Sheryl Sandberg Has Nothing on Martha Stewart’s Feminism


A few weeks before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released Lean In, I wrote a somewhat scathing critique of what I expected in the book: statistics and the Oprah-fication of feminism. The numbers would be true, but the emphasis on feelings of inadequacy and blame would be complete and utter bullshit. Like Oprah, Sandberg has always failed to mention that rising and falling in America has little to do with how much women believe and then ask for what they’re worth and more to do with a system that’s screwed with us from day one. Sandberg participates in pigs-in-a-blanket finger wagging: a dose of blame wrapped neatly in warm and puffy statistics that are cute to look at and delicious to ingest regardless of how much they clog the arteries.

I softened my approach in the piece by labeling Lean In as a fairy tale that the majority of women should ignore because they were not in its pages anyway. It came back to me twice with edits that I should make the piece more “positive.” It was the first time I was told to be more positive about Sandberg, but not the last.

What I continued to find as I pitched and wrote for publications that catered to women online was a fascination with keeping it “light.” Politics is icky, feminism kills page views and Kardashian explodes.  In not so many words, it was understood that Sandberg was off-limits — her Katie Couric version of girl-next-door feminism was both cute and hard-hitting.

I made the edits, I kept the critiques within a downward/upward lift and I felt like a scumbag doing it because no matter how many times a woman asks for a pay raise or pleads her worth, having a child is a game of poverty roulette. Women don’t need to raise their hands or tap into their feelings to know that the single greatest factor in determining poverty is having a child. Mothers are poor. That is a fact. And it has nothing to do with women standing straight.

Last year I groaned and rolled my eyes and generally was non-committal over listening to Martha Stewart speak as a keynote at the annual BlogHer conference that draws upwards of five-thousand hyper-connected and largely female attendees.  I live in a Stewart-free world (unless you count my cabinets that I had no hand in choosing or installing) and I like it that way. I have always considered Stewart and her branding to be one that mass markets perfectionism and it’s been my chosen path to aim incredibly low so I’m not disappointed.  But Martha got real on that stage and told the BlogHer attendees what no one likes to hear: success cost her something and it was her marriage.

YES! Finally, I thought, someone was willing to go there. It was a moment of candor that I appreciated and was probably lost on far too many. The fact is that rarely do we want to hear the truth about women and work because it’s often ugly and unfair. Far too many women have no problem accepting personal fault for their lack of professional success because at least they can try harder, but this is the most evil kind of rapture especially when the problem is not an individual one. There is no greater way to make a buck than to tell a woman there is something deeply wrong with her and that only she can fix it. Stewart, for all of her how-tos and white linens and insider trading was more of a feminist that day than Sheryl Sandberg will ever be.

Stewart didn’t hand out cards asking attendees to look at the woman across the table and ask her how she feels, deluding us that it was going to change anything like Sandberg did at this year’s BlogHer conference. There was none of that. Stewart, through citing her failed marriage essentially said, without saying, that professional success is not fair or equal or a personal flaw or exceptionalism. The cards are stacked against women and there will be land mines and casualties: proceed accordingly. She didn’t ask us to sit in a circle and kumbaya our way to health insurance, affordable day care and tuition, paid leave and a full dollar for each hour worked.

Quite simply, I don’t care what the woman across from me feels. I’m not mean or heartless, but I am realistic: the more time a woman spends searching deep within for the answers, the less time she has to actually go ahead and do something about it. Feelings are a luxurious thing for the well-off that cloud the issue: why women aren’t making it.

Thank you Martha Stewart, you saved my feminism that day.

Contributor Liz Henry raises hell and wins awards for it. She’s the voice behind The Six Year Itch and was voted a BlogHer Voice of the Year in 2012. Her writing will be featured in a forthcoming book from Seal Press later this year. Liz lives in Atlanta.

Photo credit: Danielle Barnsley

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    BRAVO!!!!!! Right on the money!!!

    • GabbyAbby

      Liz, I’d love to know what the male:female pay rates and the bene package at Martha’s place is. I wonder if she walks the walk in “health insurance, affordable day care and tuition, paid leave and a full dollar for each hour worked”?

      She’s got a much ‘nicer’ public persona, seems to have blossomed while she was in prison of all places, showing good can come out of anything. She was known to be ruthless, shrewd, and tight as a tick with a dollar. Not a supporter of feminism per se, just someone out there grabbing as much as she could as fast as she could. I think it cost her more than her marriage. It nearly cost her her empire and her daughter. It definitely cost her some of her freedom for a time. I understand from the ‘tell alls’ over the years that she has lost more than a few friends, and some neighbors, over her business tactics as well. I’m happy to see a woman come out on top, but it could have just as easily gone the other way in Martha’s case. Would you say?

  • God forbid we write something that comes across as *angry*….I’m struck by how effectively we’ve been disconnected from our anger and how that handicaps us as a gender. Anger is a sign that we’ve been messed with, violated; it’s not only a healthy and appropriate response, it’s the kind of fuel that takes someone from victim to protagonist. It’s a catalyst for change. And it’s inconvenient as hell for the status quo. But when anger isn’t an option — because it’s shrill, it’s unladylike, it displeases people, it’s threatening — and you’ve been cut off from that inner voice, what do you do? You turn it inward. You blame yourself. “If only I do this, and this, and this, then things will improve.” It’s the same kind of distorted reasoning that keeps people in emotionally abusive relationships.

    Thank you for this, Liz.

    • Agreed. Part of it is about access, too — if one is too critical of the celebrity, the access gets cut off. 🙁

    • Elissa

      This article and this comment is right on the money. When we as women dare criticize or get angry at one another – a backlash ensues – and mainly from other women. I myself (on this site no less) have heard comments – “women should know better than to criticize each other…like men.” Truly unbelievable. You want to be equal? Don’t gender-separate behaviours; allow women to ‘play nice – or not!’ with one another. My guess as to why Liz Henry was often asked to soften her stance with Sandberg was that mainstream media rarely celebrates high profile women and/or the media holding companies had large investments in Facebook.

  • **STANDS AND APPLAUDS LOUDLY!!!** WOOT WOOT!! Agree, agree, agree!!

  • I respect your beliefs and mostly agree with them. While I, too, consider myself a feminist, mostly because I have a vagina and I like to be in charge of it, I hafta admit I enjoyed Lean In. Alot.

    To be sure, we as women have to choose motherhood over money and that sucks. But a point I enjoyed very much and hope that mainstream America will one day come around to valuing, is that Motherhood\Parenthood and fulfilling careers should not be mutually exclusive.

    When society changes the work structure so moms (and dads) can care for their children and care for their careers, then we’ve done it right. No more of this juggling the after school pickup, afterschool fees, baked goods for work pot luck luncheons, etc. The way I saw it, when I worked 40+ hours a week and had two small children and a husband, I NEEDED a wife. I had to make potluck meals for MY job and HIS job, what’s up with that?

    What’s up with it is that MEN run the world. They don’t hafta juggle and choose between two life affirming activities: parenting and work. They’re free. This is the point I got out of Lean In.

    ps. brass balls got nothing on brass ovaries and it’s the ovaries that get things done. That’s what I think Sandberg is trying to show us.

  • I attended the Martha Stewart event at BlogHer12 as a fan, and found her to be everything I thought she’d be. My favorite question asked of her was, “Is there anything you’re not good at?” and Martha’s reply (after taking a few moments to consider her answer) was, “Probably something I haven’t tried yet.” I loved her confidence.

    I was also at BlogHer13 but had no interest in attending the Sandberg keynote. I haven’t read the book, but after watching interviews with her prior to and after the book release she just rubbed me the wrong way.

  • Thank you for saying this. I thought the exact same about Martha, and have mentioned to several people that she said her drive for success caused her marriage to fail. I also have no interest in Sheryl Sandberg for the exact reasons of fluff you mentioned.

  • This is very good and spot on. I DO care what the woman next to me feels but only if she is willing to put her feelings into action. Yes, yes, yes…more doing and less contemplation. Make each act of your life an act that helps empower women.

  • Karl

    Men that are too involved with their careers end up losing spouses too. And I’ve seen the vitriol directed toward them. The common denominator is that marriage takes attention, and a carrer competes for that attention.

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