Feminism, class, and the problem of privilege: Gloria Feldt responds to Reel Girl

In defense of Sheryl Sandberg’s much maligned Lean In, I compared the book to No Excuses by former President of Planned Parenthood, Gloria Feldt. That book, which I read a couple years ago, has a similar thesis. It focuses on strategies that can help women succeed in the workplace, and it debuted with no feminist uproar.

Feldt responded to Reel Girl’s post:

Thanks for making the comparison between my book and Sheryl’s. You hit the nail on the head in many ways. I’d just like to say for the record that since my goal is to move women forward toward parity in top leadership positions, I’m thrilled that a woman like Sheryl in a powerful corporate position is so willing to say these things.

She and I have discussed that there is a need to be able to work in the system and to change it. I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.

And I’m doing it again with Take The Lead (www.taketheleadwomen.com) if anyone wants to check it out and possibly hop on board to help us reach leadership gender parity by 2025.


Here is my comment back to Gloria.

Dear Gloria,

Thank you for your comment to Reel Girl. I’m grateful for your long career in helping women and happy that you wrote No Excuses which I learned so much from. I appreciate your support of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, though in some ways, your email perpetuates a misconception about “sides” that I want to address. You write:

 I tend to come down more on the side of changing the system, but then movement building has been my career.


There are no sides here. Women can’t change the sexist system if they the lack basic skills do so. This may not seem like a huge deal in your comment, but this schism is presented and replicated all over the media when discussing Sandberg’s book, just last Sunday again on “60 Minutes,” and it can be distorting.

In 1998, When I was 28, I cofounded the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership to address this lack of skills and also, the class divide in feminism. So many young women, including me, had big dreams, but little idea as to the practical tools of how to achieve them. It was like we’d missed out on a basic training course that the men had taken.

Woodhull’s mission was to train women ages 22 – 35 in the skills they too often lacked. We saw this age period as crucial for women to lay the ground work for successful careers, a time where they needed support and training that they weren’t getting. There weren’t non-profits that focused on career development of this demographic, so we created Woodhull.

Modules at Woodhull included: media training, negotiation, advocacy, how to get published, financial literacy, how to write a business plan, and public speaking. Every Woodhull module included a component on ethics. There’s no point in becoming a leader if you can’t be an ethical one, give back, help people, and do your part to change the world for the better.

Woodhull also provided graduates with an on-going support network and mentorship. Woodhull graduates include Lateefah Simon, who went on to become a MacArthur Genius, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who went on to co-found Miss Representation, and Courtney Martin, who went on to publish  Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, among many other Woodhull success stories.

Woodhull ran into challenges raising money. Foundations wanted to give money to non-profits that served 100% inner city/ low income women. Even when 2/3 of Woodhull constituents came from inner city/ low income and were scholarshipped, foundations weren’t interested in that ratio. Woodhull didn’t want to adapt to funders, because part of the reason Woodhull was founded was to bridge the class divide. Women who came to Woodhull valued that diversity. Many said they had no other place to address class differences and similarities openly and to learn from each other. Again and again, we witnessed that young women, across the board, whether from the richest or poorest families, didn’t know basic financial literacy or had difficulty receiving applause without flinching.

Then and now, I’ve got to wonder: When women with access to money and power aren’t achieving, how does that affect all women? Where are women in power? Why are they so invisible? How can we change that? What happens when a rare woman gets to the top, writes a book about her view from up there, and gets attacked for it? As Gloria Steinem wrote, “Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.”

You don’t get much more privileged by birth in America than me. My great-grandfather was Charles Merrill, the founder of Merrill Lynch. He was an early investor in Safeway stores, and my grandfather became CEO of that company, building it into the world’s largest supermarket chain. My father was also a CEO of Safeway until he left the company to buy the San Francisco Giants. I think that part of the reason I became a feminist so early is because in the world that I grew up in, the gender disparity was huge. Sometimes it seemed like all of the men were running the world and all of the women were dieting.

Following my college graduation, many of the privileged men I had grown up with went on to start their own companies, open restaurants, publish novels, and produce films. Most of the women I knew, who were smart, creative, and had a sincere desire to have a positive impact on society, took low-paying, low status jobs for big corporations or non-profits.

What I also noticed in these women, and not the men, and an issue that you address in No Excuses, was a profound ambivalence towards success and power, basically what it means to be successful and powerful as a woman in America. For all of these reasons, I founded Woodhull.

The class divide among women, whether it manifests as the stay-at-home vs working mommy wars or feminists against Sheryl Sandberg, is the major challenge keeping women from achieving parity. Even the foundation and non-profit worlds systemically reinforce this fatal gap. If women can’t bridge the class divide, we’ll stay stuck, but if we can overcome it, nothing will stop us.

I can’t wait to check out www.taketheleadwomen.com


Margot Magowan

Gloria Steinem gives thumbs up to Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’

Today, in response to the massive criticism from feminists and others that Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg is too privileged to give career advice to women, Gloria Steinem posts on her Facebook page:

Having read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, I can testify that it addresses internalized oppression, opposes the external barriers that create it, and urges women to support each other to fight both. It argues not only for women’s equality in the workplace, but men’s equality in home-care and child-rearing. Even its critics are making a deep if inadvertent point: Only in women is success viewed as a barrier to giving advice.




YAY Gloria. I fucking love Gloria Steinem.

I haven’t read “Lean In” yet, and I don’t know much about Sandberg, but the vitriol directed at her has rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe Sandberg’s advice won’t apply to you, won’t help you, and won’t affect you, but maybe, it will. Here’s a woman who is writing a book telling you how she got to the top, what it looks like up there, and what her advice to you would be. Not many women get that vantage point, not to mention write about it. Maybe the negative reaction to Sandberg’s book is part of the reason why. This book is based on her experience. Maybe she sounds a little controlling in her directions about how you should apply it to your life. But you’re a big girl. Use your discretion.


If your fear is that, as I’ve read, that companies, elected officials, whomever, will quote Sandberg to prove the problem here is all women’s fault, and not institutionalized sexism, they might. People often misuse information and take quotes out of context to further their own purpose. Do you think any writer would be able to write anything if she had to analyze all of the ways that someone might manipulate and misuse her information? If Sheryl Sandberg had to do that, she’d never write a book. No one would.

I will be buying “Lean In” and after I read it, I’ll let you know what I think. I hope you do the same.


The New York Times and The Washington Post quoted Sheryl Sandberg out of context, making her look like a spoiled brat. The New York Times printed a correction. The Washington Post has not.

The quote, printed in both publications and then all around the web, has Sandberg saying: “I always thought I would run a social movement.”

Obnoxious, right? The woman who has everything now wants a social movement as her new toy. How pretentious and demeaning of the little people can you get? What a bitch.

The Washington Post piece is headlined:

Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ campaign holds little for most women

Here’s the lede:

”She had it all — a husband, children, a beautiful home, a seat on the board of a billion-dollar company, a nine-figure net worth of her own. But there was one thing Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have. “I always thought I would run a social movement,” Sandberg said in the PBS/AOL documentary series “Makers.”


While checking the links for the blog above, I noticed a correction had been added to the two (Jodi Kanor’s and Maureen Dowd’s) NYT pieces. Here it is.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 26, 2013

An article on Friday about efforts by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, to start a national discussion and movement to help women excel in the workplace quoted incompletely from an interview she gave for “Makers,” a new documentary on feminist history. In a video excerpt, which accompanied the article online, she said: “I always thought I would run a social movement, which meant basically work at a nonprofit. I never thought I’d work in the corporate sector.” She did not merely say, “I always thought I would run a social movement.” Maureen Dowd’s column on Sunday, about Ms. Sandberg’s plans, repeated the incomplete quotation from the news article. The article also referred imprecisely to the location of a book party planned for Ms. Sandberg. While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will host the party, he will do so at the offices of the Bloomberg Foundation, on East 78th Street — not at his private residence a block away.

Ah, Sandberg wasn’t saying she wants a new toy. When she was being interviewed about her career, she explained that she always thought that she would work at a non-profit and not in the private sector.

Still, apparently, the Washington Post feels no need to make a correction to the article.

It’s ironic that feminists and social activists are so concerned that quotes from Sandberg‘s book will be misused and pulled out of context, yet that’s just what they’re doing all over the internet to Sandberg.