Gloria Steinem & Sheryl Sandberg: Different Revolutions for Women?

Last month -- Women's History Month- - I was struck by an exchange between Sheryl Sandberg and Gloria Steinem at the Women in the World Conference because I felt it captured important generational difference among feminists. Business Insider reported that Sandberg asked Steinem if we're in the midst of a stalled revolution for women. In other words, since the late-1960's, women have seized opportunities and moved into all arenas of public life, but the percentage of women at the top has stayed between 15-18% for years. In no sector of public life -- including the nonprofit arena -- have women reached even 20% of the top positions consistently. To Sandberg, that was a sign of being stuck. But not to Steinem. Steinem argued that women are "at a critical mass stage" and getting more resistance. She further argued that revolutions create new kinds of work and new positions, rather than focusing on the positions that men have held in culture. Are these actually very different, and generational, views on what the revolution for women is about?

Steinem, who just turned 78 last month, has argued that feminism is a worldview that advocates for the complete end of hierarchy. Fundamentally, this is the goal of the revolution. Her passionate commitment to end the ways that we hold one group of people above or over another -- in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation or physical abilities -- has been such a powerful and revolutionary force toward recognizing our shared humanity.

The movement, and ethos, for which Steinem has been such an inspiring advocate has actually produced new positions and new types of work. The entire field of victim services, such as rape crisis centers and all of the counseling and advocacy services to address the damage done by domination have been the result of the push for equality of rights, dignity and personhood. These movements, despite the waves of collective action that brought them forward, tend to be very individualistic: each of us should be free to make our own choices, and that choice is sacrosanct. In other words, your truth is the only truth for you. Paradoxically, this individualism makes further and ongoing collective action extremely difficult.

While I don't know Steinem's views on this, many advocates of egalitarianism who want to end hierarchy of any kind, find themselves stuck when it comes to imagining how our society will move forward. They find themselves, overtly or subtly, advocating a return to some idealized version of the past where we all lived in small villages and elected our own village council. I find this kind of thinking -- one that often goes along with the idea that we are on the verge of some enormous shift brought about by calamity or designed to fix all of our problems -- to typically come from Boomers.

Sandberg, on the other hand, is 42 and Gen X. Growing up in the wake of the feminist movement that Steinem was the spokesperson for, she and her generation came of age in what was constantly called by the media a "post-feminist" world. The world is your oyster, girls! All of the hard work wedging the doors open had been done, and now it was time to walk through. Sandberg's own life is a testament to that. Even as Sandberg has climbed the corporate ladder, she has reached out to lift other women and to create ways for the businesses that she's been part of to give back. (She played a critical role in launching Google's philanthropic arm.) It's also important to note that Google and Facebook have catalyzed real revolution by giving those who have been oppressed and denied their basic rights access to information and the capacity to communicate outside the channels of usual power. The uprisings in the Middle East couldn't have happened without these new technologies. AND they are a corporation that functions through hierarchy. Sandberg's question about a stalled revolution because too few women have reached the top suggests that she sees that women need to be at the table participating in the decision-making process in order to create a world in which human dignity is never thwarted.

It would be easy to call Sandberg a reformer and Steinem the revolutionary, as I might have done years ago. But I question that now. The pluralistic egalitarian revolution that Steinem has done so much to bring about has not finished bringing dignity to all of humanity -- and it needs to continue. But it won't be able to do that without some sort of hierarchical systems and governance to make that possible -- even the women's movement had that! Equally important, and particularly in regard to educated Western women, I see differences between these two incredible women in where they look for change. From my work with women, I see that Boomers, like Steinem, tend to look outward and argue that the system is the cause of our subordination and victimization. Men in patriarchy do these things to women. It's not our fault! There is often a clinging to an identity as victim, in blatant and subtle ways. Certainly, women are victimized and there is no excuse for that. Yet, in terms of a pattern in culture and in our psyches, we have to realize that it takes two to tango. Men and women have been a matched set in culture--domination depends on subordination, and we women too often consciously or unconsciously are willing to defer...often for the sake of maintaining our relationships. Sandberg, and Gen X women generally, see that we women need to change in order for us to have a seat at the table of power and affect the decisions that are made. Moreover, many women have said to me that it's often men who are holding the doors open for women, encouraging them to enter, not other women. That, too, is a pattern that we need to break within ourselves.

I am very inspired by the willingness of more and more Gen X women to take responsibility for how we women contribute to the ways that power continues to be held by the usual suspects. It's a refreshing and empowering act that in itself steps beyond the victim/subordinate paradigm. And transcending that pattern in ourselves is the only way that we are ever going to really become players in creating a culture in which all human beings are granted dignity and respect. Which would truly be revolutionary.

Check out a real range of women who are seeking change at The Inspiring Women Summit--a free virtual event.