Leaning In to New Ideas

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annua
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott)

Let's face facts: The U.S. women's movement, as we knew it, is gasping for air. Young women who are its future don't identify with it, we are forced to fight past battles we thought we'd won (like abortion rights), and Americans think women already have as much equality as we need (so much for pay equity). I'm gasping for air just writing this paragraph.

All of it is best summed up by the story told to some of us at the 40th anniversary celebration of Ms. Magazine. When a woman told a friend about the party, his quick response was: "Didn't those women die?"

Enter Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook entrepreneur and billionaire, whose new book, Lean In, has engendered lively and often heated conversation among current women leaders of a certain generation (myself included). Her prescriptions for success, directed to young aspiring women and fleshed out in her online program, encourage and educate them about what she thinks they should do to move up and lead in today's complicated world. Interviews I have recently conducted with young women confirm that they care about our issues, but believe me, they don't feel connected to the historic movement. And many of them are completely in favor of the kind of online platform that Sandberg is building -- one that organizes information on the Web and can connect people across generations. As one young woman leader says, "Lean In is a visible landing space for people who want to get involved."

One thing I do know: If we expect to arouse interest in the next generation of feminists for the issues that will truly determine their futures, we better come up with new ideas for this "movement" of ours. Say what you will about Sandberg's concepts, but at least they provide fresh thinking, and we desperately need something to push against.

Sisterhood is not always powerfully in your favor, even when you've got a great idea. No national women's organization would join the Ms. Foundation for Women, which I ran for two decades, in mounting a public education campaign for girls. When Take Our Daughters to Work Day was launched by us in 1993, it was roundly criticized for being elite (history proves that it wasn't) and for excluding boys (which it did, and rightly so; the inclusion of boys later in the program totally changed the experience for girls). But, as they say, all publicity is good publicity, and the controversy both kept the program alive and ignited a highly visible and much needed exchange for our nation's sons and daughters. In 1998, I launched the White House Project to put a diverse group of women into power at the top levels of government and business. The response: Vehement opposition out of the gate because it was non-partisan and (it was feared at the time) would elect Elizabeth Dole as president (so much for that), and yet there was equally vehement mourning when the organization dissolved a few months ago.

So, Sheryl, I feel your pain. And for the rest of you out there, we need to learn how to have these disagreements because unless we get better at it, our movement will continue to lose its edge, if it even has one. Remember that young women are listening to Anne-Marie Slaughter's argument about women not being able to have it all, and Hanna Rosin's article about the end of men. These writers are new voices at the table, and they provide opportunities for debate and change. You don't have to agree with everything they say to spark an idea from their work.

I know there are some who will read my defense of Lean In and mutter that I've lost my mind. After all, these young women are being asked by Sandberg to do what so many of us did: Work harder, put out energy and make sacrifices, and still not get the rewards we should. I agree that the book is yet another call for overburdened women to work harder, while what we really need is institutional change. Most of us leaned in so far during my working life that it's a wonder we can stand at all.

Also, many activists who struggled to make the changes we now enjoy have gone unacknowledged and unseen while Sandberg, with her resources and visibility, has rocketed to prominence. It must feel painful to see a beautiful woman out of central casting with a built-in platform get so much attention and have such immediate impact. And, of course, we must face the fact that this impact and these ideas are not likely to reach the many women whose lives are so hard and whose situations so dire, that they have no pedal to push to the metal. For them, it's all about survival.

But for God's sake, everyone, we need ideas. I challenge you to think of one other corporate female leader with this level of resources -- someone who could buy a private island and work on her tan until she dies, or buy her way into public office -- who has instead turned outward to the young women behind her. I don't feel our generation of women activists have done a good job at all when it comes to the generation behind us. Whether Sandberg is right or wrong, she is ACTIVE and THINKING.

Let's all agree or disagree constructively with the central themes of Lean In, but let's at least join Sandberg in finding a way for women to lead. She may be right, she may be wrong, but she's got the guts to put her ideas on the table. Do you?

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