Can we please stop talking about Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In?
There have been so many excellent critiques of the book, from Susan Faludi on Baffler talking about feminism and capitalism to bell hooks talking about the white supremacist capitalist hetero patriarchy on the feminist wire. Please read them. I’m not going to add to their substantial and brilliant analysis of how having more women “at the top” won’t make things better for all women. It is worth it to repeat hooks’ point that if the media hadn’t anointed Sandberg the Voice of the Feminist Movement the book wouldn’t matter as much. It would also be great if we could channel this energy for fury against war, greed, and inequality instead.
One of the things that’s galling about Sandberg is that she is not 100% wrong. As one of the women of privilege that she’s talking to-- well-educated, professional, etc--yes, I do lots of self-undermining. Women are not taking our places at the table, both literally and metaphorically. Sometimes I don’t because I’m too tired. Sometimes I want to be with my family instead. Sometimes I’m just afraid. Sandberg is full of things I’d tell my six year old: Believe in yourself! It’s OK to make mistakes. You can do it! What’s wrong with that?
Here’s an example.
Just this week, the slate of bishop candidates for Maryland was announced. They are all women. Sounds great, right? But here’s the thing: it’s a suffragan position. Suffragan bishops have few choices in their role and limited power vis a vis the diocesan bishop (also: all the candidates are white). Our diocese has long had a woman suffragan bishop. Gayle Harris serves in that role now. Before her, it was Barbara Harris, the first woman to be bishop anywhere in the Anglican Church (and African American, too). Our next bishop election is in April, and there was one woman on the official slate of five. On facebook, ambivalence reigned about the Maryland group. Some shared enthusiastically: “All women!” and others shared with no comment. Many women of my age, the younger Gen X or older Gen Y folks, were kind of baffled.
I wouldn’t find it remarkable if a slate were all men, necessarily, so for parity’s sake maybe we ought not find it remarkable that a slate is all women. The candidates are strong. We need more women bishops, particularly since it’s a life appointment and, for church-wide governance purposes, a bishop is a bishop. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that for Maryland, with a male bishop safely at the helm, it feels creative and cool to have a woman in second place when the stakes don’t seem as high.
I want female bishops. I want us all to “lean in” and take our place at the table and not be ashamed to ask where the women’s bathroom is. The thing that the Maryland election reveals, though, is the impossible place that this patriarchal double bind has put us in. Yes, we want women to be in these jobs. But for every candidate in one election to be a woman, it just feels like gender is being elevated to the level of qualifying credential. And that’s where we can’t win. That’s where having all women feels almost as bad as having no women. And that’s where it’s so clear what a broken system this is: when something that you 100% want to be the outcome (more women in senior positions) is sure to happen, but you just don’t want it to happen this way.
So here we are.
Here’s the other thing: I don’t want to just swallow the lie that human worth is measured in our salaried accomplishments and that speeding back to our smartphones after the kids are in bed is any way to live a life. I can’t imagine not checking my email after 6pm or on weekends. Can. Not. Imagine It. My work as a priest is part of my life all the time. But I also don’t want to buy into the narcissism that I have to—or can—fix everything, or that the sun rises and sets on the speed of my reply. I want to be sure to regard my vocation as a whole person, priest, mother, spouse, all of it, as equally important. In helping me to find this path that God has presumably invested some energy in my doing all of it. Not doing it all perfectly, but doing it. I want to remember that I can fall over into the grace and compassion of God, that I don’t have to work so hard all the time to prove myself.
My feelings about an obscure ecclesiastical election in a place I don’t live are not the point here. The point is that for as long as we look at hierarchy and accomplishment as the metric by which we judge ourselves, we’re still going to be slogging forward, second place win by second place win. Wanting a female CEO to make 500 times what the average employee of her company makes is not progress for all women. We’re still going to argue over our small piece of the pie, envying the apparent “have it all” success of women like Sandberg at the same time as judging her as too capitalist and out of touch. Closer to home, as long as our church operates on a hierarchical model where being a bishop is the crown of your career instead of a particular vocation to which people of any age or gender or shape of parish career might be called to, we’re going to fail to see the skills of women as well as men.
And with that, good night. I have some pointless PBS shows to watch whilst ignoring my professional potential.
ps: thanks to Nicole Janelle and Sasha Killewald for reading the first draft!