Looking Back, Leaning In, Moving Forward


A confluence of events has got me thinking about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and how we define the women’s movement. I’ve been reading her book for a while – it’s a fairly easy read, but not very gripping. At the same time I’ve been reading Dorothy Sue Cobble’s book, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America. Sandberg’s book, of course, has been on the New York Times best seller lists, spawned many “Lean In  groups” – including, of course, on Facebook, while Cobble’s book is aimed at a narrower audience, largely academics.

Let’s consider Cobble’s book first. Her aim is to explore the class differences among women, to see how they are reflected in what she calls “the other women’s movement,” that of women in labor. As she states, “[C]lass has always been a salient political divide in American culture. …Yet the prevalent cultural tendency is to operate as if class makes little or no difference.” She depicts the efforts of women in the labor movement to advance the situation of women in blue-collar and pink-collar jobs. She describes those women as spearheading a social feminist movement in the 1930s to the 1970s that focused on wage justice, the “double day” and women’s job rights. She concludes that there is now an opportunity to reshape modern feminism by learning from the experience of labor feminists in the twentieth century, to create a class-conscious feminism that “would define itself as about the removal of class and race injustice as well as gender.” She adds that “most women do not have sufficient power as individuals to effectuate change in employer practices; they must rely on collective power.”

Which brings us to Sandberg’s book. The impression one gets from reviews and discussions of it, and, frankly, from the book itself, is that it is oriented toward advancing individual women to positions of power in government and the corporate world. It focuses on the need for individual women to lean in, to take on more leadership. Yet, Sandberg clearly knows the individual approach is too simplistic. She says that “women face real obstacles in the professional world, including blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.” She goes on to describe how the lack of childcare and similar resources hold women back. Her focus, however, is on how women have internal barriers to leadership: “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

The two books present what seem like diametrically opposed perspectives on feminism. Cobble argues for collective action and Sandberg, for individuals leaning in; Cobble focuses on women in blue- and pink-collar jobs, Sandberg, on those in management. 

Cobble’s emphasis on working-class women within the women’s movement was shared by others at the recent conference on women and labor sponsored by Veteran Feminists of America. Keynoter Alice Kessler Harris discussed how what she called “social justice feminism” focused on envisioning a more just society, a broader perspective reflected in recent labor organizing efforts. Kessler Harris and the other conference speakers, including Karen Nussbaum of 9 to 5 and the AFL-CIO, emphasized the importance of organizing women in the workplace, as well as taking collective action on broader social issues. Speakers expressed hope that we might see a return to a social or social justice perspective in American politics, one informed by feminism. Kessler-Harris presented an important addition to Cobble’s analysis: while Cobble seems to suggest that class and race were not addressed by the women’s movement of the 1970s, Kessler-Harris points out that feminism has always had a broader agenda than the ERA. Social justice feminism, as represented by women’s liberation groups, has long seen class and race as central to its agenda.

Though Sandberg doesn’t directly address these issues, here’s where I think Sandberg can actually lend a hand. In order to revive not only the feminist movement, but the broader progressive/social justice/Left, women have to play a leading role. Whether or not we women are in management positions, we are or should be in the leadership of progressive organizations, groups like DSA. And the internalized barriers to women’s leadership exist not only in corporate America, but in radical/social/social justice/socialist groups as well.

Developing women’s leadership within progressive organizations can include following some of Sandberg’s suggestions: Women need to speak out more and more forcefully and to encourage other women to do the same. Sandberg notes that “from an early age, boys are encouraged to take charge and offer their opinions.” And she describes the imposter syndrome, the “phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt.” As she notes, women are more likely to view themselves as frauds than are men: “We consistently underestimate ourselves.” One does not have to have read all the volumes of Capital or every word in The Prison Notebooks to have something important to say in a political discussion about the state of the economy or electoral politics.

As we move forward with our agenda of social justice, fighting against oppression based on race, class or gender, we should take the lessons provided by both Cobble and Sandberg to heart.

 ChristineRiddioughAID_100w_copy.png Christine R. Riddiough serves as an Honorary Vice Chair of DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.