Feminism on overdrive

Man, I picked a really good time to read The Feminine Mystique. Earlier this week, I spent a valuable hour during one of my days off reading op-ed after op-ed on the problems facing modern feminism; namely, multiple responses to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, a look at why more women aren’t in leadership positions and what they need to get there.

I’m still processing most of it, so here’s a smattering of some valuable reading on the very important topics of women in the workplace, work-life balance and what it means to be a mother and wife and a successful career woman.

Sheryl Sandberg’s valuable advice (Washington Post) – Ruth Marcus

Sandberg prods women to consider how their own attitudes and behavior unwittingly exacerbate the problem. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” she writes. “We lower our expectations of what we can achieve.”

Her advice is obvious, yet hard to execute. Sit at the table: Believe — or act like you believe — you have something valuable to say. Don’t leave before you leave, tailoring your ambitions (and constraining your future choices) because you fear, down the road, that you will be unable or unwilling to juggle the load.

Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what? (Washington Post) – Jessica Valenti

The detractors underestimate how radical Sandberg’s messages are for a mainstream audience. When was the last time you heard someone with a platform as big as hers argue that women should insist that their partners do an equal share of domestic work and child care?

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All (The Atlantic) – Anne Marie Slaughter

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

However, I find the first opinion piece I read, written by Elsa Walsh, author of Divided Lives: The Public and Private Struggles of Three American Women, to be the most interesting and perhaps the one I identify with the most. I particularly like how in the first few paragraphs of her essay, Why women should embrace the good enough life, she points out the inherent flaws in much of the discourse that has surrounded the Sandberg discussion:

Yet, I find it to be a narrow conversation, centered largely on work, as though feminism is about nothing more than becoming a smart and productive employee and rising to the top.

Parenthood and family are much more central to our lives than this conversation lets on. The debate has become twisted and simplistic, as if we’re merely trying to figure out how women can become more like men. Instead, let’s ask: How can women have full lives, not just one squeezed around a career?

It helps to take a longer view of a woman’s life.

Walsh says she agrees with much of what Sandberg writes in Lean In, including that women should always demand a place at the table, and not be afraid to negotiate their salary. Why is it, after all, that men continue to be paid more than women?

And yet, Walsh says Sandberg’s argument lacks a few key details – details that I think are pretty important:

First, Sandberg does not seem to get just how hard it is to have a demanding job and a meaningful family life if you cannot afford child care and other help.

And third, I have to wonder if Sandberg does not realize that she is going to die someday. There is so little life and pleasure in her book outside of work. Even sex is framed as something that men will get more of if they pitch in and help their working wives.

Success, particularly the kind Sandberg calls for, requires ever more time at the office, ever more travel. It requires always being available, always a click away. Sandberg is almost giddy when she describes getting up at 5 a.m. to answer e-mails before her children wake up and getting back on her computer once they are asleep.

“Facebook is available 24/7 and for the most part, so am I,” she writes. “The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone.”

Imagine what that life looks like to a child. Imagine what it looks like to yourself when you are 80.

That is not how I want my daughter to live, and it is not how I want to live.

I agree with Walsh: that is not how I want to live either. I am currently moving into a new career field that will hopefully be less demanding of my time and energy, so that I can devote my life to my career but also my family, friends and other passions (traveling, writing, etc). I recently quit a job where the boss was only a quick phone call or text message away, whether that was 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday or 2 a.m. on Saturday. I was exhausted and miserable, the “glamorous” part of the job not coming close to outweighing the imposition it made on my life. And I’m only 26. But because I’m 26, I was able to make the choice to change what made me unhappy, and then work on starting over (while, at the same time, not really starting over at all – just using my skills in a new way).

Still, I think Walsh – like all the women writing these op-eds – understands that no matter how many little things Sandberg gets wrong, there is one thing we modern feminists can all agree on: women need to have something for themselves, whether that’s a career or some other driving passion. As rewarding as motherhood can be, women deserve far more than just “the home life.”

I say this because these simple truths aren’t so simple to many women today, including many young women of my generation. Heavens knows what other Princeton moms are telling their daughters these days, but just this week, I came across this quote someone posted on Facebook. This girl graduated from high school with me and is, as you can see, pretty religious. But this pretty much sums up her worldview:

If you’re a mom, God has called you to mother those children. If you’re a wife, God has called you to bless and serve and fulfill the needs of your husband, to be a keeper of your home. That’s God’s calling. When you’re doing that, you’re serving the Lord. Don’t get distracted. – Nancy Leigh DeMoss

For this young woman, things like a career or any other passion outside the home as merely “distractions.” Yes, I know this is reflective of a conservative Christian sect, and yet, this is the message so many of my peers live by everyday. Do they even know Gloria Steinem? Do they care?

Instead, I love Walsh’s advice for her daughter:

I’ll also tell her to make time for herself. Unplug from the grid. Carve out space for solitude. Search for work you love that allows flexibility if you want to have children. And if you do, have them when you’re older, after you’ve reached that point in your career when you are good enough at what you do that you will feel comfortable dialing back for a while. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start planning, because no one else is going to do it for you. And don’t quit completely because, as wonderful as parenthood is, it cannot and will not be your whole life. Learn how to manage conflict, because the greater the level you can tolerate, the more freedom you will retain. Making compromises is a healthy approach to living.

For a woman to say she is searching for a “good enough” life is not failure — it is maturity and self-knowledge.

I’d also tell her, if she marries, to work hard on her relationship. It’s not only much easier than getting divorced, it’s more rewarding and more fun. Love. Full stop. That’s what matters.

I like to think Betty Friedan would agree.

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One thought on “Feminism on overdrive

  1. Pingback: Review: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ | Paperback Fool

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