For the record, accusing women of being 'career feminists' is sexist

I’m a socialist. Let’s just start with that, OK? I’m anti-capitalist and I’m feminist and I’m living in a capitalist, patriarchal world. I am working class and I will likely always be. I hope to be able to survive and live comfortably some day, while also doing ethical, feminist work. But God forbid I become successful, lest I join the ranks of the much-maligned ‘career feminists’!

Now, I haven’t read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s soon-to-be published book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, so I’m doing what several others have already done, which is to write about a book I have not (and will probably never) read. What I’m most interested in, though, is not the content of the book, but the backlash against Sandberg and, more generally, this attack on successful women and on women who may profit or make a living from doing feminist work. The so-called ‘career feminists’.

Sandberg was accused, by Maureen Dowd, of using “the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.” Melissa Gira Grant wrote in The Washington Post  that “this is simply the elite leading the slightly-less-elite, for the sake of Sandberg’s bottom line,” to which Michelle Goldberg says “makes sense if you believe that a woman worth hundreds of millions of dollars would go into feminist publishing for the money.”

Goldberg’s quote is key. No woman goes into feminism for the money. As much as I agree that, often, those who have wealth make it on the backs of the marginalized, I also can’t get behind the knee-jerk reaction to attack any woman who is both successful and a feminist. That, my friends, equates to shooting ourselves in the knees.

So what do we make of a woman in a relative position of power who writes a book about feminism and the business world and who advocates for “[g]overnmental and company policies such as paid personal time off, affordable high-quality child care, and flexible work practices”?

Sandberg wrote a book that, quite honestly, doesn’t much interest me. I have no desire to join corporate America. But I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse to rip her to shreds for not addressing every single feminist issue ever in a book that is about how women can get a seat at the table in workplace.

wrote for The Guardian (in what is the best review I’ve read of the book so far) that:

Sandberg first address[es] the “chicken and egg” problem of gender inequality: the chicken being that “women will get rid of the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles,” and the egg of needing “to eliminate the external barriers to get women into those roles in the first place”. Sandberg declares that both are crucial, and after detailing the many structural impediments women face and saying she supports the efforts of feminist policy-makers, makes clear that the purpose of this book is to address the chicken. She pens a call for women who need policy change but also need to make their lives better now, telling us that we can take a seat at the table, expect more from men, and stop beating ourselves up for not “having it all”.

To be clear, I don’t believe that *just* putting more women in positions of power will necessarily translate to an equitable world (but it is absolutely crucial). I don’t think the goal is for women to simply be ‘equal to’ men. But I also want feminist women to be ambitious and to be out there, having their say, having an impact and taking up space in traditionally male-dominated arenas. And, when they get there, I want them to speak out for the rights of other women and act as mentors.

Sandberg is straight-up about what she is arguing for in this particular book. She didn’t write a book about poverty in America or about women in Third World countries. And while I may not be able to relate much to it, I think the backlash is anti-feminist. As Nisha Chittal points out:

The twisted reasoning behind women tearing down Sheryl Sandberg is that we have so few examples of powerful women that we hold the few that we do have — like Sandberg — up to impossibly high standards and expect them to represent all women everywhere. We never expect a powerful man to represent all types of men in all demographics and income brackets and personal circumstances.

And it’s not just a simple ‘how to get ahead at work’ book, from the sounds of it. Sandberg gets at that which the feminist movement has been working to address for ages — the fact that patriarchy is something we internalize. While we absolutely must change the system and legislation in order to gain equality, we also have to deal with the fact that women learn, all their lives, not to ‘act like men’. Meaning, they shouldn’t want power or success or a voice:

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are also hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. 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. (via The Guardian)

I have a really hard time seeing what’s so feminist about ripping apart women who, while yes, may be in positions of power, are making feminist arguments, simply because they have privilege (and no, I am certainly not arguing we must agree with every argument any self-described feminist makes). I also have a really hard time understanding what the point of the backlash against Sandberg’s book is. What should she have written about? Should she have written nothing? She is successful in her career, should she not try to help other women with the platform she has?

I’m sick of women being attacked for wanting power or success. I don’t support people gaining power by stepping on the backs of others, but I also fail to see how Sandberg sticking up for feminism and other women is either selfish or a good career move. Feminism is rarely a ‘good career move’.

As women and as feminists, we might question our eagerness to take successful women down a notch and why we don’t see men being treated in the the same way.

Chittal writes that “Sandberg’s philosophy encourages women to “lean in” to their careers and pursue their ambitions.” Are we really going to discourage women from doing this? It seems counterproductive to me.

We all need to survive in the world we live in. Encouraging women to be ambitious is a completely feminist thing to do. The reality is that women have careers and are working in business. Are those women all to shut up about feminism? Or step back and let the men run the show because to desire success is not becoming of women?

Even I, a person who, yes, has an education and an apartment and have had some opportunities in life others have not, but who also struggles to pay my rent and my bills and don’t have what you might call ‘disposable income’, have been accused of being a ‘career feminist’. I’ve been criticized for being too driven or for wanting success on my own terms by other feminists. Really? Is this really what we’re doing in this movement? Attacking women for ‘acting like men’? It’s essentially like saying “sit back, shut up, get back in your corner.”

No. The world is hard enough on women as it is. If a woman with a voice speaks out for other women and is doing feminist work, even if she’s compensated for that work (because God forbid any of us make a living), our job is not to tear her down.

I have no interest in hearing feminists accusing one another of wanting book deals or jobs or an income. Go sneer at someone else. You’re not helping.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Brilliant post. Don’t ever forget that you don’t deserve to have anything, achieve anything or be anything because you are a woman. & IF you somehow manage to have done one of these things you better not try to help other women do it too.

    Women, know your place.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Word up, Terri Strange!

  • marv

    Meghan, I took special note of your declaration that you depend on supporters to sustain you, emotionally and politically, against the enemies of equality. I hope you recognize how reciprocal the relationship is. Often a deep and mortifying interior darkness descends upon us from the patriarchal night. The feminist current is a flaming torch ascending, from below, into our hearts and minds to cast revitalizing light into the black hole of despair. From below, because that is where the dispossessed reside.

    Keep putting male hegemony’s feet to the heat and setting his pants on fire until cremation is achieved.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Oh thank you so much for your kind words, Marv. I appreciate them ever so much.

    • marv

      I meant my remark to be designated on your previous post. Ovesirght:)

      • Meghan Murphy

        Ah, I assumed and didn’t even notice!

  • Vouchsafer

    An unfortunate component of female oppression has been the kind of back-biting between women that Meghan is talking about here. It seems to be that as women are placed in the role of underdog, there is less power to share between us, and so you sometimes run across ‘competition’ for status.
    it happens on the small scale, too, in workplaces or community groups, and I think Meghan raises a good point. Instead of competing amongst each other for scraps, women need to reject the whole structure that paints us as adversaries in the first place. we need to see each other as allies and celebrate each other’s victories otherwise by ‘turning on each other’ we just reinforce the patriarchical ties that bind us.

  • And for the millionth time, I have to ask myself, what a bizarre little hypocrisy of identity politics it is when only the women’s liberation movement requires proof of our fighting for the liberation of everyone else before we can be granted credibility.

    Kudos on calling sexism for what it is, and observing that perhaps if we had more women in positions of power, the women who were there would no longer be blank screens for everyone to project their ideas about women on (including women).

    To that end, I found Sandberg’s “lean in” advice profoundly helpful. I have no kids, and work in government, which is more forgiving than most, but due to a huge amount of internalized patriarchy and a more successful partner in the private sector, I had already started to “lean out”, to feel worthless and like any moment I’d be plucked from my career to do baby duty. The thing was, it was purely subconscious until she named it and then fireworks of insight went off all around me. It was a splash of cold water, but I welcomed it, because Sheryl Sandberg wasn’t who did this to me. It was the patriarchy, duh! And this isn’t true just because I’m ‘privileged’, a few years ago I was being beaten and stalked and a few years before that I was homeless. I’m so sick of privilege being used as a stick to beat other feminists with. Upward mobility matters, we should fight for it for everyone, and Sandberg hasn’t yet made an argument on this topic that I don’t consider feminist. Unless “feminist” now means taking care of everyone else before yourself. It’s not as if she’s Marisa Meyer of Yahoo! who just got rid of everyone’s remote working arrangements.

    Internalized patriarchy and all it’s attendant neurosis and hopelessness needs to be addressed. It’s a major flaw of choosy-choice feelgood feminism that looking at it has become taboo. I found it incredibly helpful.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Right on, Lucida! I think many of us have done this ‘leaning out’ you talk about, not wanting to seem pushy or full of ourselves or whatever women learn they are if they dare think they are *gasp* good at anything or deserve credit or accolades or for our work to be valued.

  • Sex Neutral Feminist

    Someone like Sandberg is probably expected to champion the “rugged individualism” mantra and not think in collective terms. Society is generally ok with a woman or a minority achieving great levels of success and power provided they champion that mantra and emphasize “hard work” and “bringing yourself up by your boot straps” and provided they don’t mention that such success and power is practically unattainable for the vast majority of women and minorities, for systemic reasons.

    Society wants to congratulate itself for “providing opportunities to anyone who works hard enough.”

  • kmiriam

    I have a different take on this than you Meghan. From the standpoint of my own experience I have not seen genuinely good feminists knocked down for being careerists. (if that charge is leveled against you it is utterly misplaced). unfortunately– I know of few instances of a feminism as part of a career that is not been compromised–watered down or worse. I see this broadly in academic feminism in the United States, I see it in the professionalization of anti-rape/violence organizations that completely drop a critique of patriarchy and ngos that “help” women rather than mobilize women at grass roots levels. There are striking exceptions! and I haven’t followed this but the backlash against this particular writer might be anti-feminist spirited. But careerism–or trying to legitimize feminism in career terms has generally been bad for feminism. So i’m not sure what your target is exactly here.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Well, I have been accused of it several times. I’ve also seen many feminist writers accused of it. And then, with regard to Sandberg, she was accused of trying to ‘use’ feminism in order to self-promote. I see what you’re saying though, for sure.

      • kmiriam

        It’s inane to accuse you of it.My guess is that particular insult is just grabbing at straws from the pro-sex work lobby right, or from anyone who disagrees with any of your controversial ideas?
        I think this is in the category of grabbing at straws-not criticisms of feminists as careerists. I means sure the right wing would promote that, among other inanities but i think you’re talking about it coming from feminists?

        • Meghan Murphy

          Indeed. Other feminists/women. It is likely a strategy to dismiss ideas — that allegation that one has ulterior motives, like profiting off of criticizing the patriarchy…

    • copleycat

      ” I see this broadly in academic feminism in the United States, I see it in the professionalization of anti-rape/violence organizations that completely drop a critique of patriarchy and ngos that “help” women rather than mobilize women at grass roots levels. ”

      You do make a really good point here. I’ve seen this too, but for the most part I’ve seen it manifest in that idea that feminists have to put everyone else’s struggles ahead of their own. It would be one thing if it was only a go along to get along lest we lose funding tactic that only existed at the level of printed policies but it never fails to become dogma. People always become fierce believers, again honestly I think they fall prey to delusions being some kind of all nurturing, mommy-goddess free from wants or needs – or humanity.

      Also I have seen women with advanced degrees who come into women’s shelters and community centers and they don’t really pay attention to what’s going on with women there because a lot of times what they see in those places doesn’t match up with what they were taught. Here again the craptastic state of “gender studies” programs.

      • kmiriam

        the demand that feminists put other struggles ahead of their own is a whole other category–not the “careerist” charge.
        Weirdly-this in relation to this the sheer volume of lesbians especially, but women in general who work in service provision for victims of male violence needs to be looked at as within the mold of caretaking—doing labor for the patriarchy to clean up their mess.
        i wouldn’t say stop this service- but framing it differently–as grass roots advocacy and more, seems necessary.
        yeah, about the credentialed woman coming in. It’s a real story of the way managerial feminism took over women’s liberation. Check out Judith Ezekiel’s Feminism in the Heartland to read about how this happened in the midwest in the states. This is a tangent but i was inspiredby Copleycat.

  • copleycat

    Great post Meghan. I think there’s at least two tacit assumptions fueling the kind of attacks that Sandberg is getting for writing this book.
    One, is an acceptance of the exclusionary rules of patriarchy; there will only be a very limited space for women in public discourse, therefore it’s necessary to compete by any means possible for that space. Two, is the idea, or rather the sense, that all women, but especially strong ones, are obligated to be impromptu, surrogate mothers to everyone. Therefore if a successful woman isn’t putting the needs of everybody else first and foremost then she’s being monstrously selfish and should be attacked with all the firepower available because of course she’s a monster.
    It’s hard to get at these assumptions because the people holding them, in particular the feminists who hold them, refuse to admit to giving these assumptions any credence, by all reasoning these are ridiculous assumptions but they are present in far too many people’s minds, in the dark corners where reason doesn’t shine. The evidence of that is obvious in the attacks on strong women.

  • Andrew

    The criticisms are BS and you are spot on. EVERY social justice movement faces this kind of internal judgment. It’s an internalization and self-loathing born of the external, dominant judgment.
    It is nearly impossible to be in the trenches AND have a voice AND have enough visibility to help create change. Organizing people, saying what needs to change takes effort, time, energy and also time. Working a 50+ hour job, raising children, taking care of your house, etc. etc. etc., in addition to providing energy to men makes the task of creating change extremely difficult. Leaders will always be criticized. Advocates for change always more so.

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. all wrote. They were all noted personages in their time. They fought the fight, yes, but they also rose up to be a voice for those they represented. They ultimately made money from the work they did, otherwise they couldn’t have done it.

    There is no shame. That’s what they want you to feel. F that! Write, speak, rise up, make money and use that to advance feminism for all women.

  • Hi Meghan,

    I appreciate your weighing in on the Lean In issue. I love reading your articles and listening to your podcast. However, I think you might be looking at this issue from a limited perspective (probably because you haven’t read the book). I just wanted to share this brilliant review from Dissent, which I think you will find interesting.

    Basically, Sandberg is not being criticized for being successful, but by espousing a feminism that is rooted in neoliberal solutions that work on an individual level instead of systemic change. But what is most problematic of her feminism is, as the article puts it so well:

    “Sandberg has penned not so much a new Feminine Mystique as an updated Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Where other feminists focus on articulating the amount of free or underpaid labor that women do, Sandberg places a priceless value on labor itself and encourages more of it, whether paid, unpaid, or poorly paid. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat,” she says, quoting advice she received from Google executive Eric Schmidt.”

    Def check the article out!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hey there,

      I did read that piece and thought it was quite good. There are many, many criticisms I agree with, with regard to Lean In, but others I found to be sexist and misleading.

      But yeah, I haven’t read the book (because I just don’t know that I’ll be able to relate, all that much, to what the COO of Facebook has to say about feminism, to be honest — which isn’t to say that it won’t be useful for many other women), so my opinions about the actual content are limited. I just found some of the criticisms to be frustrating.

      I did find her interview with Jian Ghomeshi to be quite good: