Leaning In and Falling Over: Failures of Mainstream Feminism
After I graduated from university, full of inspiration and dreams for the future, I tried "leaning in." I did all the stuff you’re supposed to do. I tried "networking." I revised my CV a million times and sent it off everywhere. I slept on my sister's floor for seven days so I could do a work experience week that pushed me to my health limits and left me out of money. I did a course for unemployed graduates (again pushing my health to the limit) that promised a work experience opportunity -- which never materialized.
I applied for job after job after job, any job. I got nowhere, and I was at one if the lowest points with depression I’d been in for years. I thought it must be because if me, because I’m rubbish, because I hadn’t done enough in university or school despite being ill, because I wasn’t trying hard enough. That’s what all this neo-liberal "lean in" bollocks makes you feel: a failure. I kept "leaning in," but I just fell flat on my face.
Then I started to read, to engage with new people and ideas online, and I began to see most of this wasn’t my fault. The recession wasn’t my fault. The disablism and prejudice of employers was not my fault. The fact I had little experience due to illness wasn’t my fault. The fact I just COULDN’T do things I thought I was supposed to do wasn’t my fault. It wasn‘t a personal moral failing that I couldn’t physically or mentally cope with this "work hard at all costs" ethic, that I wasn’t born rich enough to fund myself through lengthy internships and postgraduate education, that I didn’t mix in the right social circles, or know anyone who did, to "network." (Though I did score my only job to date at nearly 30 years old through nepotism, so perhaps I leaned in a bit -- but parents, why can’t you know people who offer secure, well-paying work? Damn you and your vocational, socially conscious careers!)
New phrases like "structural oppression" started to make sense. I’m still in a precarious place with employment and with health, but I no longer see being unable to do things due to circumstances beyond my control as a "personal failure" or "not trying hard enough," so I don’t beat myself up about it. My health means I will probably never be able to go after a full-time career or even be able to support myself through work without claiming benefits. Very little in these "lean in"-type discussions caters to this, the reality of people who CAN’T work or who can’t work enough.
How is someone who can’t work supposed to lean into being a career woman? Where is lean in when it comes to demanding support for women who can’t work? Where is corporate faux feminism in defining the welfare state, social security, access to healthcare, education, social care, housing, food, the most basic level of sustenance, the right to be supported and respected as a human being even if you never work a day in your life or you spend your working life cleaning up the shit of women who have successfully "leaned in" and whose very "leaning in" depends on your underpaid and underappreciated labor? Do they ever thank you for it? Do they even notice the existence of these women?
As bell hooks says in her essay, "Dig Deep; Beyond Lean In":
“Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system.”
Which is exactly the problem with it: The existing social system CANNOT offer equality to everyone, it depends on inequality. Offering "equality" to a few token women is not equality. I recognize I am privileged in many ways. I’m white, middle class, have had access to education, and have a supportive family, yet I am not going to apologize for the fact that being disabled puts many barriers in my way that I can’t magically overcome with the powers of inspiration porn. Yet I am constantly bombarded by shit like " the only disability is a bad attitude," or told I am "bitter" or "lazy" for acknowledging the fact my illnesses have fucked up my career and life opportunities. Or it is assumed I should throw my weight behind "feminist" campaigns and campaigners who do not acknowledge the difficulties women like me face, that if I don’t, I am being "divisive" and "rude" to challenge why certain strands of feminism claim to be for "all women," but ignore the voices of so many.