Michelle Obama is wrong: Women still need to Lean In
The truth is that in the battle of feminisms, it’s Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, not Michelle, who wins
Can I be totally honest with you? Okay, here goes: I don’t love everyone’s favourite former first lady Michelle Obama. There, I said it.
In particular, her reinvention as a celebrity feminist has long irritated me, partly because though once a professional hotshot she now seems more charity belle than professional ball-buster, swishing glamorously about the globe promoting good causes instead of buckling down to practise the law or business management in which she is so highly trained.
So I wasn’t among those clamouring for a spot at her instantly sold-out book talk at the South Bank in London last Monday, attended by 2,700 fans, in honour of the publication of her autobiography, Becoming. The appearance came hot on the heels of comments made several days earlier at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, also promoting her book, in conversation with her friend, the poet Elizabeth Alexander. Seated next to a “Find Your Voice” mug (available at the Michelle Obama online shop for $20), the former FLOTUS appeared to let her hair down for a moment.
“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” she said. “It ain’t equal. I tell women that whole ‘you can have it all’ – mmm, nope, not at the same time, that’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in because that shit doesn’t work.”
She was referring to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy of Lean In, the name of her motivational 2013 book encouraging women to assert themselves more at work.
The crowd went wild and the comments swiftly went viral. “She’s right you know,” tweeted one fan. “There was a generation of us who were told we could have it all and felt somewhat a failure when we knew we couldn’t. Thanks for validating what we knew all along, Michelle.”
I’m all for frank talk. But I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone with any common sense that being a married professional mother can’t be a walk in the park. Surely that’s not the point of the “lean in” philosophy. In fact, dangerously contravening the laws of woke girl power, I actually think Lean In is a rare piece of motivational, can-do feminism. I like theories of oppression as much as the next woman (I have an MPhil in gender studies, after all) but when it comes to getting on with life, women need help developing our actual, tangible power base – not just as empowered mothers and wives but as executives, scientists, world leaders.
In a world in which the vast majority of people with skills in maths and technology are men, and in which maternity still wipes countless brilliant women from the professional register, women don’t need slogans to help them find their voice, but the encouragement to use it.
Crucially, Sandberg wasn’t saying that any woman can or will necessarily “have it all” simply by finding the confidence to throw their hat in the ring. She was saying that if you want a shot at the top, and having a brilliant, rewarding career, then throwing your hat in the ring is the essential first step. “A truly equal world [would be] one in which women ran half our countries and our companies and men ran half our homes,” ran her deeply sensible rallying cry at the start of Lean In.
Amen. The truth is that in the battle of feminisms, it’s Sheryl, not Michelle, who scores the winning point (whatever you make of Sheryl’s recent and much criticised attacks on anti-Facebook titan George Soros).
Both, of course, are highly intelligent, Ivy-League-educated, professionally trained women – Michelle in law, Sheryl in economics. But Michelle leaned out of her hotshot career in law and hospital administration, dedicating her time as first lady to charitable activity, and being a lifestyle icon. Who can forget that memorable 2013 tweet about the joys of picking napa cabbage for making kimchi later?
As the COO of one of the biggest companies in the world, and the first woman on Facebook’s board, Sheryl has practised what she preached in Lean In. She has two kids, as many nannies as necessary, and never let motherhood, wifehood or personal tragedy dim her desire to be at the very top tables in statecraft and business. There was a reason Lean In was a bestseller. The book was positive, interested not in oppressions but in tapping in to the potential every woman has. It stressed the importance of getting women to be openly ambitious, to include, not excuse, themselves at the table as motherhood appeared on the horizon.
Even after Sandberg suddenly lost her husband to heart failure in 2015 (he died after falling from a treadmill) she kept right on going, turning her grief – as she had previously turned her professional experience – into a book called Option B.
I may not have children of my own, but my own mother’s commitment to her career when we were small was – far from a problem – inspiring, even then. In a time when professional women faced even more inequality and discrimination at work than they do now, she did it, juggling it all with primary responsibility for two small children. Did she have it all? Of course not, but she came close, and that’s what mattered.
– © The Daily Telegraph