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On Feminism: The Word, the History, and the Case Against Leaning In

women's liberation march, Washington D.C., 1970

“I refuse to demonize men.” “I enjoy sex.” “I love chivalry.” “Being in the kitchen is actually kinda fun.”

The authors of Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements could not have predicted, when they began writing, that their book launch in August 2014 would coincide with a spate of online squabbling about what constitutes female empowerment—but the timing seems fortuitous. Online, thousands of self-styled Women Against Feminism have taken to Facebook and Tumblr in recent months to declare reasons (like those above) for their disgust for the f-word—much to the befuddlement and dismay of feminist critics who’ve charged them with profound ignorance over what the term really means. The movement has inspired at least one biting Twitter parody and an apparent rebuke from Beyonce, in the form of an Instagram portrait of herself dressed as Rosie the Riveter. 

book cover: Feminism Unfinished

Feminism Unfinished, conceived of and written by NYU historian Linda Gordon with co-authors Dorothy Sue Cobble and Astrid Henry, could lend the debate a welcome dose of clarity: Less a philosophical treatise on what feminism is and more a lucid account of what feminism did, it fills in the substantial gaps in typical textbook histories that tend to skip right along from Susan B. Anthony and suffrage to Gloria Steinem and Ms. Magazine. The authors don’t stop to argue against the beliefs (voiced by Women Against Feminism types) that feminists are self-absorbed navel gazers or, worse, monomaniacal militants; instead they simply describe the achievements of activists whose women’s rights efforts were closely tied to their contributions to other causes, from economic justice to racial equality. Similarly, the stereotype of the sexless, bra-burning man-hater proves inconsistent with their miniature biographies of ardent feminists who were also devoted wives and mothers.

Perhaps the book’s greatest triumph, beyond introducing readers to dozens of influential activists we didn’t read about in history class, is its firm rejection of the popular criticism that feminism has always been a movement by and for white, upper-middle class women. In chronicling leadership roles of a generation of “social justice feminists” who agitated for higher wages for low-income earners of all colors and sexes, the authors place the roots of modern feminism squarely in the labor reform movement of the 1930s-60s. And, in a stinging critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to fellow career-minded strivers, they dismiss the so-called “lean-in” philosophy as “trickle-down feminism” that celebrates the achievements of the few without improving the lot of the many. They argue that it’s collective action—not individual bargaining power—that has historically worked to change society in ways that benefit women of all classes.

In advance of Labor Day, NYU Stories checked in with Linda Gordon to talk about changing notions of women’s work and the connections between disparities in gender and class.  

—Eileen Reynolds


Linda Gordon

Linda Gordon

Why did you think it was important to emphasize the role of feminism in labor reform?
Well, one reason is the simple historical fact that the most important change ever to happen to women was their joining the labor force in large numbers. As long as men were the only ones earning money, they naturally had a position of power that was very hard to challenge. Once women had their own money, it put them in a very different position in the world—and reflecting that was especially important to us.

Many of us were taught to regard the Equal Pay Act of 1963 as a feminist triumph, but in your book Dorothy Sue Cobble presents it as more of an imperfect compromise. Fifty years later, in 2013, female-dominated jobs paid an average of $408 per week, while male-dominated jobs $553 per week. Are we still living out the consequences of a law that only required equal wages for men and women when they were doing the exact same job?
The Equal Pay Act was both good news and bad news—good news because it was the first time that the federal government committed itself to at least the principle of equality, but bad news because there’s a big difference between the principle and the actual practice. The fact that women and men do separate jobs is changing, and in some professions (like mine, teaching history at a university) it has changed very quickly—women have just poured in. But this has happened much more slowly among the poorest paying jobs. Childcare workers—almost all women—are paid very, very low wages. Upscale restaurants tend to have male waiters; diners have female waitresses who get much smaller tips. So one of the consequences has been to exacerbate class differences among women.

There’s been much debate around Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” idea. Can you summarize your critique of it?
Well, this first problem is that “lean in” puts the onus of change on women—it assumes that if we became more aggressive or assertive, things would be better. It doesn’t acknowledge that maybe men should change, or, more important, that social and economic structures should change. Many men in management positions are pressured to work enormous numbers of hours per week and don’t have time to spend with their families. So we all might be better off if rather than “leaning in,” we talked about “leaning back.”

The other problem is that even if greater assertiveness among women could help, it would only apply, I believe, to far less than one percent of the population. If I were a clerk at Wal-Mart, no matter how assertive I was, it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. And even as a relatively privileged person, a university professor, I can’t just go to my boss and negotiate for a higher wage—that’s not how it works for me or for the majority of jobs for the middle and working classes. Sheryl Sandberg is expecting that individual women can make these kinds of changes just by working harder, but that’s not how it works historically.

What was consciousness raising? Why was it important to the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s?
People don’t always register that one reason the women’s movement grew so large so fast in that period is simply that it was fun! Women have always been socialized to enjoy talking intimately with other women, and consciousness raising took that existing practice and set specific topics that led people to ask very subversive questions about certain social patterns they hadn’t thought to question before. When I was growing up, my brothers went to school and took a class called “shop,” where they learned to build things out of wood, while I learned to sew an apron. One word people use is “denaturalization”—we began to say, “Well, maybe that’s not natural, maybe there’s something in the society that’s promoting differences between men and women.” By creating a safe space and mutual support, we were daring each other to challenge things that we had learned.

And you write that some of that “denaturalization”—questioning the idea that, say, the women should be the one to bring coffee to a meeting—had a direct impact in the workplace, too, where groups like the clerical union SEIU Local 925 began to demand respectful treatment and higher wages for women.
Exactly! There’s a flow between what’s going on in an office and what’s going on in a kitchen, or what’s going on in a public meeting and what’s going on in your bedroom. So women began to make connections between their relationships, say, with boyfriends or husbands, and their relationship with the boss. They began to unlearn things that they had previously learned.

Do you notice that the feminists of today differ from their predecessors?
One difference is that the women of the earlier generation really rejected fashion. When I had my first job, I had to walk a long way to work in very high-heeled shoes, nylon stockings, and short skirts—so I thought it was great when I could start to wear comfortable shoes and pants. And, though I wouldn’t have admitted this if you had asked me at the time, I may have been trying to desexualize myself both to stay safe and to get people to take me seriously. Women of my generation went though a period of being very angry at the fashion and makeup industry for making us spend all that money on trying to think of ourselves as beauty objects, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve really relaxed about that. These younger generations of women are saying there’s no reason why we can’t be sexual and also be taken seriously politically and professionally, and I personally think that’s a great thing.

“Feminism” is such a controversial word these days—people use it to mean so many different things. Did you write this history with a goal of liberating the word from its negative connotations?
On the one hand, I’m a historian, and I would love it if people really understood the history of feminism. I want women to know that if you were transported back in time 100 years, you would be made completely miserable by all the restrictions on you. There are a lot of women who worked really hard to change that, and I want them to get credit. But, on the other hand, I don’t want to fetishize the word “feminism”—I’m much more interested in the program, the positions people actually support. Polls sometimes ask, “Are you a feminist?” and people will say no. But then if you say, “Well, do you think women should have equal wages? Do you think women should have access to birth control? Do you think men should help with the housework?” the answer to all those questions is often yes. 

Top photo: Women's liberation march from Farragut Square to Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C., 1970. Library of Congress. 

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