This March, those of us who are “lucky” enough to work at liberal corporations, or are surrounded by liberal organisations, are once more sure to encounter “liberal” or capitalist feminism. Usually these corporations and organisations will drop the “Working” from International Working Women’s Day, which should give a hint to their position on workers’ rights.
In this article I will examine capitalist feminism and suggest an alternative, in the form of workers’ feminism. For this I will use the book Lean In, published in 2013 by an American business executive and billionaire, Sheryl Sandberg. Because it’s generally well sourced and has been influential, we can investigate her message as a manifesto for liberal feminism.
Sandberg urges women to “lean in”—to advance their career in the company and to use their position to advance women’s issues. She talks about her experience as a pregnant woman working as an executive in a large American tech company. When she finds out there is no pregnancy parking she demands to see the CEO, who agrees with her. In Sandberg’s words, “Having one pregnant woman at the top made the difference.”¹
While this was a positive influence, the message that women’s equality will be achieved through female executives is reductive and unrealistic. High-ranked millionaire and billionaire women cannot represent the majority of working-class women, who are struggling with the reality of low pay, work-place harassment, and rising costs of living and health and child care.² This is doubly true for women of othered identities, such as migrant women and women with disabilities.
Her book started a movement where women joined “Lean-In Circles.” In these circles women mentor each other to advance in the work-place by learning to state their own achievements and to negotiate for a higher salary.
In practice this is a very individualistic approach and mostly benefits women who are already high-earning and in a position to bargain individually.³
Instead of an individualistic feminism that aims for upper-class women achieving equality with their male peers we need a workers’ feminism based on true solidarity between workers of all genders. Women should join trade unions to demand better work-place conditions through collective bargaining, instead of hoping that their female boss will ask the CEO nicely.
Ultimately we should realise that women’s issues are a political and not an individualist struggle. We should campaign to make sure everyone has access to high-quality health services and reproductive health, not just the few executive women who “leaned in.” We should campaign for high-quality public housing to combat the rising costs of living that affect women. And we should stand in solidarity with women in the Third World, who are especially forgotten by capitalist feminism.
1. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (introduction), New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
2. Kathleen Geier, “Does feminism have a class problem?” Nation (New York), 11 June 2014 (www.tinyurl.com/jeajkcw8).
3. Katherine Goldstein, “I was a Sheryl Sandberg superfan: Then her ‘Lean in’ advice failed me,” Vox, 6 December 2018 (tinyurl.com/yck9yntn).