I wrote A Woman’s De-Liberation: There Never Was a Sexual Revolution in stupefied disbelief that Sheryl Sandberg, the successful and highly educated woman at the COO helm of the legendary FaceBook, would write Lean In, a modern feminist call-to-arms, in which she essentially claims that women, individually and collectively, are not occupying their rightful place at the top of the business world next to men because they do not know how to use their negotiating skills to their professional advantage.
This assertion flies in the face of what I have personally witnessed in business over the course of the last 35 years of my life, during which time I have seen scores of brilliant, visionary and highly assertive women be turned down repeatedly for seats at the top for reasons that have nothing to do with their lack of skill or their unwillingness to be assertive, and everything to do with the massive support structure that men provide one another…a support structure that is unavailable to women because there simply are not enough of them in top management to provide a supportive structure for other women coming up the ladder.
When I was growing up I watched with a mixture of envy, awe and anger the tightly knit and organized infrastructure that encouraged my older brother’s life. Much of the considerable mentoring and tutelage about survival skills that he received came from the numerous sports he enjoyed – baseball, football, rugby, basketball and scuba diving. Boys learn, at a very early age, to work together, to compete with one another, to fight with one another, and to help one another even if they don’t like one another, and, when all is said and done, to end their days joking in the locker room or having a beer at the corner bar no matter what transpired during the course of their sporting or business days. Life, for men, is a smorgasbord of argument and camaraderie spiced with deal making and money.
For girls and women, on the other hand, life is often an agonizing choice between two competing concepts, each with its own cliquish heirarchy – that of chosing between fitting into the marriage and mothering world, or of slogging down the often solitary and mine-strewn road of being a woman in business. Men have never had to choose between one or the other. It is assumed that a man will marry, raise children, work, and become successful. In contrast, a woman will have to choose which of these endeavors she will indulge, for the only assumption about a woman’s life is that she will never be able to manage marriage and children along with the demands of a successful career.
Is this because women do not ask for, demand or expect to get what they want and need for their lives? Or is it because the world has been run by men for such a long time that the very infrastructure needs to change in order for women to have more fully enriched and balanced lives? Or is it perhaps because women do not have the time, when all is said and done, to help one another rise to the top? The following essay is a personal look at some of the issues I have faced during my own creative and professional career(s).
(A Woman’s De-Liberation: There Never Was a Sexual Revolution, © Giselle Minoli, was originally published in SynaptIQ+ The Journal for Social Era Knowledge, Spring 2013.)
In the New York Times on February 18, 2013, in an article entitled Criticisms of a Classic Abound, Jennifer Schuessler revealed that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had begun its life as a book proposal circulated at W.W. Norton in early 1959, a full four years before its publication in February 1963. Struck by that pre-60s timeframe, I flashed back to the reality of my own life in early 1959 (I had just turned five) and thought about the number of years it would take me to develop any kind of intellectual, philosophical or political awareness that there was such a thing as the Second Wave of Feminism, which Friedan’s book was credited with initiating. As best I could recollect, a vague awareness of the Great Conversation about Feminism began to creep into my life when I was around 15 years old.
My reminiscence began with the fact that by early July, 1959, my father would be dead, an event that left my mother, an intelligent but formally uneducated woman, who had been out of the work force since the end of World War II, with three young children, ranging from 18 months to seven years old, to support. My extremely well educated father, a suspected communist, had been blacklisted in 1951, which effectively put an end to his work as an architect and civil engineer. There was therefore no health or life insurance, nor any other nest egg to cushion the blow of his death. The only thing that provided shelter against the emotional and financial turmoil that followed was the simple house in which we lived, which my father had built with his own hands. At least my mother didn’t have a huge mortgage with which to contend, but that grace was not enough to save her from having to figure out how to clothe us, put gas in the car and food on the table, not an easy task for a woman who had not worked outside the home for nearly 15 years.
Four years later, the publication in 1963 of Friedan’s tome about female emancipation would neatly coincide with the early days of the Swinging Sixties, those revolutionary counterculture years when anti-War demonstrators, hippies, flower children and feminists were running wild, barefoot and nearly naked in the streets, and everyone was (supposedly) having sex, sex and more sex.
Everyone, it seemed, except my mother, who, at 48 years old, was cleaning the houses of financially well off women to make ends meet. Cleaning toilets for a living does not an emancipated life make, nor were my mother’s rubber gloved hands–continually immersed in soapy pails of water–likely to arouse the dreams of sexual liberation that were being discussed in the growing feminist community, which had, for the most part, declared the prosaic daily duties of mothering and housewifery decidedly at odds with any sort of sexual dynamism.
I was ten when The Feminine Mystique finally hit bookstores, and my mother, mobilizing her skills as a stenographer and typist (she had worked as a teletype operator during World War II), had managed to land a job as a secretary at the American Red Cross, which, though it certainly freed her from the humiliation of having to clean other women’s homes, effectively chained her for the rest of her working life to a desk job working for low pay for a male boss. She would leave for the office at approximately 7:45 every morning and not return until approximately 5:15 in the evening, at which time she fully expected that I, as her eldest daughter, would have done that which she had always done when Dad was alive–the laundry, the ironing, the housework, including the initial preparation for the family dinner and cleaning up afterward. As the years went by almost all the cooking fell to me, and only after everything domestic had been taken care of could I tackle my homework and go to bed.
I did have an older brother, who had been given a mysterious pass when it came to doing any household chores. His afterschool life was a richly sportif one, while mine was hopelessly bogged down in housework. I hadn’t needed to travel far to be introduced to the inequality between the sexes–I had met its miserable and unfair acquaintance under my own roof, sanctioned by my own mother. In her defense, she was merely passing on to her eldest daughter what had been passed on to her, for her own father had died when she was seven and she was simply asking of me what had been asked of her. My mother’s assumption that I would take her place as homemaker while she became the breadwinner was not what mystified me. Rather, it was my older brother’s blasé acceptance of that fact, and his willingness to watch his younger sister work so hard while he was doing virtually nothing to help, that galled me no end.
Life was challenging and we had very little money, but my Irish Catholic farm girl mother knew how to roll up her sleeves and get on with it. Nevertheless, the strain of being a single mother would readily show on those not infrequent occasions when we would call her at work, asking her to come home for one reason or another, and she would say that she could not for fear of losing her job.
This was the reality of my mother’s life–of my life–in Northern New Mexico during the Swinging Sixties when women like Betty Friedan (who was educated at Smith and the University of California at Berkeley), Gloria Steinem (also educated at Smith), and Germaine Greer (who received her Ph.D. from Cambridge) were discussing the finer points of feminism and freedom from the drudgery of domestic chores at journalistic and academic round tables across the land. Clearly the representatives of the nascent modern women’s movement hadn’t come knocking at our front door. In fact, they appeared to have missed our street, our town and our Southwestern state altogether.
Indeed, my spontaneously casual review of the women’s movement reminded me that the 221 intervening years between Schuessler’s article and the First Wave of Feminism provoked by the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 seemed to have accounted for very little. Otherwise, in her own book published in March 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of FaceBook, would not have felt compelled to tell women that if they would simply follow her advice and Lean In purposefully to the negotiating table, in fully authoritative voice with their spines straight, they would finally and incontrovertibly be granted their proper place in business, politics and life alongside the men. And be given equal pay for equal work. And magically achieve work/life balance. And be sexual dynamos in bed at the end of their long days in the office. And the spirits of Mary and Betty and all of the deceased feminists who came before Sandberg could rest easy knowing that the future of feminism was now the purview of a corporate female boss rather than the myriad academic scholars who had nurtured the cause since 1792. Hallelujah forever. And Amen once and for all.
I remembered how as a student, I had always had trouble memorizing the dates of a particular event unless I could figure out some emotional connection to the timeline that would hook me into its importance. Reading about Friedan led me to my bookshelf where I kept only four books on Feminism–The Feminine Mystique, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, published in English in 1953 (the French version, Le Deuxième Sexe, was published in 1949), Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, and Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. These four comprised a small section immediately following Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which ended my literary nonfiction section because, while Woolf’s thoughts on what a woman needed to make it as a writer may well have dealt with feminist issues such as having one’s own money, her essay was, to my mind, more grounded in a creative voice rather than the feminist politics that had inspired de Beauvoir, Friedan, Greer and Wollstonecraft.
Standing in front of my bookshelves stuffed with poetry, plays, fiction, literary nonfiction, psychology and spiritual texts, the paltry number of scholarly works on feminism that I owned revealed a disconcerting and gobsmacking truth: I was clearly a pathetic feminist. How was that possible given that I had essentially been born into the movement? Looking at it from a quirkily astrological perspective, the Feminist Planets had virtually lined up to instruct me–Le Deuxième Sexe had been published shortly after my parents were married, and the English version had been published the year I was born, both surely auspicious signs. Finally, when The Female Eunuch was published my senior year in high school (as I was making plans to attend a college from which I would graduate with a degree in Philosophy) Greer had expressed the hope about The Second Wave that, “Among young women in universities the movement might be expected to find strong support.”
Why then had I not been, if not exactly a militant, card-carrying, or even fervent feminist, at least a committed one? Why then had I, a woman for whom the Feminist Planets had so thoughtfully lined up to prepare me for the modern feminist movement, always felt so divorced from, indeed so rejected by, the very principles of feminism? And what were those principles from which I had felt so estranged, such that beyond the few token feminist books I owned, there was no written indication of a lifelong commitment to the cause in my house? After all, my life fairly screamed feminism. I had always supported myself. I had never had children. And I didn’t get married until I was 54.
Having felt robbed of freedom of choice virtually from the day my father died, there was no one in my circle of friends more eager to welcome equality between the sexes than I was. In the small exclusive and experimental girls’ school to which I had been given a scholarship, I was the only girl among my friends without a father, whose mother struggled financially. It wasn’t that I felt different, I was different––my family was not like other families.
This disenfranchisement accompanied me to college, where I was a work/study/financial aid student, in sharp contrast to most of my classmates. I had to work through breaks and vacations the entire four years and I didn’t go on to graduate school because I couldn’t afford to take out any more loans for a higher education. I earned my first official paycheck when I was 14 years old and simply never stopped working. As was the case in the experimental girls’ school from which I graduated, it was not lost on me in college that when we bellied up to the seminar table to discuss War and Peace, we were equal, as students, but the instant we walked out of the classroom back to our dorm rooms, inequality of the ugly financial sort reared its head.
As a result, the women’s movement seemed to me to be a wholly dilettantish club, into which one could gain entrance only if one’s life had been blissfully free of inconvenient events such as FBI investigations and husbands dying suddenly in the wee hours of the morning. Clearly feminism had become the intellectual bailiwick of scholars and journalists–all of these well-educated, well-spoken and clearly well-intentioned women who had the time to write great books about the theories of feminism because they didn’t have to clean toilets for a living while they were raising and feeding young children all by themselves. What, exactly, was a widowed single mother to do? And to whom, exactly, should she complain? The FBI for unfairly blacklisting her husband? The gods for taking her husband from her after only 14 years of marriage?
Although there was significant truth about the repression of women within the pages of Second Wave feminist treatises, I always suspected that Gloria Steinem and friends would have needed smelling salts to get through one of my mother’s days. I had absolutely no time to take to the streets in solidarity with the modern women’s movement because I had to spend all my spare time working to earn money for the clothes and books I would need for college. The voice of the movement would have to be uttered by some co-ed more financially well off than I with free time on her hands.
My ire at the movement only grew when I graduated from college, for reasons that might surprise Sheryl Sandberg. While to some my degree in Philosophy qualified me for few paying work opportunities, I was in fact quite good at fitting into a corporate environment. Following in my mother’s footsteps, after graduation I landed a job as a secretary to the Regional Branch Manager for CBS Records in San Francisco and worked for this at once demanding and fair man for nine months before barging into his office one afternoon and insisting that he hire me for the newly posted position of Regional Field Merchandiser. He bluntly told me that I had no qualifying experience. I was, however, so convinced that I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to–having to multitask at a young age builds confidence–that I told him that if I screwed up he could fire me and he’d never have to see me again. He listened to me and gave me a shot, a decision he didn’t regret because within a year I had won every single local, regional and national Field Merchandising award. I was so good at what I did that I was offered a job as the National Director of Merchandising in New York when I was just 24.
And that is when I lost faith in the movement altogether. I moved to New York on a salary of $30,000 a year, which was a small fortune for a young woman in the late 70s. It wasn’t enough to get me an apartment with a doorman and start a savings account, but I was on my way. That is until the floor fell out from beneath me when I found out that my male predecessor, who had been fired to bring me on board, had been making more than double what I was making to do the same job, although he had done it badly and I was doing it exceedingly well. When I confronted my boss with my discovery he told me, matter-of-factly, that my predecessor was married, had a family to support and a mortgage to pay, and that I didn’t really need the money anyway because my boyfriend could take me out to dinner and buy me clothes and perfume. When I asked him if they would raise my salary to match my predecessor’s if I dumped my boyfriend, got married, had children and bought an apartment, I was told that I should be grateful that I was working in what had always been considered a “man’s job.” In other words, if a woman was working she should count her blessings and not ask for a decent salary and respect on top of it. When I took my complaint to the female head of Human Resources her advice was that if I wanted to keep my job, I should keep my mouth shut.
I continued to be brilliant at my job–something that a woman is never supposed to say about herself–and I have the articles written about my work at CBS to prove it. Nevertheless, it was extremely difficult to take any pride in my success when, walking down the halls of the sales floor in the then male-dominated music business, I would overhear “older” guys jocularly exchanging money and taking bets to see how long I would last. I lasted five and one-half years. Sheryl Sandburg should know that I had Leaned In to the table with the best of the women and the men. I had sat up and stood up straight. I had used my best voice to ask for what I wanted. And last but not least, I was considered an expert at what I did–the Merchandising Department at CBS Records was stronger than when I took over and I had changed the face of merchandising in the music business while I was at it.
None of that made it possible for me to rise any further in the business than I already had, and the reason is that companies are run by human beings, sometimes very flawed and blind, and often prejudiced and angry human beings. One day a woman’s career track can be in the hands of a psychologically healthy and reasonable person like my former boss in San Francisco, and the very next day in the hands of a misogynistic and corporately dangerous individual such as the man for whom I had the great misfortune of working in New York.
The reality of the unpredictable wild card of human behavior is something that de Beauvoir, Greer, Steinem, Freidan and now, unfortunately, Sheryl Sandberg, would like not to admit because it is inconvenient. I would remind Sandberg that her own work history at Google and Facebook, two visionary young companies based on considerable thinking outside of the box, is not the same as having to claw one’s way up the corporate ladder in an old-guard Fortune 500 company. In 2012 only 18 Fortune 500 CEOs were women. Does Sheryl Sandberg really believe that there are only 18 women in the United States of America who have had the courage to Lean In to the table and ask for what they want in a Fortune 500 company?
The truth is that the First and Second Waves of Feminism promised many things beyond women’s suffrage. They promised control over our procreative destinies, the right to an education, the right to compete fairly and equally in the workplace and the promise of equal pay for equal work. Yet the movement’s deeper and far more meaningful subtextual implication was that there would be a true sexual revolution for women…a revolution that has nothing at all to do with sexual intercourse.
A true sexual revolution for women is one that would grant them the freedom to choose to be married or not to be married, without having to listen to accompanying peanut gallery commentary. A true sexual revolution for women is one that would respect a woman’s choice to have children or not without being labeled either a traditionalist or a misfit. A true sexual revolution for women is one that would not blame them for being bestowed with a female biological identity–as though being born a woman were a disease–and one that would proactively help them become fully productive working members of our society, whether they have children or not, if that is what they choose.
This revolution, this true sexual revolution, has not happened and it cannot happen as long as the discussion about feminism is divorced from the real life experiences of working women. Just because a woman has a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies does not mean she knows anything about the grass roots’ struggle for equality and parity in life, in marriage, in the workplace. Neither Greer, nor de Beauvoir, nor Friedan, nor Sandberg can write a successful book and start a successful Third Wave Feminist Movement if the Silent Disclaimer says: None of the principles put forth in this book will be applicable if a woman’s upbringing, education, work environment and marriage are not composed of well-adjusted, intelligent individuals who are free of prejudices, jealousies and destructive belief systems.
At the end of my Feminist Reverie, my attention was drawn to two books next to the abridged section on feminist books, Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope, both by Barack Obama. He seemed to me to be the only public person who has talked about the issues that women face in a non-intellectual, non ivory-tower way. When running for President, he often spoke about the challenges his own mother faced while raising her children and pursuing her education and career. I wondered whether he had ever read A Room of One’s Own. I felt sure he would have understood Woolf’s words about a woman poet’s unfulfilled creative destiny,
“She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.”
Perhaps the modern wave of feminism should have as its champion a man who understands working mothers…because he was raised by, and is married to, a working mother.
(The online version of A Woman’s De-Liberation: There Never Was a Sexual Revolution, © Giselle Minoli, can be read online at SynaptIQ+ The Journal for Social Era Knowledge, published by SynaptIQ+, The think tank for social era knowledge. ®)