I grew up among sisters, both biological ones and those with whom I’ve felt common cause. They’re often women I don’t know, but whose lives I think I know something about. Of course, ‘sister’ is how second wave feminists, and sometimes even women who don’t call themselves feminists at all, refer to each other, and it’s meant to denote an essential interconnectedness and mutual support. For instance, a ‘sister’ would never steal someone else’s husband, or overlook a talented female colleague because she feels threatened by her, or cross the picket line of a strike for equal pay or better working conditions.

But the truth is that as someone who has real sisters alongside this putative army of symbolic sisters, the symbolic sisterhood often doesn’t feel very sisterly to me. No, it feels a lot more like the cops, there to protect you occasionally but just as quick to lock you up when you transgress.

Take a look at the furore surrounding Can Women Have it All: The Myth of Work-Life Balance, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article that appeared last summer in The Atlantic Monthly in which she argues that women can’t, in fact, ‘have it all.’ In the piece, Slaughter – who was the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department – tells us why she couldn’t, and concludes that if someone as privileged as she can’t, then it must be pretty much impossible for women who aren’t ‘superhuman, rich, or self-employed.’

These are controversial assertions so you’d expect a robust debate, and to date the piece has generated 2660 comments on The Atlantic website. But what’s alarming is the backlash. Slaughter tells us that a senior White House colleague expressed horror when she  mentioned the idea of writing the piece, advising Slaughter in effect that her obligation to women she would probably never meet but to whom she would be a role model should trump whatever concerns she had about her role in the lives of her teenage sons. (I can feel the sisters’ fingers twitching on their keyboards about how I chose to construct that last sentence. Ho hum.)

Meanwhile, some accused The Atlantic of conspiring with Slaughter to push a retrograde agenda. ‘A new Atlantic cover peddles one of the most dangerous myths about modern women,’ raged Salon, the ezine that’s cornered the market in liberal piety (and of which I admit to being a regular reader and occasional fan.)

SLAUGHTER’S FALL FROM GRACE

From the sounds of it, Slaughter was no Tiger Mother afflicted by Perfect Madness, but merely a bright, ambitious and sensitive woman who felt her kids were at an age when they needed her around a little more. Nonetheless, her decision to leave a ‘dream job’ in Washington and return to life as a lowly Professor at Princeton so that she could be closer to home, and then to flaunt it in print, was construed as a betrayal of both those who’d helped her get there and those who might follow. In short, her gender was the only filter through which we were permitted to view either Slaughter’s upward career trajectory or her self-inflicted fall from grace.

Slaughter’s piece came to mind recently when I began ploughing through the avalanche of articles in the papers about Lean In, the new book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. I haven’t read it (though I did read an in-depth profile of Sandberg in The New Yorker last year) but Sandberg calls the book ‘a sort of feminist manifesto’, which includes observations such as this one: ‘Fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.’

Sandberg’s book, no doubt filled with outrageous claims like the one you just read, has produced a barrage of indignant ad hominems that can be summed up thusly: ‘how the hell would she know?’ The most entertaining of these comes from The New York Times‘s reliably pithy Maureen Dowd, who wrote off Sandberg as ‘a PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.’ Ouch.

The point that Dowd and Sandberg’s many other detractors are making, of course, is that a woman in her position can’t possibly even know about the challenges other women face, let alone pontificate about how to address them.

WHAT WAS MAUREEN DOWD WEARING?

At the risk of sounding glib, I’d ask you to consider this: aside from a smirk, what was Maureen Dowd wearing when she wrote that sentence? Can the women in Birkenstocks speak for the Prada pack? Or to put it more broadly still, precisely who is the paragon who can ‘speak for women’?

Now I should confess that I disagree with both Slaughter and Sandberg on the work-life balance question. I’m drawn instead to a different analysis altogether. In ‘Why Gender Equality Stalled?’ Stephanie Coontz argues persuasively that women ‘can’t have it all’ because public policy has failed to keep pace with attitudinal shifts that are reflected elsewhere, and which include men. You needn’t look far to find them, either: consider The Good Men Project and the Dad 2.0 Summit in the US, or the Fatherhood Institute here in the UK. Given these changes, Coontz says that ‘not having it all’ is an accommodation to prevailing conditions, not a repudiation of any particular desire.

The critical point is that in making these observations, Coontz challenges an assumption at the heart of the debate about women’s choices – namely, that men can and do have it all. I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb by saying that feminists often tell ourselves that we’re the ones who make the sacrifices. Can we accommodate the idea that men’s choices are constrained too, by cultural pressures about their roles, bosses who think less of them for requesting flex time, the twin burdens of wage stagnation for all but the wealthiest and inflation for everyone, and myriad other concerns? I’m not so sure.

PROFOUND GENERATIONAL HOSTILITY

Admittedly fault lines like these have long existed within feminism. There’s a ton of evidence that during the ‘first wave’ of the women’s movement, working class women felt that their economic status rather than their gender was the most compelling and tangible challenge they faced and that the middle class feminist movement with its obsession with abstract ‘rights’ was out of touch with their lives and concerns. The Sandberg saga tells us that these class-based tensions still exist. I uncovered a parallel phenomenon in an article in Harper’s a couple of years ago, about profound generational hostility amongst women attending the National Organization for Women’s annual conference, which crystallised around a nasty battle over its next president. In short, young feminists didn’t think their old school ‘Moms’ had a clue.

Arguably, these tensions are natural but it strikes me that a movement must feel itself fundamentally besieged if it has no mechanism for absorbing the shocks they produce. I proudly call myself a feminist but I’m often disheartened by how readily we choose self-defeating turf wars aimed at shutting each other up over the pursuit of a more nuanced and multi-faceted vision of what a ‘woman positive’ world might look like. It’s true that not everything is feminist just because someone calls it that. But it’s equally true that feminism isn’t just one thing, and no one owns it. There is no paragon who can speak for women; there are lots of us.

Addendum (26/03/13): while the debate around Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg’s views is pressing and relevant, it nonetheless sits at a slight remove from my own life. Recently, though, I came up against the phenomenon of sister v sister in a more personal and frankly creepy way that perfectly illustrates the distasteful dynamic I’m talking about here.

For a few months, I’ve been following a blog of often thoughtful and sometimes provocative ruminations on feminism and motherhood. Yesterday, I spotted a post about recapturing a sense of our bodies and our sexuality within the identity of being mothers. By the time I got there, the comments had mostly digressed into a nasty discussion of avatars in social media, and why some people use images of their children to represent themselves.

One woman (who ‘confessed’ to being a non-mother) said rather apprehensively that she finds it an odd practice, especially among those she hasn’t seen for a while and whose children she doesn’t know or recognise. She was immediately attacked from all sides – for not really ‘knowing’ her Facebook friends, for judging the women she does know…for having an opinion at all, really, to which she clearly wasn’t entitled as a non-mother.

Sympathetic to her effort, I foolishly stepped in, saying that when I see kiddie avatars in action I sometimes think it suggests a kind of ‘boundarylessness’ or loss of self. Now I expected disagreement, of course, but I hadn’t clocked the ruthlessness with which the blog comments were being policed on a hunt for ‘mother shamers’, ‘selfies’, and other dissenters. In the midst of a discussion about why some people use these avatars, I was told it was ‘presumptuous’ of me to analyse their motivations and chucked in the doghouse alongside Katie Roiphe. In case you don’t know her, Roiphe is the anti-feminist anti-Christ who dared to write about how women ‘disappear’ inside motherhood. (In another comment, Roiphe’s musings were denounced as ‘concern trolling’.)

It turns out that ‘mother shamers’ are those who dare even to wonder aloud if there’s a questionable psychological impetus for using your child’s photo in place of your own (and a whole range of other ‘shaming’ activities, I’m sure). ‘Selfies’ (often one and the same people) are the vain and narcissistic women who – wait for it – use their own photos to represent themselves on their social media profiles. As in, ‘Oh her, she’s a real selfie. She even washes her hair sometimes for God’s sake. Like, who’s looking?’ As the vigilantes tell it, these selfies’ vanity is so profound and their desperation to erase evidence of the physical demands of motherhood so acute that they hire photographers and arrange elaborate photo shoots with make-up and ‘professional lighting’ to create their Facebook profile mug shots.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I made all of this up; if so, you’ll have to take my word for it as I’m reluctant to name and shame a blog some people like. As for me, I was so put off I’ve stopped following it altogether, just as I would any other form of consensus culture with so little tolerance for nuance, let alone outright dissent. No true sister would behave that way, and I’m relieved they’re not mine.

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