Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan described the suburban woman as the unhappy housewife. She lacked challenging choices. Her abilities and identities were attached to her kitchen. She could whip up sour cream and artichoke dips in a flash in an up-to-date kitchen with a refrigerator, range and blender in coordinated shades of peach, tan and aquamarine, but you could hear growing laments of discontent as the purr became a growl. The “woman of the house” became a frazzled chauffeur carpooling kids to school, baseball games and ballet classes in a station wagon that Detroit stripped of the wood that once suggested “class” in country living.
While an older generation of women were happy to have their husbands pay all the bills, the younger college graduates grew restless. Intellectual and emotional frustrations were exacerbated by pervasive and thoughtless male chauvinism. The desperate housewives of yore yearned for more, and turned against the generation of stay-at-home moms.
Second-wave feminism — following the suffragettes of 50 years earlier — pitted feminists against traditionalists. Conscious-raising groups attacked “Mad Men” husbands and their male bosses who seemed to have all the fun, dictating to the women in their lives.
Fast-forward to 2013. Kale in Gorgonzola swirls has replaced artichoke dips as the appetizer of choice of working women, who pick it up on the way home at the organic market with a carry-out deli. Liberated women won the fight for education and the right to work at careers previously closed to them, but now, having deserted the green grass of suburbia for the grim concrete of the city, they’ve encountered a new obstacle: Few get a room with the view from the top of the executive suite.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., wants to change that, to become the Betty Friedan of her generation, tapping into the dissatisfaction of contemporary women who feel stunted in both work and ambition. She has written what could be called “The Male Mystique,” eager to shape female psychology in the mold of male power. “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” is about how women must learn to act like men if they want to succeed in business. She exhorts women to assert the aggressiveness that earlier feminists railed against in men.
“Lean in” both animates and intimidates women to ask themselves: “How can I do better?” “What am I doing that I don’t know?” “What am I not doing that I don’t see?”
I suggest another question: “Is this how I want to spend my life?” The more women take the measure of their lives from men, the more they seem to lose out on essentials important to women — who we really are and who we really want to be.
That’s certainly what Anne-Marie Slaughter thought when she quit a high-level policy job at the State Department because her two teenage sons needed her. She wrote a much-circulated and much-criticized article in The Atlantic magazine, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Hillary Rodham Clinton observed that women whining often reflected unhappiness with their choices. “Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you need to work at these jobs,” she told an interviewer, contributing a little common sense into the discussion.
Ms. Sandberg doesn’t whine, although she writes and talks about her doubts and vulnerabilities, including how she sometimes cried when she earlier worked at Google Inc. Such flourishes of insecurity sound more decorative than substantive, an author’s empathetic manipulation to get her audience to lean in. But let’s face it, at Facebook, like other corporations, it takes exceedingly exceptional people with enormous drive to make it to the top, as she has. Although she displays her admiration for President Obama (she hosted a fundraiser for him at her home at $38,500 a plate), this book isn’t written for “Julia,” the president’s fictional campaign character who would be taken care of by the state from cradle to grave.
Feminism and femininity alternate through different social stages, as politics and the popular culture continue to remind us. The flappers followed the suffragettes, after all. The glamorous world of “Sex and the City” at the end of the 1990s told the stories of four beautiful career women looking for love in Manhattan in Versace and Jimmy Choo. In 2013, the acclaimed HBO series “Girls” depicts four women, all with good educations, who are constantly disappointed as their sexual “hookups” and work are reduced to degrading and decadent adventures. Fifty years ago, women talked to each other about “The Joy of Cooking”; their daughters read and talked about “The Joy of Sex.” Now their daughters’ daughters are told to look for “the joy of the job.”
In real life, alas, there isn’t a primer for how to make the right choices. The latest feminist prescription to aim higher will be tested by many women, but as Ms. Sandberg concedes, success like hers depends a lot on luck, just as it does for a man. It’s important to figure out which way to lean.
Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.