THE BLOG
03/15/2013 02:17 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

The Rise (Again) of the Celebrity Feminist

Someone recently said to me that the reason something is in the news, what makes it newsworthy, is the huge chance that it won't happen to you. For example, most people, thank God, will not be shot in a shopping mall or a school, will not die when a sinkhole takes their bedroom, and will not end up in the hospital with the flesh-eating bacteria. And conversely, most people won't win the lottery or find a suitcase full of thousands of dollars or publish a best-selling novel or win an Oscar. When those bad or good things happen they make the news.

And while one in four women will get raped in her lifetime and one in eight will get breast cancer, the chance that a woman will become a high level corporate executive like Melissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg is miniscule. Women hold only 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions.

Which is why Mayer and Sandberg are in the news. They are aberrations. And why this ginned up "fight" among feminists about those women is just that: ginned up by the news of two women who aren't like most of us. They are celebrity feminists, long after Gloria Steinem became one of the first, 40 years ago.

I have already written about Mayer's new rules for Yahoo and how she ignores class divides. But now Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg graces the cover of Time with a tagline taken from a hair color advertisement. We are admonished not to hate her because she is "successful."

But we don't hate her; we don't hate Marissa Mayer, either. We are also not jealous. We are just weary at having to defend ourselves against such accusations. I think most women who came to feminism during the second wave are pretty exhausted in general. We are exhausted by the years of trying not just to break through an almost unbreakable glass ceiling but by trying to reframe women's issues as society's issues. And because we should be farther along -- all of us, men and women -- than we are at this moment. We are tired. But we can't stop worrying about our place in the world because the generations coming up behind us find themselves having to either justify or deny their feminism.

It is swell that at 43 Sandberg finally admitted she is a feminist. But I'm not at all sure her book says anything particularly new or noteworthy. From the excerpts I have read and the interviews she has given she is basically saying that we have to get out of our own way, support each other, and try to form enlightened relationships with the men with whom we wish to start a family. Which is what we long-time feminists have been saying and doing for years. Even as we are forced to fight old battles over and over again.

According to the article on Sandberg in Time, she wishes to "reboot" feminism. Which would be charming were it really necessary. Perhaps her coming to feminism late makes her think that women haven't been busting their asses for equality every day for the past 50 years. Because they have. Ask any ordinary woman (and I mean someone who makes under a half-million a year) who has long been trying to juggle a career and motherhood. Ask Lilly Ledbetter, the catalyst for President Obama signing the Fair Pay Act of 2009. Ask all those millions of women who lobbied for years for the still-not-ratified ERA. Who marched in the street. The only "new" think that Sandberg offers is an admonishment to "lean" into power. As if that were as easy as it sounds.

Sandberg worries that women aren't working hard enough to get to the top.

According to Time article : "Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions," she writes (in her book Lean In). It's not exactly that they're to blame, she notes. Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There's an ambition gap, and it's wreaking havoc on women's ability to advance. "My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment."

But assuming women don't want and fight for power is akin to assuming that all things are equal which would be the same as assuming that black people don't suffer from prejudice and an unfair court system, and that poor people need only to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to get rich. I can't find any evidence that women don't want to be in positions of power. What women want is a society that allows us to try and rise, while supporting the idea that we can also raise families. What we want is a society where women in power are no longer an aberration and where those women who have it don't divide their press time with men who are trying to take it away.

The fact that we have no paid maternity leave (unlike much of Europe) and no universal health care is part of the reason we can't get ahead as fast as we might like. There is also, despite Ledbetter, too many professions where women are paid less than men for the same job. It is not quite as simple as demanding raises. I well remember the concern that women not be too aggressive, even as we were encouraged to take "assertiveness" training. Same old same old: are women bitchy or tough? It all depends on who is in charge.

Sandberg also states that women are critical of successful women and points to the articles about Marissa Mayer and her new rules at Yahoo as an example. But that isn't it. As I wrote, women are not critical of Meyer's success, they are critical of the way she denies the experiences of other women and uses her own privilege to make her life stunningly more easy than is possible for 99 percent of other women.

I think we are all tired of the fact that feminism still needs to be discussed at all. That it took Sandberg until age 43 to admit to being one. That people still have issues with the word. That we can still be called names by right-wingers in Congress and on the radio just for trying to get ahead. We are not a post-racial society, we are not a post-prejudice society, and we certainly are not a society where women have equal status. If we were then there would not be a raft of stories about how there are finally 20 women (out of 100) senators. Househusbands would not be written about as if they were modern miracles. And Sandberg and Mayer would not be getting the publicity they are, decades after Gloria Steinem got similar publicity and was roundly criticized for it. She was also charged with being beautiful -- as if beauty and feminism contradict each other.

Sandberg is still a rare bird. So is Mayer. If they weren't, we wouldn't be reading about everything they say and every decision they make, as though they were the Kardashians or Snookie. They are celebrities, celebrity women, whose philosophy, feminist or not, is getting the same kind of press that a woman star's wardrobe malfunction gets. Sensationalist. Gossipy. What a few women who have achieved extraordinary success have to say is important only if they take measures to make sure that their own success is no longer so extraordinary. It will be a fine day indeed, and a huge gain for both men and women, when women who achieve are not a dog bites man story but rather not big news at all.

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.