Sheryl Sandbergâ€™s Lean In is a book written by a privileged white lady for other privileged white ladies, and most of the criticism of it — much of which I agree with — is based on that limitation. I neednâ€™t rehash it here. It did dawn on me, though, while listening to her book (as read by Elisa Donavan), that if I were going to dismiss books by privileged white ladies written for other privileged white ladies, I would also really have to dismiss A Room of Oneâ€™s Own, which was, after all, based on talks Virginia Woolf gave to the early 20th century British equivalent to the graduating class at Barnard (which Sandberg addressed in 2011). Thinking about that leads to all kinds of places I donâ€™t really want to go, along the lines of I should just shut the hell up because I am just another goddamned privileged white lady talking. Thatâ€™s a worthwhile pursuit, to an extent, in that itâ€™ s important to consider what one might do (or not do) to increase the diversity of the voices that we hear. Unfortunately for me it usually ends not with me coming up with radical new plans for myself and society but rather with me thinking I should probably either kill myself or quit my job to do something more demeaning or ennobling, or both.
So instead Iâ€™ll say that I decided to approach the book both as a laugh (because really, it is kind of funny to hear a near-billionaire discuss her difficulties with having it all) and with at least the possibility of an open mind. And I was down with that for quite awhile. I was grooving on all the statistics she and her research team dug up on all the ways that women are dismissed and overlooked professionally, a few of which were even new to me. I was even kind of digging her attempts at humor (doubtless aided by her cowriter, Nell Scovell). Then I got to the part of the book where sheâ€™s discussing high school and how she was known as the smartest girl in the class, and â€œwho wants to go to the prom with the smartest girl in the class?â€ And then I knew for certain that Sheryl Sandberg and I are and always have been engaged in fundamentally different projects.
I didnâ€™t want to be the smartest girl in the class. I wanted to be the smartest person in the class. I still have and treasure a geometry test on which I got the highest score and, if I recall correctly, the only A. I beat my friend Aaron (who now works at Microsoft). I was pleased as all get out that my thrown-together the night before term paper for German class got an A+ when the smartest guy in the class, who had actually worked on his paper, only got an A. I was properly miffed when an English teacher commented that my paper was good but probably too out of reach for the seminar audience of high school students for whom it was intended.
So yeah, I wanted to be smart. And I didnâ€™t aspire to go to prom. I wanted to end the war (the â€œfirstâ€ Gulf War took place my freshman year of college). I wanted to keep Operation Rescue out of my town (they visited my sophomore year) and out of everyoneâ€™s town. I wanted to learn more and do more and go more places, on the Greyhound, if thatâ€™s what it took.
Sheryl Sandberg wanted — and wants — to change the world, too, and itâ€™s undoubtedly true that her work with the US Treasury, Google, and Facebook has changed the world far more than I ever have or will — for better and for worse.
I suppose ultimately my objections to the book arenâ€™t that it offers bad advice (it doesnâ€™t) or that its facts arenâ€™t good (they are). Itâ€™s that itâ€™s shallow. A world that she envisions — one where half of companies and governments are run by women and half of households are run by men — will still be one with rampant poverty, disease, and homelessness. I donâ€™t think that having women in charge of governments will change the unemployment rate or make transgender youth feel safer in their homes and their communities. It could do a lot of good. I would love to see better maternity care, from pregnancy parking for everyone (not just senior executives) to affordable prenatal care for all, and I do think those things are more likely to be enacted by women.
Susan Brownmillerâ€™s In Our Time includes, as I recall, several passages describing the main ongoing argument in her corner of the womenâ€™s liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s — is the problem men or capitalism? — and I suppose as I read what Iâ€™ve written here that I am coming down on the side of capitalism. Thatâ€™s not surprising. It was also in high school that I began to think it was the worst economic system out there (aside, of course, from all the other ones that have been tried). I still think that, and Iâ€™d like to see something better come along, though Iâ€™m not sure what that is yet.
As I was listening to the book, I kept thinking, â€œOh, that, I have to write about that,â€ where that was yet another example of privileging the prom over, I donâ€™t know, authenticity and revolution. Iâ€™ve forgotten what all those instances were now, of course, because I listened to the book in bits and snatches in my car only at times when I wasnâ€™t driving my toddler around, since then we have to listen to the Beatles. They sing about how you ainâ€™t gonna make it with anyone carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, and Iâ€™ve always had a love/hate relationship with that song. Iâ€™m not in favor of destruction, but Iâ€™m not at all sure itâ€™s going to be all right. Sheryl Sandberg has a lot to say about how you are and arenâ€™t going to make it, too. She probably is right, but I donâ€™t want her to be.