Last week I made fun of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for saying in the PBS Maker documentary about the women’s movement that she would not call herself a feminist. Mayer described feminists as women who are “militant” and have a “chip on the shoulder,” which struck me as a pretty unsophisticated portrait. But a few days later I am starting to reconsider. Maybe Mayer’s outdated stereotypes are distracting me from the more interesting question: If someone as smart and successful as Mayer, someone who tours the country speaking to young women, can’t comfortably call herself a feminist, then maybe we need to take her objection seriously. Maybe there is a reason why that PBS documentary was so much better on the history than it was on the modern era. Maybe feminism is a term too freighted with history and it’s time to move on.
Think about it from a purely tactical standpoint. Mayer is exactly the kind of person feminists should want on their team. She is a young CEO in an industry dominated by men—an industry that in many people’s minds stands for the future. Unlike many extremely successful female executives, she has not sacrificed a family life; she is married and has a baby. Yet she has been treated with so much scorn: First women criticized her for saying she did not want to take a maternity leave. Then last week she was mocked for her memo to Yahoo employees that she no longer wanted them to work remotely.
Both these cases highlight the philosophical differences between movement feminists and Mayer. Her critics believe in collective action. Mayer shouldn’t give up her maternity leave because she is setting a bad example, by teaching employers to expect unreasonable levels of commitment from working mothers. What’s good for one sister has to be good for them all. Same for remote work. Yahoo may have some specific corporate reason why calling everyone back to the office is critical at the moment, but Mayer shouldn’t do that because, again, as a strategy, it sets a bad precedent. Mayer, however, does not live in a world where collective action makes sense. She lives in a radical meritocracy, where ideas and strategies survive because they are useful, or successful, or forward thinking in some way.
Mayer more or less agrees with the aims of movement feminists, only she goes about achieving them in unorthodox ways. During her tenure at Google, she took pains to accommodate working mothers, only she did in a way that did not give them special status. (She allowed employees to identify their personal priorities, so a mom could leave early for a kid’s soccer game and a young man with no kids could leave early for a weekly potluck dinner with his old college roommates). She could have passed a special policy for working mothers. But Mayer’s way seems more viable in a world in which men and women compete equally for scholarships and jobs and are moving toward sharing domestic responsibilities, too.
This tension between the individual and the collective is at the heart of the debate over Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” idea. Sandberg is publishing a book of advice to young women executives at the same time as she launches a “consciousness raising” movement complete with specific instructions on how to run lean-in circles. But that kind of collective action feels at odds with the advice in the book. In the book, out next week, Sandberg tells women how to negotiate for higher salaries and promotions, how to nurture their own ambition, how to behave at work if they want to advance. It is all excellent advice, but it’s not the stuff of a consciousness-raising movement. It’s advice for this age of meritocracy, when feminist success largely means professional advancement, one woman at a time. What happens if you’re up against another woman for a promotion? In Sandberg’s world, you go for it.