“Mama…remember that beautiful lady on the blue book you were reading while we were in Palm Springs?” Eli asked me the other day in a Lyft on the way home from therapy.
(Let’s pause for a moment to let it sink in just how California my life has become…)
“Michelle Obama?” I said.
“I guess,” Eli said. “Did Donald Trump ever bully her?”
“Yes, Donald Trump and a whole lot of other people bullied her.”
“What’d they do?”
“Well, she writes about it in her book. They questioned whether she was a woman, whether her husband was born in our country, they said a lot of things that were really just code for being racist. Men in our government even made fun of her butt.”
“Did they say she was ugly?”
“Yes, some of them.”
“But she’s not ugly! She’s so beautiful!”
“People freak out when women are powerful and outspoken, Eli. And they think if they call us ‘ugly’ we’ll be so upset, we’ll shut up.”
“Do people on the Internet ever call you ugly? Are they ever mean to you?”
Ohhhhhhhhhh, bless you, honey. There have been entire gossip blogs where trashing your mom has been someone’s “beat.” Pro tip: Never Google your mom…
Calling someone ugly has deep resonance for Eli beyond just vanity. Some of you may remember he and Evie were bullied last summer at Camp Galileo for a full three days, while counselors refused to act. The same kid repeatedly called Eli and Evie “ugly,” among other things. In some ways, that particular insult broke the spell, because my children are relatively confident they aren’t ugly.
But it stuck with him, because it was the moment when Eli began to believe what I’ve been telling him about bullying for years: Frequently the things a bully says aren’t grounded in any truth, even what they think about you. It’s about something deeper within them. Somehow hearing that it also happened to Michelle Obama helped solidify this. That it came from, yunno, white men ruling our country is harder to explain to a child.
I am about 50 pages from the end of Michelle Obama’s book (like, seemingly, the rest of the world) and the impact on me has been no less profound. She is an interesting combination of someone who had ambition personally and professionally that grew after becoming a mother, and yet, someone who didn’t aspire to the particular fame and political power she wound up having. Her husband’s political ambitions were a bug in their relationship, not a feature. Something they had to go to therapy for her to learn to accept if she wanted to be with him. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen that exact combo in a First Lady.
I definitely felt like Hillary Clinton’s unapologetic ambition was relatable, but Obama’s desire to put her children’s well-being first while also not becoming a paper doll wife next to the President, the inevitability she faced in having to give up her career, the tightrope she had to walk in the public eye—those were relatable, too, in a far more nuanced way.
So it’s not a surprise she said what she did about Lean In or that the Internet lost its collective mind.
Just before my book came out a year ago, a mutual friend of mine and Sandberg’s told me I wouldn’t be served well by positioning it as a counter to Lean In. This person rightly observed that no book that’s tried to do that has sold nearly as well as Lean In. First off, I wasn’t planning on positioning my book as a reaction to anything, although I have a chapter that takes issue with the “50/50 marriage” as the solution to equality.
But still, the observation is right. For all of everyone’s criticisms of Lean In that thing just sells and sells and sells.
But the “why” was where this person (who was a man, in case you are wondering) and I violently disagreed. This person argued that it was because, for most everyday people, Lean In worked just fine. It’s an interesting counter to the normal criticism of Lean In—that it works for educated, privileged white women like me but not the vast population.
My counter was that Lean In became a best-seller because Sandberg was the most admired and most famous woman in tech, and one of the most powerful in American business when it came out and she was able to speak everywhere, demand those places buy thousands of copies, and appear on every major television show, on every magazine, and in every newspaper. (It’s kinda the reason celebrities get large book deals to begin with.) Massive best-sellers tend to stay best-sellers. Sure, no counter to Lean In has sold as well. But it should be noted, no one on Sandberg’s level has written a rebuttal.
None of that means Lean In works for most women. In fact, more stunning than Obama’s rebuke of it: One of the main findings of the Women in the Workplace study which is produced by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org was that LEANING IN IS NOT THE PROBLEM.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed one of the authors of the study on stage at the Commonwealth Club and this was my opening question/not-question to much cheering. (Video here.) Even Lean In the organization has abandoned Lean In it seems. In fact, some six years after its publication, the only people who tell me it’s working for women seem to be men.