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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.