In this feminist-sounding riff on “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the only fear not raised is the one FDR was addressing: economic. It’s remarkable oversight in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
But Sandberg isn’t alone in her silence. Mainstream feminist debate, for all the lip service paid to the “intersectionality” of race, class and gender, has also left economic divisions on the cutting-room floor. It’s more marketable to talk about sex or pop culture.
The recoil from class issues came early, when American feminism began retreating from its examination of root causes.
In a 1972 article in the feminist newspaper, The Furies, Coletta Reid observed: “Early in the women’s liberation movement, I saw class as an issue that men in the Left used to put down feminism. Later it became an issue that many women said we had to discuss,” but never seriously did.
And yet, we won’t ever productively confront women’s secondary status without confronting class. Our economic framework is founded on women’s subjugation.
The power structure that Sandberg wants to feminize was built to cement the power of (some) men, and on the backs of (most) women, who would not only stay out of the power suites but would make all the power plays possible by assuming every backstage duty, from minding the kids to handling the least glamorous and lowest-paid work. It’s in capitalism’s DNA, and no cosmetic paste-ons at the top are going to change the dynamic without significant change on the bottom.
Charlotte Bunch, whose sane voice on so many feminist questions deserves more notice, limned that connection years ago in her essay, “Class and Feminism.”
“Class distinctions are an outgrowth of male domination,” she wrote, “a political mechanism for maintaining not only capitalism but also patriarchy and white supremacy.”
You can’t change the world for women by simply inserting female faces at the top of an unchanged system of social and economic power. “You can’t,” to quote Bunch again, “just add women and stir.”
Could Sandberg’s book have launched such a necessary discussion?
Well, actually, yes, if you skip the many pages devoted to variations on her exhortation to “have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world,” and linger instead on one sentence that should be at the forefront of such a conversation: “The number of women supporting families on their own is increasing quickly; between 1973 and 2006, the proportion of families headed by a single mother grew from one in 10 to one in five.”
Testimonials on her Lean In website must be inspirational, not troubling: “Share a positive ending,” its story guidelines instruct.
The flip side of the view that women can do anything if they “just jump” is the assumption that anyone who doesn’t should remain invisible. That message is the precise opposite of feminism.
Consider instead the benefits of a campaign that bore down on the causes behind the negative endings that mar so many single mothers’ lives. It would not only be confronting a problem that affects huge numbers of women, it would be mounting a significant challenge to a system that will otherwise continue to stand between women and full emancipation.
Because what does a single mother signify?
She is an adult woman with responsibilities who is not supported by a man. Symbolically, she stands for the possibility of women to truly remake the patriarchal structure. That would require a movement built not around corporate bromides, but a collective grassroots effort to demand the fundamental social change necessary to grant independent mothers a genuine independence.