Lynne Huffer's Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg on her Advice to Working Women

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In an essay for Al Jazeera , Lynne Huffer, author of Are the Lips a Grave writes an open letter to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook corporation.

Huffer considers the suggestions to rise up the corporate ladder from Sandberg’s new book, Lean In and charts the trajectory of feminism that has dramatically improved the lives of working women over the past few decades.

Four decades ago, radical feminists launched a gender revolution because they recognised the value of what the Chinese call “speaking bitterness”. They honoured women’s feelings of discontent about fathers who raped them, boyfriends who abused them, doctors who sterilised them, and employers who paid them less than they were worth.

In her letter, Huffer highlights the key problem with Sandberg’s advice to women to succeed in positions of corporate power in capitalistic America— the inherent profit maximization goal of capitalism.

As any student in Econ 101 will tell you, our profit-driven economic system is shaped like a pyramid, with workers at the bottom and Chief Operating Officers like you at the top. I don’t doubt you’re sincere in wanting success for every woman: more female CEOs and Presidents, more Hillary Clintons. As 1970s’ liberal feminists used to put it: you want a bigger piece of the pie for all of us. Which means, as the second-wave feminists you so admire used to put it: feminism is not about getting a bigger piece of the pie. It’s about seeing that the whole pie is rotten.

Huffer then delves into the statistical facts that separate a top ranked woman like Sandberg from those in lower-income positions, an area also dominated by women. She makes the example of Sandberg’s visit to a diner where the waitresses work long hour shifts at minimum wage and they cannot rise to Sandberg’s position due to the way the system of capitalism works.

Sixty percent of minimum wage workers and 73 percent of tipped workers are women. More and more, soccer moms are becoming waitress moms. This means that down the street from the lower Manhattan restaurant where you charmed the New Yorker’s Anna Holmes last fall is a diner where a single mother with swollen ankles works a 10-hour shift. I know you know this. But I wonder if you’ve thought about how the physical distance that divides your table from hers is also the economic gap that divides the top from the bottom of the pyramid. That overcrowded bottom is where waitress moms, home health care workers, and retail saleswomen live.

In the conclusion to her letter, Huffer restates her point that Sandberg, who is offering advice on achieving a happy ending for other women, is an exception due to her remarkable career. Such advice, from a feminist standpoint, is not practically applicable if we do not address the framework of capitalism and how it treats the individuals, particularly women, on the lower ranks of the pyramid.

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