University of Colorado
Since Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was first published, reviewers have criticized her privileged perspective on women’s leadership, her uncritical embrace of capitalism, and her victim-blaming. Without disagreeing with these critics, I take a different tack and examine the view of feminist politics expressed in her book. Lean In is symptomatic of a particular moment in American feminism: one in which the perceived need to validate all women inhibits feminists’ capacity to lead politically. Many feminists like Sandberg are caught in a therapeutic model of politics, which leads them to water down their controversial claims out of fear that an assertive, feminist call for change might be offensive or hurtful to some women.
Sandberg sees conflict between women as a problem to be overcome; in particular, she is concerned about the “mommy wars” waged between stay-at-home moms and working moms. She calls instead for a “lasting peace”:
We all want the same thing: to feel comfortable with our choices and to feel validated by those around us. So let’s start by validating one another. Mothers who work outside the home should regard mothers who work inside the home as real workers. And mothers who work inside the home should be equally respectful of those choosing another option. (168)When women judge one another, they end up feeling bad about themselves. Sandberg confesses, “Stay-at-home mothers can make me feel guilty and, at times, intimidate me. There are moments when I feel like they are judging me, and I imagine there are moments when they feel like I am judging them.” (167) These bad feelings undermine political solidarity among women; “guilt and insecurity make us second-guess ourselves and, in turn, resent one another.” (167) If could we just validate one another’s choices, then we would not have the bad feelings that divide us today.
Sandberg’s nonjudgmental feminism is nothing new. She is expressing a view of feminist politics that is widely accepted in mainstream American feminism: what I call a therapeutic view of feminist politics. Dominant approaches to therapy and self-help in recent decades have stressed the importance of validation: validating oneself improves self-esteem; by contrast, judging oneself harms self-esteem. This idea has been transposed by feminist writers and activists into the view that feminist politics should eschew judgment and validate all women. Judgment causes divisions among feminists, whereas validation makes it safe for us to come together. Feminist politics should make us all feel included and feel good about ourselves.
My brother, David, once told me about a colleague who bragged about playing soccer the afternoon that his child was first born. To David’s credit, instead of nodding and smiling, he spoke up and explained that he didn’t think that was either cool or impressive. This opinion needs to be voiced loudly and repeatedly on soccer fields, in workplaces, and in homes. (112)She frequently praises men who are stay-at-home dads, and urges us all “to encourage men to lean into their families.” (113) This could be a simple case of gender equity: just as she wants to encourage women to lean in at work, she wants to encourage men to lean in at home. But there is still a double-standard here: she validates the choice of women to be stay-at-home-moms, but refuses to validate the choice of those same women’s male partners to devote themselves to their careers.
In these moments Sandberg evinces a very different orientation to politics. She is not restrained by a fear of offending those men whose behavior she judges. She is not worried about whether they will feel guilt about their behavior, or insecurity about not measuring up to her standards. In these moments she writes as if feminism is supposed to pass judgment, as if it is supposed to make people uncomfortable by challenging their views, as if it is supposed to persuade us to change our behavior, rather than simply validate each of us as we already are. She writes knowing that not everyone will agree with her, confident in asserting her views in the face of expected disagreement. In these moments, Sandberg leans in to feminist politics.
Politics is not therapy, nor should it be made to be. In politics, we make partial claims on behalf of our points of view. We will necessarily exclude someone, because our claims do not aim at satisfying everyone. There are winners and losers in politics. We aim at passing judgment, at persuading others to change their views, values, and ideologies. Politics is not about accepting everyone’s life choices as equally valid; it is about pushing for a vision of how one would like things to be. Moreover, politics is not an activity in which it is appropriate for all participants to feel affirmed by others. Politics is necessarily uncomfortable and challenging. We make compromises, we work with people we do not agree with or approve of, we lose, and we fail.
Lean In expresses the tension between the therapeutic and the political, between the desire to validate and the need to judge. The book is supposed to be a call for women to lean in to leadership at work, and yet she undermines this very call by validating women who choose not to do so. Fearful of offending the women she believes are her natural allies, she waters down her message about leadership by telling us it is okay if we do not want to lean in, that this is an equally valid choice. The result is a book about leadership that does not lead, a call for women to be assertive that does not assert itself.
While Sandberg analyzes many barriers to women leaning in to leadership, the one she fails to analyze is the one to which she herself succumbs: the people-pleasing desire to validate all women. Feminists should reject the therapeutic model of politics, which undermines our capacity to engage forcefully in politics. Instead, we could take inspiration from the moments when Sandberg’s capacity for political judgment surfaces. We need to make judgments and take stands with the awareness that we will cause offense, that not everyone will agree with us, that we will have to work at persuading others because we cannot assume natural agreement by virtue of sharing an identity. The lesson Sandberg gives us is this: feminists do not need to lean in to leadership at work so much as we need to lean in to politics.