A new trend is on the rise. Suddenly high-powered women are publically espousing feminism. In her recently published book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg advocates for a new kind of feminism, maintaining that women need to initiate an “internalised revolution”.
Sandberg’s feminist manifesto comes on the heels of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much-discussed Atlantic opinion piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“, which rapidly became the most widely read essay in the magazine’s history. In her piece, Slaughter explains why professional women are still finding it difficult to balance career demands with their wish for an active home life: social norms and the inflexibility of US workplace culture continue to privilege career advancement over family.
The buzz that has surrounded these two “how-to-reinvigorate-feminism” programmes suggests that Sandberg and Slaughter have struck a deep cultural chord. Indeed, the two women are quickly becoming the most visible representatives of US feminism in the early 21st century.
Part of the media hype, however, involves their public disagreements. But the attempt to pit these two women against one another is actually ironic, since their fundamental assumptions about what constitutes liberation and progress for women are virtually indistinguishable.
Sandberg urges women to reaffirm their commitment to work, while insisting that this will provide women more choice about how to carve out a felicitous work-family balance. Slaughter urges women to reaffirm their commitment to family, while asserting that this will provide women more choice about how to carve out a felicitous work-family balance.
Thus, despite the surface disagreement, both women ultimately agree on the basics, while the difference is merely a matter of emphasis. Sandberg focuses on changing women’s attitudes about work and self. Slaughter focuses on legitimating women’s “natural” commitment towards families, while urging social institutions to make room for these attitudes.
In both cases, there is a deeply held conviction that once high potential women undertake the task of revaluing their ambition (Sandberg) or the normative expectation that work comes first (Slaughter), then all women will be empowered to make better choices.
Transforming women’s orientation and attitude, which in academic parlance is now called affect, becomes the necessary condition for ensuring women’s liberation and happiness as well as changing society. Ultimately, both feminists offer affective solutions that they claim will allow women to stay in the rat race. These two aspects – positive affect as antidote and the importance of balance – mark an extremely disturbing cultural shift.
The liberal feminist narrative
These two women’s worldview is clearly informed by the still dominant and uncritical feminist narrative of progress in the US, which unfolds in this manner: traditionally, middle and upper class women were confined to the domestic realm, but as a result of first-wave feminism’s mobilisation at the end of the 19th century, women increasingly demanded recognition as public subjects.
Women’s participation in the war effort, the passage of the 19th amendment in the US and the coalescing of the modern New Woman norm were all fruit of this long-standing demand and activism. Freedom, especially for middle-class women who had been associated with the domestic realm, translated into the ability to transcend the private sphere and enter into the public world of political representation and work.
Consequently, throughout the 20th century, upwardly mobile women were often forced to make choices between having a family and pursuing a career – between traditional definitions of womanhood and progressive ones.
“From Private Woman through the New Woman and Superwoman, it has finally become possible to speak about the Balanced Woman.”
Even after the accomplishments of second wave feminism in the 1970s, it was still very difficult for middle-class women to bridge both spheres, and except for a few Superwomen, most women had to choose between family and a successful professional career; according to this narrative, the private and public have always been framed as either/or for women.
Sandberg insists that it has finally become possible for women to bridge private and public spheres at the same time. She is convinced that by leaning into their careers women will fare better at balancing their lives (since too many are still opting out of the fast track), which will, in turn, allow them to stay in the game and make it to the top.
For Slaughter the emphasis is slightly different. She is convinced that only once high powered women speak out about the value of family and insist on transforming workplace norms, social institutions will begin changing those norms; and changing these norms, in turn, will facilitate women’s ability to pursue their own happiness project, which is inextricably related to the right work-family balance.
Yet the ideal for both women remains the same – having a very successful career and a heteronormative family and being able to enjoy them both. From Private Woman through the New Woman and Superwoman, it has finally become possible to speak about the Balanced Woman.
So what happened to social justice?
This, unfortunately, is how the “truly liberated” woman of the 21st century is increasingly being construed. What is particularly troubling about this feminist moment – especially since both women espouse liberal ideals – is exactly how little emphasis either Slaughter or Sandberg ultimately places on equal rights, justice or emancipation as the end goals for feminism.
The move from a discourse of equal rights and social justice to “internalising the revolution” or, in Slaughter’s case, “a national happiness project” is predicated on the erasure or exclusion of the vast majority of women. Put differently, the feminist project these women advocate does not and cannot take into account the reality of the vast majority of US women. A national project it is not.
Writing for Al Jazeera, Lynne Huffer has already reminded us that Sandberg is addressing a tiny group of elites, while ignoring the fact that capitalism is profit-driven economic system shaped like a pyramid, with workers at the bottom and executives like Sheryl Sandberg at the top. Also, Zillah Eisenstein calls this imperial and trickle-down feminism. And the numbers prove them right.
Figures show, for example, that in 2009, 27.5 percent of African-American women, 27.4 percent of Hispanic women and 13.5 percent of white women in the US were living below the poverty line. Moreover, 35.1 percent of households headed by single moms were food insecure at some point in 2010, meaning that they did not have enough food at all times for an active, healthy life.
Many working mothers in the US are working double shifts, night shifts or two to three jobs just in order to provide for their families.
Given these blatant class and race-biases, there is something profoundly illiberal – and fundamentally incongruous – in the re-envisioning of liberated womanhood as a reorientation of affect and as a better balancing act. US women do not need to change their attitude; they need, first, job security, good childcare, livable wages for the work they do, and physical security.
If Sheryl Sandberg is serious about sparking a conversation, then perhaps she should start by asking who the cleaning women at Facebook are and how much money they take home every month. Do they have a viable pension plan? Do they receive paid holidays? And what kind of childcare services does Facebook offer them?
Indeed, it is extremely disturbing that for these high-powered women the “woman problem” is no longer about social justice, equity and women’s emancipation – as if these have already been achieved – but about affect, behaviour modification and well-roundedness.
Articulated at a time when Western liberal democracies are loudly decrying women’s lack of freedom in the Muslim world while lionising gender equality in their own societies, it actually makes a kind of cultural sense to shift the conversation away from the gendered division of labour and profound social injustices upon which US liberalism itself is constituted.
The turn to the language of balance, internalising the revolution and a happiness project, in other words, puts the burden of unhappiness, failure and disequilibrium once again on the shoulders of individual women while diverting attention away from US self-scrutiny with respect to its own “woman problem”.
Catherine Rottenberg is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton and has most recently edited Black Harlem and the Jewish Lower East: Narratives out of Time.