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Why should feminists have to apologise for Sheryl Sandberg’s actions?

In making Facebook’s chief operating officer’s failings a ‘feminist issue’, we risk further marginalising those doing the mundane work of scrounging for cash, mounting legal challenges, gathering statistics on inequality and setting up discreet support networks

Victoria Smith
Monday 19 November 2018 16:10 GMT
Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg blames 'bad actors' for exploiting Facebook

On behalf of Feminism Inc., I would like to offer my sincere apologies for the behaviour of our CEO, Sheryl Sandberg. In light of recent revelations regarding Sandberg’s response to far-right propaganda on Facebook, we have requested that she tender her resignation.

Even with reports now claiming that Mark Zuckerberg was aggressively blaming Sandberg for the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we accept that this does not excuse the latter’s actions. They do reflect badly not just on her; they reflect badly on all women, everywhere (Zuckerberg, meanwhile, is in no way representative of all men. Thankfully, the only man at all like him is the fictional character called Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network. Phew!).

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Back in 2013, when we first appointed the Lean In author chief feminist, we had no idea things would end so badly. It was, on reflection, a mistake to make Sandberg the elected representative of everything to do with the feminist movement ever.

Some of us were too busy smashing our own glass ceilings to notice Sandberg’s obvious flaws; others were distracted by berating the nanny and underpaying the maid. No more, though! Henceforth we shall work to create a feminism based on improving the lives of all women, not just those at the top of the corporate ladder. If only such a feminism existed already!

Instead, we’re faced with headlines such as “Feminists gave Sheryl Sandberg a free pass. Now they must call her out”, “How Sheryl Sandberg lost her feminist street cred” and “What Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook disaster means for women”.

“If feminism wants to claim any interest in the safety and quality of life of women,” writes Jessa Crispin, “[…] the most visible spokespeople for the movement must distance themselves from a woman who prioritized profits over ethics and her job over countless lives. Because otherwise they will have proved their critics right.”

You tell them, Jessa! It’s a shame that no feminist thought of all this years ago. Just think where we’d be if, say, the future editor of the Guardian had already been complaining, back in 2002, about the corporate appropriation of feminism.

It’s a shame no feminists raised their voices to criticise Lean In when it first came out, leading to articles with titles such as “Why do feminists hate Sheryl Sandberg so much?

It’s a shame feminists haven’t been focussing on bread-and-butter issues such as pensions poverty, unpaid labour, reproductive justice and sexual violence. Instead it’s all been glass ceiling this, corporate ladder that. You can hardly blame the men for taking advantage.

To be fair, most feminists I know personally have not read Lean In. I’ll be honest: I’ve not read it, either. It has never struck me as a particularly important work of feminist thought, despite all the chatter surrounding it. It seems to have been useful for two things: ensuring public discussion of feminist activism is steered well away from, say, challenging pornography or mentioning male violence, and providing opportunities for the odd feminist to launder her own privilege by telling everyone that she’s not like Sandberg (but all the others are). Beyond that, I’d question how influential it’s been. And yet, here we are, all tarred with the Lean In brush.

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There are times when I wonder whether all the women working in refuges, staying on phone lines for rape victims, patching up pummelled bodies, counting the cost of domestic abuse, going on strike for a less pitiful wage – deserve to have their feminism hidden from view in this way. Right now it feels virtuous to throw the spotlight on corporate feminism, to rend one’s clothes and offer up a thousand mea culpas on behalf of proto-Sandbergs everywhere.

Yet in making Sandberg’s failings a feminist issue, we risk furthering the marginalisation of those doing the mundane, boring work of scrounging for cash, mounting legal challenges, gathering statistics on inequality and setting up discreet support networks.

One could argue that conceding to the view that feminism is a privileged ladies’ club is an act of supreme humility and self-reflection, leading to progress and change. On the other hand, one could see it as pure self-indulgence. It erases the work of others in both the past and the present, while inflating the importance, not of feminist thought, but of those who appropriated it.

Hopefully, now that Sandberg has been persuaded to step down from her role in feminism, we will be able to put this sorry episode behind us. At least, that is, until the next representative of corporate and/or media feminism messes up and we have to start all over again (I hear we’re finished with Lena Dunham and Taylor Swift. How’s Emma Watson looking?).

Meanwhile, a million women mutter “but that’s not what feminism is anyway”. They would say that, though. Allow me to apologise on their behalf.

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