Lean In, Then Lean On, & Mind the Riptide

Allow me to become one of the many discussing a book I’ve not read and a movement I’ve not participated in—Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.

In short, good for her, and I hope tons of women participate.

We’re all at different places in our activism and awareness as women and humans. Some incredible people, with very little personal security (economic, social, etc.) are natural leaders and advocates who step forward to take action against injustice, but not everyone can do that. We need women to get comfortable owning their accomplishments and abilities, to lean in for themselves, because that’s what will, if things work the right way, prepare them to lean on on behalf of others.

I would hope that once you learn to lean in, you become comfortable leaning on. I hope that’s part of the Lean In™ curriculum. When you are willing to stand up for your own self, you should be prepared to stand up when someone else is the victim of injustice and cannot stand up or lean in. Or could stand up, but is tired of always having to be the person who does so.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal in terms of recent critiques of “white lady” feminism.

My first feminism was white lady feminism inasmuch as I am white and was, at the time, not entirely clear on the distinction between lady and woman as it applied to me (although I was beginning to develop a sense of it since at my college, people seemed pretty intent upon calling us women). A child of great privilege, I got all the way to my sophomore year in college before someone gave me the loud, clear, and very direct message that “as a woman,” there was something I could not do that a man could. And I mean the man used those exact words—as a woman. It shattered my entire concept of who I was and what I was working toward in my life.

I had a fairly second wave awakening at that point. I took women’s studies classes. I feel in love with and drew inspiration from bell hooks and Byllye Avery and Kate Michelman and Faye Wattleton. I read The Feminine Mystique, and even though it was 1991, it spoke to me because I saw the moms I knew in it and felt the wind get knocked out of me for them. I found a poem—a poem!—that became my battle cry.

I’m still learning. It took me sixteen years from one man telling me that “as a woman,” I wasn’t good enough for the role I’d been groomed to assume to me telling another man, when he offered me a low-ball salary, that I wanted the higher number. But that’s not what I offered you, he said. But that’s what I’m worth, I said. If he’d been there, instead of on the phone, he would have seen me shaking, but he wasn’t, and he didn’t, and I got the job at the salary I demanded. I leaned in, and it worked, and that was empowering.

At that job, I had the opportunity to lean on. We had one manager who said a few inappropriate things to me and made me feel a little uncomfortable by putting his arm around me, but the fact was, I was totally secure in my job and not afraid of him. I almost did nothing, but I leaned in. I talked to other women on staff, and learned about a much younger and more junior woman of color on our team who had experienced some even worse behavior.

I leaned on. I went straight to the top and presented my objectively strong case: he was a man in a position of authority over younger, more vulnerable female employees, and not only was his behavior completely inappropriate, it opened our organization up to liability (money – the magic enforcer) and he needed to go. And he was gone. That younger, more junior staffer never had to file a complaint or do anything to jeopardize her livelihood. She didn’t have to risk anything in her personnel file, but because we all talked, we were able to take care of the situation. This woman’s manager, who’d been the one to share the story with me, talked to her about the fact that when she becomes a manager, she’d be able to advocate on behalf of her employees that way, because that’s what managers do for the people they manage.

[Note how lucky am I that this whole experience really didn’t affect my fundamental ability to take care of myself. That is my privilege: as a white, well-educated woman in a position of great authority with multiple contacts who could have helped me if I got into trouble in one job, it was relatively easy for me to take action. Not everyone could have done so. But still, it helped a group of women, not all of whom had access or privilege, prevail against a system that had been oppressing them.]

To simplify greatly, if second wave feminism is leaning in, intersectional feminism is leaning on while leaning in. It is acknowledging that we can all play a role in leaning on each other for support and respect and advocacy while leaning on the powers that be to change the systems that oppress us from all directions—oppress us because of our gender, class, race, language, origin, orientation, religion, or/and ability.

It can be hard work swimming in the waters of intersectional feminism, because you are always having to consider something (people, experience, reality) outside yourself. And, if you’re really doing it well, you are then pointing out to others that they, too, should consider people outside themselves, and experiences different from theirs. As humans, we’re not always good at that, and as feminists, we’re not always good at that.

I get frustrated when I find myself caught in a riptide that pulls me back to second wave feminist thinking. I have to always be on guard against that. And, I have to be aware that I can’t depend upon anyone else to rescue me (or call out for me to check my privilege – it isn’t their job to remind me of that). I have to remember that I can pull myself out by swimming parallel to the shore until I can get myself back on the beach.

That vigilance is the cost of being in the water, and I love being in this water.

The thing about a riptide is that you don’t always see it, and suddenly, you can find yourself pretty far from shore. While you’re there, you aren’t really receptive to people’s criticism that you should have been paying attention (check your privilege!), but the fact is, you should have been paying attention.

It is exhausting to be the feminist lifeguard, to have to go pull those second-wavers back into intersectionality, and it isn’t fair to make one group the constant guardians of the beach. Don’t you think people get tired of telling you to check your privilege? They do!

That’s why it is important that if you are a white feminist, you should learn to swim against/across the tide and check your own privilege. Speak up about issues affecting women of all races, and especially learn to speak up about race issues with other white feminists, learning together why and how to be allies and advocates. You, too, can share the lifeguard duty.

(Be careful not to confuse being a lifeguard with being a savior. That’s another blog post for sure.)

I’d like us all to be on guard against riptide feminism, where riptide feminism is “feminine self-aggrandizement” that pulls us out into the water all alone without regard for anyone else, alone with our privilege.

This seems like the perfect place to share this:

“Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women–as well as white, economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” –Barbara Smith, “Racism and Women’s Studies,” 1979

I want to have the grace and energy to pull someone back from the riptide once or twice, and hope others will have the grace and energy to pull me back. I also pledge to strive for the self-awareness and compassion that keeps me from putting myself in the path of the riptide, or from jumping into it willingly.

I think it is fair to say that some women shouldn’t be swimming at all, and they may call themselves feminists (Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter), but I’m going to let the tide take them far from my beach, because they’re about female self-aggrandizement, plain and simple.

I try to stay focused on the fact that leaning in allows me and obligates me to lean on. I want us all in the water, swimming confidently, ready to help if someone gets in over her head. We may be on different beaches—St. Baart’s versus Haiti, both in the same sea but wow, how different. Still, you can get into trouble either place.

Lean in. Lean on. Let feminism be a both-and movement. Be concerned for your self, and be concerned for others. Learn what you need to overcome, and learn what others struggle with. You dip your toe into a different ocean each time, but we’re all there on the beach together, and we sink or swim together.

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