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Reviews — From the November 2017 issue

Lean Out

Feminist struggles are labor struggles

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Discussed in this essay:

Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, by Ivanka Trump. Portfolio. 256 pages. $26.

No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, by Jane McAlevey. Oxford University Press. 254 pages. $29.95.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran a story that read like a parable of twenty-first-century feminism. The subject was Ivanka Trump, and the year was 2013. Ms. Trump had started licensing her name to a line of women’s shoes, jewelry, clothing, and handbags. The label had debuted on the luxury market, but luxury customers were not buying. The future lay in mass retail. Ms. Trump’s image presented a problem: she was “perceived as rich and unrelatable,” an internal document explained. So she gathered her husband and a few employees at her Upper East Side apartment to workshop her brand. At the time, Lean In, by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, was number one on the bestseller list, and Ms. Trump wanted a slogan of her own. The brain trust settled on “Women who work.”

Signs in a storeroom at the headquarters for the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 © AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong

Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success, published in May, was the capstone of the ensuing brand overhaul. A pseudofeminist business memoir laced with the kind of language that gives away Ms. Trump as a woman for whom work was optional (“You are a woman who works,” she insists nine times), the book captures the worst of “lean-in feminism,” the Sandbergian strain of business-friendly empowerment politics. For the past several years, this ideology has offered middle-class and upper-class women advice on how to navigate a workplace that remains hostile or indifferent to their needs. It prompts women to confront the psychological barriers that hold them back — low self-esteem, fear of failure, lack of will to lead — and offers individual, do-it-yourself solutions. Though not blind to the structural hurdles that keep women from success, lean-in feminism regards them as secondary. What lies within a woman’s control is her decision to embrace power or reject it. If her obligation is toward the former, it is because change, according to Lean In, is top-down. “More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women,” Sandberg wrote in 2013. Hence the theory’s other name: “trickle-down feminism.”

Four years and one traumatic presidential election later, it’s hard not to see Women Who Work as conclusive evidence of the hollowness of this philosophy. Hillary Clinton overcame enough psychological barriers to pursue a second bid for the presidency, but she still hit the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” in American politics. As for the few women who hold power in Trump’s administration, they show little concern for their less fortunate countrywomen. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heiress with a stake in the charter school movement, has announced plans to cut billions of dollars in funding to the country’s public schools, which employ more than 2 million women and serve more than 50 million students. Ms. Trump, who has assumed an advisory role to her father, has advocated staying an Obama-era equal-pay rule that requires large companies to collect data on what they pay employees by gender and race. (As for her treatment of women elsewhere in the world, she continues to outsource the fabrication of her products to Asia, where labor protections are lax.)

Ms. Trump was right to identify working women as a powerful contingent. Her mistake — and it was a mistake: the book flopped — was to address them as a consumer demographic at a time of burgeoning political consciousness. On January 21, three months before the book’s release and just a day after her father’s inauguration, millions of women across the country took to the streets in the first major protest against the new administration. Though not not invited, Ms. Trump was elsewhere. The march was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, a sign that protesting under the banner of women was a promising strategy.

But the future of this coalition was uncertain even before the event began. The protesters’ demands were urgent — climate justice, racial justice, economic justice, gender justice — but too numerous to take on at once. Many of the marchers were new to activism and would need direction.

Political organizers often say that social movements require institutions to make lasting change. While movements create energy and build momentum, institutions — political parties, nonprofits, or looser coalitions — distill that energy into something concrete and potentially enduring. More important, they grant people a seat at the table where contests for power take place. Institutions recognize institutions more readily than they do individuals. It is easier to lobby for, demand, propose, and enforce political change under the aegis of a nameable group.

Given the female leadership of many of today’s progressive groups and the pull of “woman” as a political identity, one might say that non-elite women are best suited to lead the movement against Trump. Still, the question remains of what institutional form their efforts will take. Some will pursue the electoral route, seeking office and lending support to progressive candidates. Others will mobilize around causes. But there is a third site of resistance, often overlooked by middle- and upper-class feminists, where women are already organizing on a mass scale: the labor movement.

 

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