Well, well — who saw this coming? It seems that Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit organization, Lean In, is honoring, as one of its “Trailblazing Women You May Not Know (But Should),” Florida G.O.P. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lentinen. You might assume, since Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican, that she holds all the usual horrible Republican positions on foreign and economic policy. And indeed, you would be correct.
But you’d probably figure that, if an allegedly feminist organization like Lean In is honoring her, she must have at least some sort of a decent record on women. Is she pro-choice, maybe? Or at a bare minimum, a supporter for equal pay, perhaps?
Sorry — no, and no. The New Republic’s Mark Tracy has the goods here. It turns out that Ros-Lehtinen is an anti-feminist nightmare whose anti-woman politics are not a shade different from Phyllis Schlafly’s. As Tracy writes:
— She voted to withdraw federal funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X. She presumably supported the defunding because Planned Parenthood and Title X provide family planning services, but they also screen for cancer in women.
— Her voting record on abortion issues earned her a nice round 0 percent from NARAL Pro-Choice America.
— She voted for the deceptively titled Working Families Flexibility Act, which opponents—including nearly all House Democrats, President Obama, unions, and worker advocacy groups—believe would enable employers to cheapen federal overtime requirements and to encourage employees to spend more time at home rather than earning more money at work.
— Most starkly, she voted against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gave women the practical ability to sue over alleged equal-pay violations.
This is disgusting, and Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In organization should be ashamed of themselves. Women have died for the lack of abortions and free cancer screenings which Ros-Lehtinen has cruelly voted to deny them.
But this incident, unfortunate though it may be, provides a long overdue opportunity for me to revisit Lean In and the Sheryl Sandberg phenomenon. Last year, when I wrote about Sandberg’s best-selling book — here and here — I was skeptical, but on balance, slightly positive. I had serious problems with her emphasis on individual factors that impede women’s equality, as opposed to structural ones. I also was troubled by the fact that she provided the merest lip service — a sentence or two at most — on behalf of the kinds of public policy and workplace reforms that are crucial to women’s advancement.
But, as I now regretfully realize, I wasn’t nearly skeptical enough. In part, I was responding to an anti-Sandberg backlash and to highly personal criticisms of Sandberg that really were sexist and unfair. The soft bigotry of low expectations also kicked in. As a business self-help book — which is how I evaluated it — Lean In is better than most. It has its cheesy and obnoxious elements, yes, but it’s also leavened by cold, hard statistics about the reality of sexism in the American workplace.
The other reason I went easy on the book is that I gave Sandberg credit for starting a conversation about workplace sexism, and I was hoping the next step in her plan would be to put her money where her mouth is and start funding feminist causes in a big way. After all, her fellow Facebook one percenters are getting political. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg started a political PAC.
But Sandberg, unfortunately, has resolutely kept her distance from politics. Moreover, in the past year, all we’ve heard about her “Lean In” project is a steady stream of bad news: there was the Sandberg publicist who issued a nasty threat to a writer who’d penned a negative review; the many corporate sponsors of the Lean In organization, such as Walmart, that have shameful histories of discrimination against women; and the fact that the Lean In organization initially refused to pay its interns (it reversed that decision after a public uproar).
By now, it’s become crystal clear that Lean In is little more than a fluffy, feel good self-help movement in the classic American vein — Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale in female drag, and updated for the 21st century. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with feminism — men can adopt its message, which basically boils down to “work harder, Boxer!”, just as easily as women can. In fact, I know men who’ve read and admired the book, and say they found it helpful for their careers.
But while Lean In has little to do with feminism in any meaningful sense, it does, I think, have a lot to do with feminism’s increasingly close collaboration with neoliberalism. As Nancy Fraser wrote last year, “the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society.” She continued:
feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.
Do be sure to read Fraser’s entire essay — it’s short. And also, check out Susan Faludi’s great piece about Sandberg and feminism in the current issue of The Baffler. It’s several months old, so you may have read it already. But if you didn’t, have a look. It’s one of the smartest things that has yet been written about the Sandberg phenomenon. Unlike so many feminists whose work I usually respect, Faludi is independent-minded enough to see Sandbergism for the dubious proposition that it is.