Why you should care
Because the new-agey version of Lean In came out about 22 years ago. And it was a best-seller, too.
No matter how well-intentioned the messages may be, the pile of corporate self-help slash new-feminist tomes out in the last year — from Lean In to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive — aren’t exactly the new kind of femanifesto I’d like for my generation. Call it an aesthetic aversion to boardroom-speak or a pebble in my shoe, but the new pundits leave me asking, “If you think you had it this bad on the way to the top — isn’t it way worse down on the lower rungs of the ladder?”
Which is why I’ve made a historical detour to the OGs of second-wave feminism. Namely, to the working-class born, Vietnam-protesting, activist and journalist Gloria Steinem. First down a few of her famously incendiary essays; then take on her 1992 half-memoir-half-self-help-manual, The Revolution From Within: A Book of Self Esteem. If you missed it the first time around — or weren’t yet sentient (ahem, my fellow new-to-the-workforce millennials) — it’s worth a trip.
Where Sandberg’s and Huffington’s books taste like corporate principles with a dash of TED talks, Steinem reads more like the zany Zen woman who teaches your yoga class.
Where Sandberg’s and Huffington’s books taste like corporate principles with a dash of TED talks, Steinem reads more like the zany Zen woman who teaches your yoga class. She says things like “reconnecting with nature in an immediate sensual way” without irony. It’s nurture in place of boardroom mentorship; it feels intimate, but also flawed — as though the womb of reflection her book creates might not exist in real life. Twenty-two years later, despite the missteps, Revolution is familiar, and most importantly, felt.
Not unlike the corner-office women dominating today’s conversation, then 60-year-old Steinem starts by explaining her neglect of her own “I” in favor of a larger “we.” She’d turned her energies outward, she says — toward activism, politics and journalism — and neglected introspection, and therefore her own sense of self-assurance. Like the confidence cheerleaders of today, Steinem sets out to correct that in a book that appealingly combines sociology with personal history.
The first-person recollections are entrancing, as when Steinem considers her youth in working-class Toledo, Ohio:
Anxious not to lock herself in a glass cage of privilege and acutely aware of the “white middle class” label that could undercut mainstream feminist writing, Steinem wrote with a hunger to prove that her “I” was the “we.” There’s an idealistic conviction throughout: that fixing individual psychology fixes group psychology, which fixes democracy and nations and the environment and the world.
“My teenage self had been totally consumed with escaping … [which] kept us from focusing on our probable fates as lifetime factory workers who rebelled only on weekends, or homemakers who played pinochle, went bowling, and sometimes got a beating on Saturday nights.”
Revolution came out when the stakes of the feminist conversation in the U.S. were high. It had been 19 years since Roe v. Wade, but it was the same year that the Supreme Court argued Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which nearly overturned Roe. When Steinem sat down to write Revolution, she hadn’t broken glass ceilings so much as thrown rocks at them: She’d posed as a Playboy Bunny, wondered publicly what life would be like if men could menstruate, and studied community organizing from Gandhi’s followers. Which makes it all the more fascinating that the rabble-rousing Steinem — who invented the phrase “reproductive freedom” and who never backed down from a fight — published not another political outcry that year but a soft, musing memoir.
And yet, just like Sandberg, the subversive Steinem had trouble convincing people that the memoir part of the volume had much, if any, connection to her political declarations.
The enormous, sweeping strokes of her thesis earned her criticism. They called it new age psychobabble; they said it lacked causality.
Fellow feminist and editor of liberal Mother Jones magazine, Deirdre English, wrote in her review:
It’s the same battle Sandberg has faced in the press — the assertion that her book’s focus on the self neglects political change (and to be fair: Sandberg’s work isn’t anything like the organizing-activisting Steinem’s). If you dropped the two books and their resulting criticism into a freshman English class, you could go for ages: These two tomes speak different cultural languages, but revolve on the crux of one core point — that self-help is societal help.
“To improve the lot of America’s women, the pressing need is not an ever greater focus on the self. More good will come from swapping ideas about how to force employers to pay attention to women’s needs, how to handle sex discrimination and harassment situations, how to get ahead despite the obstacles of sexism.”
Still, Revolution resonated for many women, selling 200,000 copies its first month, and becoming a best-seller. And its advice is veritable chicken soup for the literary soul. For instance: Write journal entries with your “wrong” hand to think slower and more deliberately. Don’t think of love as “happily ever after” but “honor its coming / with all my heart” (Alice Walker).
Which means I’ll take my Steinem any day, because I prefer my introspective feminism with a dash of poetry and protest. But the most important element? Practicality. Summed up in a motto Steinem sees pinned to the fridge of an old friend in her Toledo hometown:
“Free your mind — so your ass can follow.”