The Rise (Again) of the Celebrity Feminist

March_for_Women's_Lives_detailSomeone recently said to me that the reason something is in the news, what makes it newsworthy, is the huge chance that it won’t happen to you. For example, most people, thank God, will not be shot in a shopping mall or a school, will not die when a sinkhole takes their bedroom, and will not end up in the hospital with the flesh-eating bacteria. And conversely, most people won’t win the lottery or find a suitcase full of thousands of dollars or publish a best-selling novel or win an Oscar. When those bad or good things happen they make the news.

And while one in four women will get raped in her lifetime and one in eight will get breast cancer, the chance that a woman will become a high level corporate executive like Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg is miniscule. Women hold only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.

Which is why Mayer and Sandberg are in the news. They are aberrations. And why this ginned up “fight” among feminists about those women is just that: ginned up by the news of two women who aren’t like most of us. They are celebrity feminists, long after Gloria Steinem became one of the first, 40 years ago.

I have already written about Mayer’s new rules for Yahoo and how she ignores class divides. But now Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg graces the cover of Time with a tagline taken from a shampoo advertisement. We are admonished not to hate her because she is “successful.”

But we don’t hate her; we don’t hate Marissa Mayer, either. We are also not jealous. We are just weary at having to defend ourselves against such accusations. I think most women who came to feminism during the second wave are pretty exhausted in general. We are exhausted by the years of trying not just to break through an almost unbreakable glass ceiling, but also by trying to reframe women’s issues as society’s issues. And because we should be farther along — all of us, men and women — than we are at this moment. We are tired. But we can’t stop worrying about our place in the world because the generations coming up behind us find themselves having to either justify or deny their feminism.

It is swell that at 43, Sandberg finally admits that she is a feminist. But I’m not at all sure her book says anything particularly new or noteworthy. From the excerpts I’ve read and the interviews she has given she is basically saying that we have to get out of our own way, support each other, and try to form enlightened relationships with the men with whom we wish to start a family. Which is what we long-time feminists have been saying and doing for years. Even as we are forced to fight old battles over and over again.

According to the article on Sandberg in Time, she wishes to “reboot” feminism. Which would be charming were it really necessary. Perhaps her coming to feminism late makes her think that women haven’t been busting their asses for equality every day for the past 50 years. Because they have. Ask any ordinary woman (and I mean someone who makes under a half-million a year) who has long been trying to juggle a career and motherhood. Ask Lilly Ledbetter, the catalyst for President Obama signing the Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ask all those millions of women who lobbied for years for the still-not-ratified Equal Rights Amendment. The only “new” thing that Sandberg offers is an admonishment to “lean” into power. As if that were as easy as it sounds.
Sandberg worries that women aren’t working hard enough to get to the top.

According to the Time article, Sandberg believes that “[c]ompared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.” It’s not exactly that they’re to blame, she notes. Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance. Sandberg adds:

“My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

But to assume that women don’t want and fight for power is akin to assuming that all things are equal for men and women in the workplace, which would be the same as assuming that black people don’t suffer from prejudice and an unfair court system, and that poor people need only to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to get rich. I can’t find any evidence that women don’t want to be in positions of power. What women want is a society that allows us to try and rise, while supporting the idea that we can also raise families. What we want is a society where women in power are no longer an aberration and where those women who have it don’t divide their press time with men who are trying to take it away.

The fact that we have no paid maternity leave (unlike much of Europe) and no universal health care is part of the reason we can’t get ahead as fast as we might like. There are also, despite Ledbetter, too many professions where women are paid less than men for the same job. It is not quite as simple as demanding raises. I well remember the concern that women not be too aggressive, even as we were encouraged to take “assertiveness” training. Same old same old: are women bitchy or tough? It all depends on who is in charge.

Sandberg also states that women are critical of successful women and points to the articles about Marissa Mayer and her new rules at Yahoo as an example. But that isn’t it. As I wrote, women are not critical of Mayer’s success, they are critical of the way she denies the experiences of other women and uses her own privilege to make her life stunningly more easy than is possible for 99 percent of other women.

I think we are all tired of the fact that feminism still needs to be discussed at all. That it took Sandberg until age 43 to admit to being one. That people still have issues with the word. That we can still be called names by right-wingers in Congress and on the radio just for trying to get ahead. We are not a post-racial society, we are not a post-prejudice society, and we certainly are not a society where women have equal status. If we were then there would not be a raft of stories about how there are finally 20 women (out of 100) senators. House-husbands would not be written about as if they were modern miracles. And Sandberg and Mayer would not be getting the publicity they are, decades after Gloria Steinem got similar publicity and was roundly criticized for it. She was also charged with being beautiful — as if beauty and feminism contradict each other.

Sandberg is still a rare bird. So is Mayer. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be reading about everything they say and every decision they make, as though they were the Kardashians or Snookie and her gang. They are celebrities, celebrity women, whose philosophy, feminist or not, is getting the same kind of press that a woman star’s wardrobe malfunction gets.

Sensationalist. Gossipy. What a few women who have achieved extraordinary success have to say is important only if they take measures to make sure that their own success is no longer so extraordinary. It will be a fine day indeed, and a huge gain for both men and women, when women who achieve are not a ‘dog bites man’ story but rather not a big story at all.

Guest contributor Lisa Solod is an essayist and fiction writer who writes for the Huffington Post and blogs at middleagedfeminist.com.  Her website is lisasolod.com. You can find her on Twitter at @lisasolod.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/GNU Free Documentation License

  • http://www.redstockinggrandma1945.blogspot.com Mary Joan Koch

    Does anyone speak for babies and toddlers who need parents with them, not leaning in. Sandberg is child-unfriendly.

    I created a New Twitter hashtag, #MommySandberg. so I can share quotes like these.
    And while I had some nice moments with my son, I look back on that maternity leave as a pretty unhappy time.”

    “I was back on e-mail from my hospital room the day after giving birth.

    “Over the next three months, I was unable to unplug much at all.”” I organized meetings in my living room, during which I sometimes breast-fed.”

    “And the only thing worse than everyone knowing that I was not sticking to my original commitment (to take 3 full months off) was that I knew it too. I was letting myself down.”

    Actually she was letting her son down, but she is too egomaniacal to care. She wants women to lean in before getting pregnant and get great jobs, so they won’t be tempted to leave and stay home with their babies.

  • http://www.amyabbottwrites.com Bernadine Spitzsnogel

    “We are just weary at having to defend ourselves against such accusations. I think most women who came to feminism during the second wave are pretty exhausted in general. We are exhausted by the years of trying not just to break through an almost unbreakable glass ceiling, but also by trying to reframe women’s issues as society’s issues. And because we should be farther along — all of us, men and women — than we are at this moment. We are tired. But we can’t stop worrying about our place in the world because the generations coming up behind us find themselves having to either justify or deny their feminism.”

    This was a very excellent, well-researched and well-written piece. I particularly like the graf I have highlighted above, and i know you speak for many people.

  • http://jaimefranchi.com Jaime

    So smartly written. I think there is a place for Sandberg and Mayer, to show what women can achieve if they want to. Some of us don’t, not all of us can – and that’s okay.

1*uSFwL3t4cU010HNcWqH3Vw
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
5341066529_860a317b53_b
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
Hillary Clinton, Shake It Off, Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton Campaign song
Six Reasons “Shake It Off” Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song
Nancy Reagan dies, Just Say No, Ronald Reagan
A Not-So-Positive Ode to Nancy Reagan’s Frothy “Just Say No” Campaign
9473460913_f0e1c0df6d_z
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
1*uSFwL3t4cU010HNcWqH3Vw
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
Wedding_rings
I Married for Health Insurance
1024px-white_mocha_ice_cream
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
9473460913_f0e1c0df6d_z
A Case of Nixonian Deja Vu
1*uSFwL3t4cU010HNcWqH3Vw
Why I Wrote “Trumping And Drinking”
31748741123_4874f2e4d0_z
Trump Reality Check, Now with Actual Facts!
WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR II/PERSONALITIES
Fascism Facts
Wedding_rings
I Married for Health Insurance
5341066529_860a317b53_b
Get Over Yourselves. We’re All Rory Gilmore
1024px-white_mocha_ice_cream
Post-Election Munchies: What is Your Grief Snack of Choice?
saudi-women-vote
Women’s Elections Rights in Saudi Arabia: A Token Drop in an Abysmal Bucket & the Plight of Women Under Sharia Law
Israel Palestine BDS AIPAC Clinton
HRC, AIPAC, BDS and UC
800px-Girls_At_Highland_Avenue_Train_Stop
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
Paris attacks, Paris terrorism
Is Paris Burning?
Chinese government and women's reproductive rights, adopting Chinese girls, international adoption
Dear Xi Jinping, I Am Writing to You as an American Mom of a 19-Year-Old Chinese Daughter
800px-Girls_At_Highland_Avenue_Train_Stop
Maybe It Wasn’t Rape: Emerging Matriarchy and the Altering of Women’s Past Sexual Narratives
369.the-eyes-have-it1
The Eyes Have It!
Ashley Madison, Jared Fogle, sex, rape, sexual affairs
Ashley Madison vs. Jared Fogle: Rape, Sex and Hacking in America
women's viagra, Viagra, Flibanserin, sexual arousal, women's desire, sex after menopause
That “Little Pink Pill” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Get our new weekly email
Broadly Speaking

featuring our best words for the week + an exclusive longread