Leaning In and Its Discontents, Part II

Yesterday, I talked about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, focusing on some elements I found depressing—mainly the relentless exhortation to, basically, work all the time if you want to succeed. (I have to say that I am not putting down work; I am myself very hard-working and organized. So, I feel the need to mention that I have the very focus and organization she is talking about.) But I think the work, work, work ethic here is ultimately not a desirable or sustainable lifestyle, and I worry that, because of that, the model of high achievement for women is going to explode in the future. Or come crashing down.

So, what I want to focus on today, is that fear. What scares me is this: are children being brought up by leaning-in parents—told not to scratch lice because their parents have to review notes for a meeting and don’t have time to look up from their iPads, or told to sleep in their clothes so the family can get out the door 15 minutes earlier—likely to repudiate the feminism of their mothers simply because events in their own childhoods were unpleasant and they don’t want to repeat them in their adult lives?

Will the children of lean in be a- or anti-feminist because they equate feminism with a (as it might be seen then) antiquated work-all-the-time-and-be-in-the-C-suite mode that they see as old-hat, unworkable, and thus slightly ridiculous?

This is the analogy I have in mind: children raised in communes of the 1960s and early 1970s. Some of them, when they became adults, wrote memoirs of the experience in which they said that, far from liking the wheat grass served there, they just pined for mac and cheese or a bologna sandwich.

Communes and have-it-all feminism very different, you say? Well, both are examples of movements that 1) had an au courant moment, 2) stood for certain things once outside mainstream culture (vegetarianism, say, for communes; larger scope and voice for women, for feminism). Then, both 3) saw some elements largely adopted by the larger culture (soy milk and organic food in your local grocery and high-level education and careers for women). Finally, 4) in the case of communes, they were ultimately pretty much abandoned. They returned to the margins.

Sandberg herself apparently bought into the idea that second-wave feminism was old hat at one point. She mentions that the actual Gloria Steinem is “the absolute opposite of my childish image of the humorless feminist” by being “funny and warm.” So stereotypes already lurk among women that—had the second (and third and fourth) waves been less massive—might have silenced feminism not only as a movement to be avowed or disavowed, but as a concept. It is not entirely impossible that in a generation or two the idea of more scope and ability for women might become an unfashionable idea. And the fashionable model be one in which women only have the domestic sphere.

It has happened before.

Some examples? Students in the mid twentieth century were routinely taught that most writers were men. The big book on American literature through the 1950s and 1960s was arguably F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. It only discusses men—with an underlying assumption that all artists of fine quality will be male. Part of second wave feminism (and later) was discovering the multitude of women writers in this period who had literally been written out of history.

Along with being fascinated with how much the twenty-first century replicates the nineteenth, I am fascinated with the vanishing process. How does this stuff get written out of history?

One reason might be the association with particular trends that follow not simply the content of the idea, but its fashionability. The first and second wave were tagged (unfortunately) in the public mind with shorthand versions that did a disservice to the many fronts on which feminist issues were fought. The first wave (nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), all about the vote. Women striking for the vote, the suffragettes, later became an unfashionable model for younger women. The second wave, about more education, power, and careers for women, became tagged with humorlessness or needing a man like a fish needs a bicycle (if you believe the young Sandberg). And younger women in turn repudiated those images.

More importantly, perhaps, mainstream culture simply adopted central tenets of both waves. Think of someone seriously arguing against the major victories of the first wave, for example: that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, or that women should not be allowed to pursue college degrees. It doesn’t happen, because those values have become fully assimilated in middle-class life.

What mainstream culture does not adopt becomes associated with the fringe, and it returns back to the margins.

So on the level of fashionability, there is a troubling pattern of generational disavowal about earlier models of feminism. And the possibility of that generational disavowal developing in the future because of examples in books like Sandberg’s haunts me.