I was more than a decade away from being born when Valerie Saiving published her pivotal article, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in the Journal of Religion, critiquing the traditional Christian idea of sin as pride. In a more academic, theological, and less press-savvy way, Saiving was in fact telling women in 1960: Lean in.
Sheryl Sandberg’s recent bestselling book, Lean In, has received its fair share of attention, praise, and substantial critique. I’d read a whole lot of that before I read the book itself. I did wait to offer up my own take on it until after I’d read it, however, unlike some others.
Jessica Valenti sums up some of the criticism Sandberg has received:
There are certainly substantive critiques to be made about Sandberg’s book. “Lean In” is mostly tailored for married women with children and may not resonate with women who aren’t upper-middle-class or elite, something Sandberg acknowledges up front: “The vast majority of women are not looking to lead in the workplace, but are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families.”
Critics have also knocked Sandberg for putting the onus on women to lift themselves up, rather than blaming society for being sexist. But in her book, she frequently identifies how internal and external forces keep women from advancing in their careers. She also supports structural change, citing economic inequalities, discrimination, and the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child care as problems that need to be addressed.
So I agree that Lean In has a narrow focus, but I do not think it has a narrow relevance. It’s a message that’s almost so basic and fundamental (and true) that some people might miss the point:
Patriarchal society tells women to sit back, stay quiet, and underestimate themselves. Women! Stop doing that!
Or, to put it another way, women under patriarchy have internalized sexism, thus contributing to the external barriers that prevent them from achieving greater social and political power. Stop doing that.
In 1960, Saiving noted something equally as simple, but also as revolutionary when it came to a religion: The Christian tradition insists that the fundamental human flaw (sin) is pride … too much of a sense of self. “Sin is the self’s attempt to overcome that anxiety by magnifying its own power, righteousness, or knowledge.” The tradition insists that there is virtue in humility, in submitting to (a male) God, and in giving up one’s excessive focus on self to serve others.
She went on: For women under patriarchy, the fundamental human flaw (sin) is selflessness … giving up of herself and subsuming her needs to everyone else’s: “surrendering her individual concerns in order to serve the immediate needs of others.” Under patriarchy, “the problem” for men and “the problem” for women are not at all the same thing. The theological assessment and corrective, therefore, ought not be the same either.
In 1960, this essay sparked a renewed vitality for generations of Christian feminist theological and biblical scholarship that was critical of classical ideas as well as constructively offering new inclusive proposals and models.
And its message for women in 1960 was in some measure the same as Sandberg’s: Lean in. Don’t be quiet when doing so simply benefits the male-power-elite. Claim a space at the table. Carve out a place in the religion. Take yourself seriously as (to use Saiving’s Christian theological language) a person created in the image of God, fully worthy as any man, and valued for who you are.
Women in patriarchal workplaces, educational institutions, churches, governments, and communities do support their own subjection when they do what the male power structure says they should do: stay quiet, accept less pay, prioritize other peoples’ needs over their own, disbelieve that their own gender can fully re-present the divine. Valerie Saiving started this conversation back in 1960.
So Sandberg’s advice isn’t new. Not by a long shot.
Why is it so controversial?
Because it’s so obviously still needed.