Sunday, April 28, 2013

Weighing in on "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg

This is not a book review. This is a reaction to the book and a response to Sandberg's critics, especially the ones who imply that she somehow doesn't have the cred to write this book because of her privileged background.  Excuse me?  Who better to challenge women to aspire to leadership than an extremely well educated woman who has achieved amazing success in both government and business, and who has at the same time managed to be a good mother and wife.

It seems to me that her primary target audience is other privileged women. She is challenging women who already work outside the home to be ambitious and to strive to become leaders. She challenges well-educated and privileged women who work at home to do the same, either by getting jobs or becoming leaders in their communities or political acitivists.  Call me old fashioned, but I believe in noblesse oblige.  Those who have been most richly blessed should be expected to work to improve our world -- for everybody.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those Housewife-bashers. On the contrary, the happiest years of my life were the four years I spent doing what Sandberg calls "working at home."  I loved cooking for my family, putting up food from our garden, being with my baby and doing volunteer work.  During the same period, I wrote my first full-length novels. (They were dreadful.) I studied theology. Best of all I participated in a Sisterhood of smart women with small children who banded together to talk about big ideas instead of just sharing recipes and crabbing about our husbands. (We did the latter, too, of course, but it was incidental to our real conversations.)

I didn't agree with everything Sandberg said, but I haven't had a book hit me so hard since I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes back in the early 90's. And for much the same reason.  Estes wrote that women have the innate capacity to heal ourselves.

Sandberg has a loftier goal: she challenges women (and men) to heal our world.  I think Sandberg's platform, as a woman of privilege addressing other women of privilege, is important. Sandberg invites women, especially young, well-educated women to allow themselves to be ambitious, to seek positions of leadership in both business and government. Leadership doesn't come naturally to a lot of women.  Sandberg goes into some detail about how deeply ingrained traditional gender roles are in our culture.  It is not easy for women or men to cross them. You'd think that in the forty years since the publication of The Feminine Mystique we'd have made more progress in raising our children to be more egalitarian.

The book affirms my own observations that for too long women have taken the position that equality has been achieved and that feminism is no longer necessary. Sandberg calls feminism "the new F-word."  She's right.  Frankly, I think women's position in American society has regressed in the last couple of decades. Sometimes it seems that, politically speaking, it's open season on women in America.  Reading the news from places like Afghanistan, India and Somalia as well as California and Canada, it's literally open season on women in the streets and in their homes.  It is both selfish and dangerous to pretend that women's rights have been somehow secured, and we don't need to bother our pretty little heads about it any more.

What is more, there are too many woman who drag other women down and too many women in our corporations who play the roll of what Sandberg calls "queen bee" -- using their  positions in leadership to block the paths of other women who would follow.  We all knew "mean girls" in school, and I bet most of us know "mean girls" in business and in our social world as well. We can be better than that. And we should -- at every age.

If we're lucky, we also know the wonder of what Sandberg calls "communality" and what I call "the Sisterhood."  We should aspire to that in our relationships with other women, and let that kind and encouraging behavior spill over into our relationships with men.

Do I agree with everything Sandberg advocates? No.  But I celebrate her invitation to open a much needed conversation  among women of all ages, that will include our partners, fathers, sons, bosses and co-workers. We need to find a way forward that allows us to work together with respect and a willingness to make compromises.  We need to rise above the petty meanness of too much public and political discourse today and have authentic and respectful conversations.

I think Ms. Sanberg is inviting us to engage in a some good old-fashioned consciousness-raising all around.

Let's do it!

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