Is feminism unraveling before our eyes? Or is it just wishful thinking to imagine that women have finally seen through the feminist con game.
The recent kerfuffle over Marissa Mayer’s ban on telecommuting at Yahoo!, coupled with the negative reactions to Sheryl Sandberg’s new book have led some feminists, like Hanna Rosin and Tracy Moore to declare that perhaps feminism, in Moore’s phrase, “may be nearing her (sic) expiration date.”
If so, the reason might be that feminism is sending out mixed messages. Or else, that it is speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Perhaps, it has gotten caught speaking with forked tongue.
Such is the conclusion of Leslie Bell’s book on the hookup culture. Salon announces breathlessly that this is the book that it has been waiting for, and that may be true for people who live under a rock, but frankly, if you are looking for reliable information about and cogent analysis of the hookup culture, you would do much better to read Susan Walsh’s blog, Hooking Up Smart.
While Walsh often reports on well-researched studies, Bell interviewed twenty women who had nothing in common and then called it a sample. Of what, we can only wonder?
Bell should have limited herself to her own theory, because it does have merit.
She posits that feminism has been sending out mixed messages. It has not provided women clear guidance about how to conduct their lives. One of the first requirements of an incipient culture is to set out rules and guidelines so people will know what they need to do in order to remain a member in good standing of the cult.
If feminism’s messages are contradictory, then anything can be a feminist act. But then, there is no such thing as a feministically correct action. Good bye, feminism.
Women are told to “live it up” in their twenties, but they also:
…spend their twenties hearing gloomy forecasts about their chances of marriage if they don’t marry before thirty, and their chances of conceiving a baby if they don’t get pregnant before thirty-five.
Bell summarized her view in an interview:
Well, they have a few different messages coming in, like “your 20s should be a decade that’s all about having as many sexual experiences as possible, diverse sexual experiences with diverse partners; in fact, that’s the way you figure yourself out, but at the same time you better temper that by making sure that it doesn’t go over a certain number.” At the same time, in terms of relationships, they’re getting messages like, “You really shouldn’t settle down. This is not a time to be in a committed relationship because you need to really put your efforts into education and career advancement and a relationship is gonna take time from that, but you better make sure you’re married by the time you’re 30 because your biological clock is ticking and the pool of men is gonna decrease.” So there’s just a huge range of messages out there. It’s also an unprecedented time, historically, to have this decade for highly educated young women who aren’t necessarily expected to be getting married and having children.
These messages involve one’s life plan. Women who try to follow them find themselves neither here nor there… lost. So they try to clarify the precepts by removing the contradiction. They decide that they must choose one or the other, career or relationship, good sex or committed love.
On the other hand, feminism has always defined one principle clearly: defer marriage and childbearing while developing a career.
I don’t know whether Bell discusses the issue in her book—I haven’t read it—but clearly women will do better in both their marriage and careers if they reject the feminist label.
This leads us to Amanda Hess’s intriguing review of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. According to Hess, Sandberg is sending out every kind of mixed message, thus providing poor guidance for young women.
Hess summarizes Sandberg:
Sandberg encourages women to fake confidence in the workplace by investing in “an hour of forced smiling” or by “assuming ‘a high-power pose.’ ” Then again, women would do best to communicate “authentically.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to cry on a colleague’s shoulder at an emotional time, she says. Then again, “research suggests” that “it is not a good idea to cry at work.” Women shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for flexible work hours to handle family commitments. Except that “employees who make use of flexible work policies are often penalized.” Women “need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that,’ to thinking ‘I want to do that, and I’ll learn by doing it.’ ” But then again, men are promoted based on their potential while women are promoted based on their past accomplishments. Except that “a woman who explains why she is qualified or mentions previous successes in a job interview can lower her chances of getting hired.”
First of all, in comparison to most of the messages that Bell isolates, these are tactical, not strategic. They are not mixed messages as much as they are tactics to help a woman to negotiate a male workplace without denying that she is a woman.
On those points, Sandberg is surely correct. And yet, however much she would like to make herself into a feminist heroine, Sandberg did not get to where she is by following the feminist script.
She got ahead by working hard at her job, not by sacrificing her job to make a point.
Sandberg did not spend her time militating against sexism in the workplace. She did not insist that she was just like the other guys. She recognized that women are different, that they behaviors are judged differently and that she could work with it. Sandberg succeeded as a woman, not as a feminist.
Tracy Moore grasps the point, but she insists on making it a feminist issue. In truth, Sandberg does too. They are both wrong on that score, but they are both right in evaluating how Sandberg got ahead in the high tech world.
In Moore’s words:
We are often uncomfortable with women who achieve in male-dominated fields because they tend to minimize or maximize gender in such a way that can feel contradictory to the aims of feminism, and they often distance themselves from the term. But to succeed among men you must play the game they devised. Women who prove they can win this way are advancing feminist goals. The kind that change men's perceptions of what women are actually capable of. This is what got women into combat. But the win, in my view, isn't remotely diluted if those women aren't self-identifying feminists. And perhaps not requiring such a rigid view of what it means to be "one of us" — and I do identify as a feminist — would invite more people to this party.
Perhaps women who identify as feminists are distressed by Sandberg’s book because she is a woman first and a feminist second. Or perhaps they believe that she is a latecomer who has adopted the feminist label as a marketing ploy to sell a book.
For the record, Sandberg has been highly supportive of Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban telecommuting at Yahoo! But Mayer admits that she is a feminist, while Sandberg appears to be a FINO, feminist in name only.