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