Robinson. It was first published in the late 1800s and, if I recall correctly, it's her account of working in Lowell but it might not get into a lot of the organizing efforts that Faludi describes.

Also, _The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker_ by Therea S. Malkiel is a fictional account of a strike of women workers in the early 1900s (NYC, I think), and it's a pretty accessible read.

And of course, Howard Zinn's _A People's History of the United States_ has a few good examples set in a larger overview of labor struggles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His bibliography might contain other good leads for you.

Mira

@popsicletrees Thank you! I had completely forgotten about Howard Zinn - you're right, I bet his bibliography would be a good source of leads. Thanks for the other recommendations, too!

popsicletrees

I wish there were more articles like these! Lean In focuses on moments when a few women voice their opinions and are heard in the workplace. Sandberg's examples used the proper (read: non-threatening) channels in the organization -- e.g., talking to the HR department, supervisor, or president about a problem impacting them in the workplace. Good for them. The problem with her book (and empire) is its purposeful ignorance of structural challenges that women face in the workplace. Faludi says it so well when she identifies Sandberg as a free-market feminist, because underlying Sandberg's Lean In vision is the idea that a corporation can be home to a vibrant democracy so long as individuals present their ideas to management in an orderly way. According to this (free market) vision, only the good ideas will win out in the truly competitive marketplace of ideas (which in this case happens to be facilitated by the company itself), and so everyone (by pursuing their own self-interests) will be better off. Further, in this vision, the more people who participate (and compete), the more refined the good idea in its battle to be the best. As Faludi so eloquently describes in her historical overview, Sandberg is promoting a very particular (long-live-the-entrepreneur) ideology that is aligned with the interests of very large and powerful corporations at a time when user-provided personal information is becoming more and more lucrative for these companies. It's no shock that the Lean In empire has a website to house the personal stories of women who leaned in. It's free marketing (in more ways than one).

themegnapkin

I liked Lean In. I'm a quiet introvert, and I find a lot of Sandberg's advice to be directly applicable to my career -- like "take a seat at the table," don't shy away from an assignment that you think is beyond your abilities because you can learn how to do it while you're doing it, don't let your insecurities limit you in pursuing your career. I feel like I have been waiting for permission to do things instead of taking initiative, if that makes sense, and Sandberg's book crystallized that for me.
I understand the criticisms of Lean In as not addressing women who are not in a position to "lean in," and that it's marketplace feminism. But I view Lean In as a how-to specifically aimed at women, along the lines of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, or How to Get Things Done, and I think it works on that level.*
So I agree that there absolutely needs to be a conversation about policy reform, but I don't really get why it's such a problem that Lean In is not the book that starts that conversation? On a personal level, why should my trying to make myself as effective and successful as possible in the existing capitalist structure be incompatible with my also trying to change that structure?
This comment is kind of a mess, but I think people are more critical of Sandberg than they are of men who write "how to succeed" books, even though those books don't address social reform, either.
*My defense of Lean In is limited to the book. To the extent I understand Lean In as a "social movement," I think the criticisms of it are spot on.

themegnapkin

@themegnapkin also, I don't disagree that society routinely shortchanges women, that we live in an extremely sexist society and that following Sandberg's advice is no guarantee of success - "leaning in" (GD I hate that expression) does not protect you from the patriarchy.

popsicletrees

@themegnapkin Yeah I agree with your characterization of the book as self-help targeted to women. And, I think you're totally right that the book isn't trying to be a commentary on policy. It's a self-limiting book. However, I think the book is problematic because its refusal to tackle any structural issues makes it also very difficult for a person to assess whether it actually would be a good idea to lean in or speak up at any particular time. There are unspoken conventions and procedures that are followed in any given workplace, and this book does not assist with assessing the situation and the risks involved. Power is relational. Her book lacks the relational part. This is also where the critiques of her book being elitist fit in. She had a lot of negotiating power (e.g., her prior work experience, her connections, her other job opportunities, etc.) when being courted by Facebook, and this is something that not every woman has. A reader wouldn't know how to assess her own power in a negotiation from reading this book, which is about the tactic of "leaning in."

Mae
Mae

@themegnapkin Yeah, the book is pretty self-help-y, but I also think that Sandberg is clearly trying to position (or brand) herself and Lean In as a social movement, with the talks, and the Lean In circles, and so on. Given that context, I think it's totally fair to criticize her for failing to discuss policy, and, as Faludi points out, forming alliances with corporations like Walmart who having storied histories of sex discrimination.

Legal

Mae : "Yeah, the book is pretty self-help-y, but I also think that Sandberg is clearly trying to position (or brand) herself and Lean In as a social movement, with the talks, and the Lean In circles, and so on. Given that context, I think it's totally fair to criticize her for failing to discuss policy, and, as Faludi points out, forming alliances with corporations like Walmart who having storied histories of sex discrimination."

Totally. I think the criticisms are more than fair. Though based on earlier comments here on the topic of 'Lean In', we're just not being fair to Sandberg. Shrugs.

I personally see her premise as very problematic.

popsicletrees

@Legal Which part isn't fair to Sandberg?

Legal

@popsicletrees Sorry, my comment was typically clear as mud. When the topic of "Lean In" first came up here at Hairpin - a few months ago? - there were a lot of people rushing to Sandberg's defense in response to criticism in the comments thread.

popsicletrees

@Legal oh haha ok I see. I'm new to this commenting world.

franceschances

We're also all reading Flavia Dzodan, right? Excellent (http://www.redlightpolitics.info/)

aphrabean

@franceschances I came here to say exactly that! Her posts on neoliberal feminism are just incredibly brilliant.

Moverss

Yea her posts on Facebook hacking software are not too great though...

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