Last year, when I began college, I was introduced to the secular and feminist movements. I learned quickly about skepticism, social justice, secularism, patriarchy, and other aspects of activism in these movements. Initially, I had a wonderful time getting angry about representation of women’s bodies in the media and climate change denial. I had interesting conversations with some really smart people and read about the goings-on of these movements online. I learned about the importance of “speaking out” and felt that my opinion and voice matters.
Unfortunately, throughout the last year, I have begun to sense a problem: I am not convinced that we, as members of a movement, are being skeptical enough about the criticisms we make. Sometimes, when we criticize, we fail to look at the big picture. All too often, I find feminists who are used to functioning in the unique feminist community criticizing trivial flaws in public figures who are at the forefront of making tangible change for our movement. People like Emma Watson, Richard Dawkins, and Sheryl Sandberg are smart, hardworking public figures with the power and motivation to change our society for the better. We, as members of a movement, must recognize three important things. First, powerful figures like Watson, Dawkins, and Sandberg inspire and engage the general public. Second, we (members of the feminist and secular movements) constitute a relatively small portion of the public. Third, we need the general public on our side if we plan to create significant change in our society. The aforementioned public figures and others like them bridge the gap between “social justice warriors” and the mainstream.
Here’s the problem: these figures face relentless criticism from members of a movement who very much need the general public on their side. As the young, active, liberal feminists that many of us are, it is easy to jump on the complain-train and harp on details that are only marginally problematic. After all, we surround ourselves with other rare, like-minded, left-wing progressives who understand that “they” can be a singular pronoun and regularly use the word intersectionality. This tendency to pounce on any slightly problematic publication, public figure, etc. is unproductive for our movements. Sure, Emma Watson’s speech at the UN didn’t cover the ways patriarchy benefits men, and sure, Richard Dawkins is kind of stuck up, and sure, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In will mostly resonate with upper-middle class married white women, but do we need to be so harsh? Does the good work and do the good intentions of these influential public figures lose all merit just because of some flaws? I certainly hope not. As we all work towards a secular, non-discriminating society, we should spend our time and energy evaluating the intentions and examining the actual effects of generally well-meaning people’s work and actions, not fighting back against flaws unworthy of our attention.
Let’s look specifically at the example of Sheryl Sandberg and her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg is one of the most successful American businesswomen alive today. She is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook; before that, she worked for Google. Sandberg is married to Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveryMonkey. They have two young children. Sandberg has a background of privilege. To begin with, she is white, cisgender, and straight. Additionally, she comes from a privileged family, is extremely well-educated (she graduated at the top of her program in her Bachelor’s and Master’s programs at Harvard), and is very wealthy.
Sandberg’s book and the associated movement are about encouraging women to step forward or “lean in” at work. Most of her argument is nicely summarized in this TED talk. She focuses on women who work in high-level corporate jobs and addresses areas of concern for women in these positions and women who aspire to them. She talks about balancing personal life with work, having children, encouraging young women to be strong, and the statistical differences between men and women in society and everyday life. This book definitely has flaws. It focuses on action women can take to improve their own social status, but does not call out patriarchy for its inherent problems. It addresses problems faced by successful white women who, while becoming more successful, still want to have a marriage and children to love. Sandberg does not address race or class issues in any helpful way. But, this was not her goal.
Right from the get-go, Sandberg owns up to her privileged status and recognizes that many women face barriers about which Sandberg has never had to worry. “I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work…I am writing [Lean In] for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” Her book is primarily for and about “women at the top.” She sincerely believes that having equal numbers of men and women at the top (as well as in the home) will create a better society overall. What feminist disputes this idea?
Many reasonable and well-supported criticisms of the book exist online. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” by bell hooks is exceptional. In Lean In, Sandberg does not explain the history of the feminist movement or any feminist theory at all. Lean In perpetuates heteronormativity, and it fails to call for radical change in the treatment of women of color and other minority groups. Lean in doesn’t call for anything radical at all, and this is part of why she is successful. Radical messages like “take down the patriarchy,” do not resonate with the working women Sandberg reaches. Many women live happily in our patriarchal society, and while they would like to see some changes, they do not want to overturn the society we have going. Is there a platform for more radical messages and ideas? Absolutely. But we must also reach out to the greater general public. We can garner support from these members of the public, but proposing agendas of radical change and overturning power structures can seem reckless and brash in the eyes of someone who simply wants to move up at work. Someday, will the women who became empowered by Lean In take more action in as feminists lives and slowly join the greater feminist movement? They very well might. And even if they don’t eventually join the feminist movement, at least they received inspiring messages that made them feel strong and empowered.
A simple look at Lean In’s reviews on Amazon.com demonstrate the positive effects Sandberg’s book is having. Of the 2,815 reviews Lean In has on Amazon, a total of 2,411 give the book five or four stars (as of October 2014). Only 185 reviews give Lean In two or fewer stars. The two and one-star reviews tend to criticize Lean In for being generally problematic and only catering to the privileged few. The one and two-star reviewers tend to demonstrate at least some knowledge of the feminist movement and the myriad of ways ways women are socialized to be less successful than men. It’s great that there are people who understand the complexity of feminist issues and who are willing to fight from deep within the feminist movement, but looking at the four and five-star reviews paints a different picture of women’s understanding of feminism. The reviewers who give Lean In four and five stars praise the book for being inspirational and helping them understand problems women face in the workplace. They claim that Lean In has helped them be more confident, involved, and successful. They have used what they learned in Lean In to change their lives. Readers who enjoyed Lean In found the book so inspirational because the empowering message they received and the information they learned from Lean In was new to them. Additionally, women who were inspired and empowered by Lean In comprised the vast majority of reviewers. This means more and more women are coming to understand that it’s okay to be powerful and that the words ambition and selfishness are not synonymous. More women are being empowered, and in the end, that is wonderful for the feminist movement.
Criticism of Sandberg and her book is just one of many examples of members of a movement being overly critical of people, publications, ideas, etc. that are actually advancing the cause. We, as members of progressive movements, must think more carefully about the criticisms we make. Instead of jumping at everything problematic, we must first examine the impact these supposedly damaging concerns have on the real world. If, after examining the effects and responses from the general public, we still believe that a person, publication, or idea is problematic, then we may criticize. But before we rampantly rail on every single flaw, we must employ skepticism.