Lean In, Breathe Out

Two women have reached the forefront of womanly consciousness and have thrown upheaval into the feminist movement. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayers have pitted feminist against feminist in an ugly battle that asks the age old question, “Can Women Have it All?”

While I hate to be the harbinger of good news on the Republican side, there have been some moments of clarity on the right that need mentioning. The instances where several key Republicans have come forward in support of gay marriage, the dinner meeting with the President to speak actual words that might result in actual progress, and the culmination of Rand Paul’s filibuster that sought to ask an important question about President Obama’s drone policy, all deserve credit. And while I hate to pause my disdain for anything Rand Paul, and I could pick up the gauntlet laid by the left in mocking him with the two sentence answer Paul received (in a word, nope, won’t attack Americans here) or focus on the potty break that stopped him from coming close to Strom Thurmond’s epic filibuster (“In the end, Rand Paul did not hate U.S.-citizen-targeted drone strikes as much as Strom Thurmond hated the idea of black people voting.”) I won’t. Because pointed questions, from anyone, are a good thing. And sometimes more important than the answers themselves.

So while the Republicans regroup and do some soul searching, I turn my eyes to the feminist movement, which has gained momentum after a rabid election year that saw attacks on Roe. v. Wade, too many disparaging definitions of the word “rape,” the vote of 138 Republicans against the Violence Against Women Act, and the ERA coming back into the conversation.  It seemed that women put the “Mommy Wars” on hold to unite under a shared cause that was strong, smart, and timely.

Yet, two women have reached the forefront of womanly consciousness and have thrown upheaval into the movement. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayers have pitted feminist against feminist in an ugly battle that asks the age old question, “Can Women Have it All?” According to Sandberg, in her memoir/advice book that answer is yes, if they are willing to “Lean In.” Where women juggle the emotional minefield of childrearing and career management, Sandberg advises confidence above all, and the stretching of one’s belief in herself to know that she can accomplish what the men before and beside her have. There are sacrifices and weak moments of self-doubt, but nothing that can’t be worked through. As the COO of Facebook, she know from what she speaks.

At the same time, another high profile woman executive has made headlines by banning telecommuting in her company. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, issued what some women are interpreting as a stunning blow to mothers. By limiting her own maternity leave to a harsh two weeks post partum, Mayer has invited scathing criticism from women.  Yet Mayer brings up an important topic: if women want to be treated the same as men, should they be subject to the same limitations?  I could bring up the fact that women and men bring different, albeit equal, qualifications to the table and that historically men have unfairly benefitted from this patriarchal system. To take away the things that make possible women to balance work and family life moves the progress of women in the workforce backwards, not forward. This isn’t an equalizer as much as a destabilizer.

But I won’t.

What I will discuss is the way in which thoughtful, savvy women have brought insightful critique to these two women and have felt the result of a backlash of their very own. This backlash against those who are taking up pens to defend Mayer and Sandberg is creating a splintered movement much like the shattered remains of the GOP. Which begs the question: Are women the new Republican party?  Where once there was a cohesive group of thinking women, there is a degeneration into intolerance and  obstructionist douche-baggery normally reserved for the GOP.

Time Magazine gives prime placement to the debate, featuring Sandberg on the cover framed by the headline, “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful.”  The New York Times Book Review this Sunday gave “Lean In” the cover treatment as well, fanning the flames of conflict by assigning Anne-Marie Slaughter to write the review. Slaughter earned her own place in the (patronizingly termed) Mommy Wars with her Atlantic piece in 2012 entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” placing her at opposing ends of Sandberg, leading to gossip that the two were enemies.  The enemy trope turns out to be a bit hyperbolic, however, as Slaughter concedes many points to Sandberg. While she still maintains that women might not necessarily be able to overcome work/life obstacles just by sheer ambition, she’s thoughtful. Respectful. Calm.

Would that I could say the same for Anna Holmes, whose New Yorker piece summarily finds and rips apart critiques of Sandberg’s book one by one, accusing most of the writers of pieces critical of Sandberg of “not having cracked open the book.” She takes Jodi Kantor and Maureen Dowd to task for publishing an unfinished quote by Sandberg that made her seem arrogant.  The partial quote, taken from a PBS documentary “Makers: Women who make America” provided the fodder from which column inches were inked: “I always thought I would run a social movement,” she was reported to have said. The rest “-which basically meant work at a non-profit. I never thought I’d work in the corporate sector” – provides a context that makes Sandberg sound less self-important and more likable. The damage, according to Holmes, had already been done, by causing women to take up their pens as swords to tear down Sandberg. As such, Holmes responds in kind, calling out every mainstream critique of Sandberg, as a “galling” “pile-on.”

All this makes me yearn for a time that seemed almost quaint, when Hilary Rosen’s glib comment last April that Ann Romney “hasn’t worked a day in her life,” opened up the proverbial can of worms, causing countless moms everywhere to look up from Fifty Shades of Grey on their iPhones to consider, again, just how to quantify the work of the stay-at-home mother. What makes these debates endless and unresolved is simply because they are unresolvable. With women making up the majority of the population, stretching across the socio-economic stratosphere, with roots laid down in the North or the South, in urban sprawls or flat country, there will be more differences among us than similarities. There will be language gaps, and ideological gaps, physical gaps, and yes, little overlapping where ambition is concerned, even in defining just what ambition is and how it manifests itself in the interests and abilities of different women all across this land.

But what pushes the progression and evolution of all of us as human beings are the questions we raise. Often more important than whatever the answers might be. We’d do well to remember that, and to take a cue from the indignant scrambling and infighting of the Republican party: that divided, we fail. We have far bigger threats than each other.