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American writer Maya Angelou once said, “I am a feminist. I’ve been female for a long time now. It’d be stupid not to be on my own side.” It’s a sentiment I’ve endorsed for as long as I can remember. I’m a vocal fan of strong women who carve out high-profile careers in male-dominated environments — my own mother was one such person and I’m insanely proud of her. I’ve supported countless feminist causes and all the myriad efforts lobbying for equal pay, equal opportunity, harassment-free workplaces and a woman’s right to control what happens to her body.
Until recently, when a random news byte popped up on my social media feed. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was talking about the potential negative outcomes of the #MeToo movement. She said men are now afraid to spend social time with junior female colleagues, which is an issue because all women need male mentors in the workplace. It struck me as rather odd that this would be an important takeaway for anyone, let alone someone of Sandberg’s intellectual stature.
Sandberg is perhaps best-known for writing a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book’s premise is that women “lean out” and stall their careers by not speaking up for what they want, not taking a seat at the power table and voluntarily taking on more childcare and household tasks than men. The book was a bestseller, but Sandberg was also harshly criticized for being elitist, privileged and disconnected from the challenges faced by the average woman.
If you’ve been following current events you may have noticed that definitions of “feminism” and “feminist movement” are being redefined. The #MeToo movement has shifted the goalposts in strange and unexpected ways. To be “feminist” looks and feels very different today than it did a mere five years ago when Lean In was first published.
Last year, The New York Times broke a story on movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, an exposé on decades of institutionalized sexual harassment. Weinstein took a leave of absence as a result and this was the trigger that set a chain of events in motion with profound impact. Women (and men) across the country felt empowered to break their years of silence and came forward with similar stories but with one big difference — this time there were consequences for the harassers.
Looking through the lens of current events, Lean In looks dated and old-fashioned, a feminist manifesto written 50 rather than five years ago. The memoirs are from the viewpoint of a C-level female executive who is (justifiably) proud of having made it in a man’s world. The advice is clearly intended to help women be more successful in male-dominated professional environments. Without actually stating it, there’s a singular end goal, an important lesson we’re being taught — how to charm the male of the species. Stroke that fragile male ego in just the right way and you can have it all, professional growth and a tidy kitchen!
What is also noteworthy is the perfectly correct political space it occupies, a brilliantly executed treatise of C-suite framing and jargon. Critics of the book’s ideology were mostly women. While male reactions were neutral, there may have been a more insidious outcome. Any feminist manifesto that is so wholeheartedly embraced by the establishment must automatically be suspect. “This is brilliant!” exclaimed men in corner offices, boardrooms and golf courses across the country, “Women don’t know how to speak up! They must learn how to take a seat at the table! Listen to her, she did it and you can, too!” Because this is what all patriarchal societies strive for, the maintenance of the status quo.
In stark contrast is the #MeToo movement, which has been an outpouring of righteous rage, uncomfortable truths and extraordinary courage. Like many woman, I have my own #MeToo stories that have been buried for years but never forgotten. To see these amazing women come forward and do this thing that humiliates them, dredges up the worst memories and puts their careers on the line is both humbling and inspiring. Institutionalized sexual harassment will no longer be that easy to sweep under the rug. We’re witnessing a historical moment in time, a fundamental shift in the status quo.
The true toxicity of the Lean In brand is ultimately this notion that women can control outcomes by adapting appropriately to male environments — the voices of the #MeToo movement wasn’t just about the harassment endured by women, it was 14-year-old boys, underage girls, mere children. Predators will prey on the vulnerable if there are no consequences and their victims often have little control.
Movements that brought about real social change have not historically worked within the framework of the establishment. The patriarchy did not smile benignly and tell Susan B. Anthony that yes, women must indeed have the right to vote, Winston Churchill did not nod approvingly when Gandhi put on a civil disobedience rally and Rosa Parks did not get a standing ovation on that Alabama bus in 1955.
Maybe one day a messiah will come, someone who liberates half this planet from the harassment, molestation, physical and emotional abuse sanctioned in the name of religion and tradition. Perhaps someone like Halsey, whose impassioned, powerful poetry went viral in a heartbeat. Or more likely there is no one messiah but millions of individual voices, our voices speaking with strength, clarity and fearlessness for those who cannot.