What Would Betty Friedan Say about the "Lean In" Debate?

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The contractions started at 7,000 feet. I was on a plane from San Francisco to Chicago to pitch a new client for our advertising agency. Twenty-three weeks pregnant with my second child, I had just been promoted to vice president and was eager to prove my worth. My career was on fire. So was my belly.

I did my best to stay calm. I counted the minutes between each hardening. I drank water, I took long slow breaths, and I prayed. This was not the first time I had faced pre-term labor. When I was pregnant with my son, we learned I had a uterine structural anomaly. The result? Babies born prematurely.  With him, my water broke late in the night just before my thirty-second week. I spent the next fifteen long days and nights in the hospital until my son insisted he was ready. He came out screaming (a good sign I was told), and after a few harrowing weeks in the intensive care unit, was pronounced ready to go home.

That hiccup had not kept me from continuing on my upward march to the top of my career. After a four-month maternity leave (a professional risk as it was the longest anyone had taken at my office), I returned to my fifty+ hour work weeks, my two-hour commute, my late nights prepping for client meetings which meant I missed, yet again, the chance to rock my newborn son to sleep. I didn’t mind. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.

I came of age when we women were told we could have it all. Our mothers and older sisters had fought hard for the opportunities in front of us. I’d be damned if I was going to let them down. But as I sat on that plane, cradling my belly, leaning in so far I couldn’t see that there was no ground to fall on, I called on my god. “Please,” I begged. “I will do anything. Do not let me lose this baby.” 

Mine is just one of many stories we women are beginning to tell about the limitations of "leaning in." We’ve heard from journalist and mother Mary Louise Kelly about "The. Day. You. Hit. The. Wall.," and from former Lehman Brothers Chief Financial Officer and non-mother, Erin Callan, about the sacrifices she made to make it to the top. My story, their stories, and others like them speak to the deep underlying conflicts we face in those dark hours of the night when we're asked to consider, what do we value most?

While I'm grateful Sheryl Sandberg has used her personal capital and financial resources to bring laser-like attention to the challenges facing professional women in the workplace, I can’t help but feel like I’ve woken up on Ground Hog day. How is it the conversations I had with my peers more than twenty years ago about work and life and balance are the same conversations we are having now, over a decade into the 21st century? How is it we women are still asking ourselves why can’t we be more like men? When will we value and, concurrently, assert our own paradigms for success?

If you take the hullabaloo around the Lean In dust storm at face value, rising to the top is what matters most. Many of the brightest feminist writers and thinkers of our day agree wholeheartedly with Sandberg. But that isn’t what I remember from my women’s studies classes all those years ago. Sure we wanted to find an answer to the “problem with no name,” but I don’t think the answer was to “lean in” so far we tipped over the edge.

Image: © Patsy Lynch/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com/

What an ironic bookend it is for us to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique just as we are also reading this newest feminist manifesto (as Sandberg calls her own book). I don’t doubt Friedan would have heartily agreed with Sandberg who writes: “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs.” But I don’t believe Friedan would have told women to “lean in” to a paradigm that doesn’t benefit women or men.

In fact, she may well be yelling from her grave right now, “I told you so!” Sure we’ve heard (and some of us even read her first manifesto), but how many of us know Betty Friedan wrote a follow-up book in 1981 called The Second Stage In it, she argues:

“I believe that feminism must, in fact, confront the family, albeit in new terms, if the movement is to fulfill its own revolutionary function in modern society. Otherwise it will abort or be put on history’s shelf - its real promise and significance obscured, distorted, by its denial of life’s realities for too many millions of women. Locked into reaction against women’s role in the family of the past, we could blindly emulate an obsolete narrow male role in corporate bureaucracy."

She goes on to say that not only should the family be the new feminist frontier, but that real change will only happen if men are welcomed into the fold. She writes:

“I believe that a quiet moment has been going on among American men for some years. If I'm right, the new questions men are asking about their own lives will converge with women’s questions in the second stage (of feminism) - and provide a new power and energy for solutions that seem impossible today.”

Oh, if only that had happened. Sadly, we ignored her words and instead of opening new doors for men to expand beyond their gender straightjackets, we raced up the ladder to try to beat them at their own game. Here we are in 2012 with one of the most successful women on the planet telling us we should follow her path to power by copying male paradigms, male career patterns, male modes of talking, acting, thinking. I'm glad it worked for her, but that doesn’t feel very feminist to me. In fact, it feels about as retro as the bow ties I once wore to work.

I say, let’s lean in to honoring women’s choices and values. Let’s consider collaboration, nurturing, and interdependence (traditionally considered feminine traits) as important skills in the workplace. Let’s celebrate the family so deeply that we commit to providing all families with paid sick days, paid parental leave, subsidized day care, outstanding preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school educations for their children. Let’s close the wage gap so women and men can build a financial foundation to support their families because, as we know, it takes two working parents just to get by these days. And, let’s offer flexible work environments so that commuting is not equated with “goofing off.” (Sorry, Marissa, that decision was way off the mark).

I believe Betty Friedan was on to something. She would probably argue we should rethink what it means to “lean in” and that women --and men--need to lean in...to their own lives. I know I did.

After fifteen weeks on bed rest, my daughter was born full-term and fully healthy. I left my big job and decided to work part-time from home. Jumping off the corporate ladder opened unexpected doors for me. I was able to rethink what it was that brought me fulfillment. As a result, I went on to become a social entrepreneur and then eventually went back to graduate school to get an MFA. I have since launched myself into a third career (if you don’t include mothering as one of my careers) as an award-winning writer and independent journalist.Never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine I would move from MBA to MFA. Never did I imagine some of my greatest moments of professional satisfaction would be the days I spend writing on issues of import to me and society as a whole. Never did I imagine when I left my fancy job all those years ago that I would look back on the bumpy terrain from there to here and say, “Now that was a successful life.”

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I'm working on unlearning each and every day. How about you?

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