In early December, Michelle Obama created a stir with a comment she made on her tour for Becoming, her new autobiography, out last month. During an widely watched interview with her friend, the poet Elizabeth Alexander, at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the former first lady was frank about a certain piece of workplace advice that has infiltrated conventional gender equity wisdom in recent years.
Challenging the idea that it’s possible for women to “have it all,” Obama said: “Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in because that shit doesn’t work.”
That statement whipped around the internet, and many have lauded the beloved FLOTUS for her frankness about a movement that has been widely championed despite its many flaws. But the truth is, though it was meaningful to hear these words coming from such a hugely public, influential figure, the criticism itself isn’t anything new. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead has been rightly picked apart since its release in March 2013.
“The problem with big books that address big problems in culture at large is that they inevitable wind up leaving lots of people out.”
The book went a long way in shining a gigantic spotlight on the many reasons that women miss out on opportunities, wages, and upward mobility at work; it gave women concrete statistics and plans-of-action to help give them footing, and staked a strong, public case that the current status quo was not acceptable. But the problem with big books that address big problems in culture at large is that they inevitable wind up leaving lots of people out. That “lean in” has become a de facto maxim for women is problematic at best and long term damaging at worst.
The takeaways of theLean In philosophy—like the idea that if you demand a chair at the table and refuse to give up your seat, you can get to where you want—don’t apply to people who haven’t even been granted entry into the room. And yet, Sandberg’s philosophy has been applied with a broad stroke to working women in general. From day one, feminist critics called out that the book was best geared for women who already had power to leverage. Another critique was that Lean In sought to teach women how to work a system that wasn’t built for their success, rather than demand that the system be rebuilt.
“That ‘lean in’ has become a de facto maxim for women is problematic at best and long term damaging at worst.”
In a way, Sandberg’s book is a lot like a glitter bomb. The sparkles grabbed our attention—it seemed like a festive response to our changing times, a grown-up heir to the nebulous concept of girl power. The with problem with glitter? It gets everywhere, quickly spreading into places it doesn’t belong. Glitter gets into the water supply and becomes glitter Kool-Aid. Without enough thought, people drink it right up.
As journalist Dawn Foster wrote in her slim but muscular manifesta, Lean Out: “The conversation around feminism seems to have stalled, and focuses on ‘aces’ within feminism rather than the power of collective agitation.” The front of Foster’s book features a hand in a rubber dish glove, middle finger extended. “If the 1 percent are leaning in,” reads the cover line, “what are the other 99 percent supposed to do?”
Thankfully, there is plenty of writing dedicated to answering that question and framing the larger problem—including Foster’s, which is not only a critical analysis of Lean In but also an intersectional primer on conflicts within modern feminism. And while books are, as always, a potent resource, and having a personal library of women’s studies titles is an excellent life goal, a lot of the best writing on this subject found is—where else?—on the internet.
“In a way, Sandberg’s book is a lot like a glitter bomb … Glitter gets into the water supply and becomes glitter Kool-Aid. Without enough thought, people drink it right up.”
Jodi Kantor’s February 2013 New York Times story about the book is a good starting point that contextualizes the upcoming release of Lean In while also taking us back to the pre-Lean In era; it also does a great job of setting the book up as a “titan’s” guide to breaking the glass ceiling—a light nod at the fact that its lessons may not have universal application.
A few months later, in her piece in Dissent Mag, Kate Losse posed the important question: “What are we actually leaning into?” In an op-ed for The Washington Post published around the same time, Melissa Gira Grant illuminates Sandberg’s “privatized” structure of gender equity, and points out what it is missing.
“Any movement leader needs a compelling vision, not just an outsize platform,” Gira Grant wrote. “For Sandberg, that’s in making ‘work-life balance’ an issue for all people, not just women. But Sandberg’s recipe for balance is found between the demands of a woman’s employer and the demands of her children. Where are women’s own desires in this equation”—a salient factor that is often on left out.
In a 2016 piece for the Times, Judith Shulevitz elaborated further, with thoughts on how to fix feminism. Shulevitz also quoted feminist Sarah Leonard who wrote, in her book, The Future We Want: “If feminism means the right to sleep under my desk, then screw it.”
Speaking of books, a few you might consider adding to the night table: Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin demands that we stop taking that word so lightly. Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is a modern classic. All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister—not to mention her latest, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger—dig into the history, and present, of the female fight for equality; while Elaine Weiss’ The Woman’s House is the real life thriller of how women won the right to vote. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists is the stocking stuffer you should buy for literally everyone in your life; same goes for feminism is for everybody: passionate politics by bell hooks.
In We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl, The Buying & Selling of a Political Movement, Bitch Media co-founder Andie Zeisler tackles the rise of marketplace feminism and its many repercussions. Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me is about exactly what it sounds like, and as relevant now as when it hit shelves in 2014.
Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward by Gemma Hartley, released in November, elaborates on the viral essay she penned for Harper’s Bazaar in 2017: “Women Aren’t Nags—We’re Just Fed Up: Emotional labor is the unpaid job men still don’t understand.”
This list barely scratches the surface, but we have to start somewhere. Come to think of it, that might be the most valuable contribution of Lean In: The rich conversations it’s generated in the years since it came out have given us a new place to start talking.