Online Feminism and Sheryl Sandberg

The current debate around Sheryl Sandberg’s book centers on the idea that we can have it all if we lean in. Others argue that Sandberg is reigniting the feminist movement―or not. Instead, we should focus on what Sandberg’s work contributes to the conversation about online feminism―a place where Gen Y/Millennial feminists are advocating for what we need.

As one of these women that participates in online feminism, I am encouraged by the serious conversations, actions and research taking place around its future, on and offline. Two standout examples of online feminism are an online community that fights sexual harassment on the street. Imagine sitting on the train into work and being leered at, cat called and/or flashed. Pull out your phone, take a picture and post it to the page dedicated to your city. UltraViolet is “a community of women and men, fighting to expand women’s rights and combat sexism everywhere – from politics and government to media and pop culture.”  A recent campaign asked online feminists to sign a petition and tweet at Reebok to have spokesperson Rick Ross removed over rape lyrics and it worked!

Not only am I excited to hear serious conversations about online feminism, I’m also excited to learn about new tools that will help advance the movement, especially from an economic perspective. Courtney Martin and Vanessa Valenti are too. They released #FemFuture: Online Revolution at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. They say it “document[s] and analyze[s] the most lean organizations and innovative activists, organizers, and public intellectuals working on feminist issues today, and propose[s] solutions on how we can create a more sustainable future for this work.”

What stands out is how online feminism links working women to the “most lean organizations and innovative activists, organizers, and public intellectuals” that are creating a sustainable future for feminism. It’s no coincidence that they incorporated a hashtag into the report title! Martin and Valenti are sparking conversations on twitter with #femfuture.

But let’s get back to getting unpaid for this work. Unlike volunteering, where compensation is not expected, full time activists, organizers and public intellectuals face many challenges and money is one of them. The report confirms that: “Bloggers and online organizers largely suffer from a psychology of deprivation—a sense that their work will never be rewarded as it deserves to be, that they are in direct competition with one another for the scraps that come from third-party ad companies or other inadequate attempts to bring in revenue.”

The bottom line: Martin and Valenti want a sustainable economic model for online feminism. They see this happening through philanthropic donations. But they also want other dedicated financial resources. I think they are overlooking what Sheryl Sandberg is already doing. She is leading by example with her Lean In Foundation.

Sandberg’s “Lean In Circles” are places of conversation and growth, the new conscious raising groups for the 21st century. I think what’s missing from the online feminist conversation is the opportunity to get feminist messages out through different vehicles. And if that means Sandberg’s foundation is one of those vehicles, so be it. I think it’s insulting to think that these circles couldn’t have a bigger impact on the movement as a whole.

Garance Franke-Ruta at The Atlantic points this out. Sandberg is leveraging Facebook, the biggest online social media platform in the world, to get a movement going. She’s using her power, her intellect and her own money to create change and although many have seen this move as corporate feminism, we need women like Sandberg to help sustain the economic arm of the feminist movement. She can’t do this alone though and she can’t have it all either, but we can get what we need together.

Gen Y/Millennials are not afraid of gender inequality because we’re in the thick of changing it. Our version of slowing down is realigning our priorities to fit in with our passions. We aren’t waiting for someone to make us an offer or to say, “yes,” because we’re already doing it. We’re engaging online in the needed conversations with an unfettered spirit.

Reigniting the women’s movement―online for sure, feminist by name or not―will happen through the support networks that we already have in place. Sandberg’s “Lean In Circles” included. If we disengage from the conversation, even if we don’t agree with all the players, then we are silencing ourselves and stalling the movement.

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