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It's the economy, sister

Feminism is not about getting a bigger piece of the pie, but "it's about seeing that the whole pie is rotten".

Last Modified: 18 Mar 2013 10:08
Lynne Huffer

Lynne Huffer is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her research focuses on contemporary feminism, the LGBT movement, and the ethics of sex.
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Sixty percent of minimum wage workers and 73 percent of tipped workers are women [Getty Images]

Dear Sheryl,

I've hesitated to share my thoughts about your forthcoming book and campaign for a new feminism: Lean In. God knows there's been plenty of sharing already. But what I have to say isn't part of the pile-on.

I give you credit for your can-do response to the lack of women at your level: female solidarity. As a kind of feminism, your "Lean In Circles" could be a powerful antidote. Except for one problem: your happy-endings-only recipe jettisons the most important ingredient of a consciousness-raising group: the female complaint.

Four decades ago, radical feminists launched a gender revolution because they recognised the value of what the Chinese call "speaking bitterness". They honoured women's feelings of discontent about fathers who raped them, boyfriends who abused them, doctors who sterilised them, and employers who paid them less than they were worth. Consciousness-raising worked because it affirmed a simple fact: that recognising the dead ends in our lives is the first step to opening up other paths. Where those paths begin and end can't be scripted.

Here's your bigger problem: behind that need to speak our bitterness is the bitter pill that is capitalism itself. As any student in Econ 101 will tell you, our profit-driven economic system is shaped like a pyramid, with workers at the bottom and Chief Operating Officers like you at the top. I don't doubt you're sincere in wanting success for every woman: more female CEOs and Presidents, more Hillary Clintons. As 1970s' liberal feminists used to put it: you want a bigger piece of the pie for all of us.

But capitalism doesn't work that way, unless we seriously want to challenge what, as you well know, drives corporate CEOs and their stockholders: the maximisation of profit. It may not look this way to you, but from a certain perspective, the-sky-is-the-limit profit engine is the root of the problem of unhappy endings. 

"It's where most women spend their time, not atop the Googleplex. This is where feminists should be spending their time, too."

- Sarah Jaffe 

Which means, as the second-wave feminists you so admire used to put it: feminism is not about getting a bigger piece of the pie. It's about seeing that the whole pie is rotten.

That was 40 years ago, but today the pie seems more rotten than ever. "While we debate the travails of some of the world's most privileged women," Sarah Jaffe wrote in Dissent before news of your book even hit, "most women are up against the wall". Sixty percent of minimum wage workers and 73 percent of tipped workers are women. More and more, soccer moms are becoming waitress moms.

This means that down the street from the lower Manhattan restaurant where you charmed the New Yorker's Anna Holmes last fall is a diner where a single mother with swollen ankles works a 10-hour shift. I know you know this. But I wonder if you've thought about how the physical distance that divides your table from hers is also the economic gap that divides the top from the bottom of the pyramid.

That overcrowded bottom is where waitress moms, home health care workers, and retail saleswomen live. As Jaffe puts it, "It's where most women spend their time, not atop the Googleplex. This is where feminists should be spending their time, too."

So Sheryl, don't take the hate personally. You didn't bake the pie. But can you lean in enough to hear the messy, unscripted, sometimes unhappy endings that come out of those spaces where most women live?

In solidarity,

Lynne

Lynne Huffer is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her research focuses on contemporary feminism, the LGBT movement, and the ethics of sex. She is the author of four books, including Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (Columbia U Press, 2009). 

Follow her on Twitter: @lynnehuffer

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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