Marissa Mayer Thinks Feminists Are a Drag. Is She Right?

And Sheryl Sandberg is not going to be your mentor.

Yahoo! President and CEO Marissa Mayer.
If powerful women like Marissa Mayer, pictured here on her way to the White House to meet with President Obama and other business leaders, won’t identify as feminist, is the word too freighted with history?

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week I made fun of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for saying in the PBS Maker documentary about the women’s movement that she would not call herself a feminist. Mayer described feminists as women who are “militant” and have a “chip on the shoulder,” which struck me as a pretty unsophisticated portrait. But a few days later I am starting to reconsider. Maybe Mayer’s outdated stereotypes are distracting me from the more interesting question: If someone as smart and successful as Mayer, someone who tours the country speaking to young women, can’t comfortably call herself a feminist, then maybe we need to take her objection seriously. Maybe there is a reason why that PBS documentary was so much better on the history than it was on the modern era. Maybe feminism is a term too freighted with history and it’s time to move on.

Think about it from a purely tactical standpoint. Mayer is exactly the kind of person feminists should want on their team. She is a young CEO in an industry dominated by men—an industry that in many people’s minds stands for the future. Unlike many extremely successful female executives, she has not sacrificed a family life; she is married and has a baby. Yet she has been treated with so much scorn: First women criticized her for saying she did not want to take a maternity leave. Then last week she was mocked for her memo to Yahoo employees that she no longer wanted them to work remotely.

Both these cases highlight the philosophical differences between movement feminists and Mayer. Her critics believe in collective action. Mayer shouldn’t give up her maternity leave because she is setting a bad example, by teaching employers to expect unreasonable levels of commitment from working mothers. What’s good for one sister has to be good for them all. Same for remote work. Yahoo may have some specific corporate reason why calling everyone back to the office is critical at the moment, but Mayer shouldn’t do that because, again, as a strategy, it sets a bad precedent. Mayer, however, does not live in a world where collective action makes sense. She lives in a radical meritocracy, where ideas and strategies survive because they are useful, or successful, or forward thinking in some way.

Mayer more or less agrees with the aims of movement feminists, only she goes about achieving them in unorthodox ways. During her tenure at Google, she took pains to accommodate working mothers, only she did in a way that did not give them special status. (She allowed employees to identify their personal priorities, so a mom could leave early for a kid’s soccer game and a young man with no kids could leave early for a weekly potluck dinner with his old college roommates). She could have passed a special policy for working mothers. But Mayer’s way seems more viable in a world in which men and women compete equally for scholarships and jobs and are moving toward sharing domestic responsibilities, too.

This tension between the individual and the collective is at the heart of the debate over Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” idea. Sandberg is publishing a book of advice to young women executives at the same time as she launches a “consciousness raising” movement complete with specific instructions on how to run lean-in circles. But that kind of collective action feels at odds with the advice in the book. In the book, out next week, Sandberg tells women how to negotiate for higher salaries and promotions, how to nurture their own ambition, how to behave at work if they want to advance. It is all excellent advice, but it’s not the stuff of a consciousness-raising movement. It’s advice for this age of meritocracy, when feminist success largely means professional advancement, one woman at a time. What happens if you’re up against another woman for a promotion? In Sandberg’s world, you go for it.

My favorite chapter of Sandberg’s new book is “Don’t Ask Anyone To Be Your Mentor,” because in that one she owns up to her impatience with the habits of the sisterhood. Sandberg talks about how weird it is when young women she doesn’t know ask her to be their mentor—a “total mood-killer,” she calls it, like asking someone during a pause in conversation on a first date, “What are you thinking?” She complains about young women who want “excessive hand holding”—that’s a therapist, she warns, not a mentor (italics are hers). “Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions.” 

I haven’t spent much time in the corporate world, but from my own perch I can relate. Recently I was part of a panel on the 50th anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. A big part of the discussion centered on why young women today don’t want to call themselves feminists, which dismayed the other panelists. Afterward a high-school girl in the audience stood up to ask a question. She said that in her progressive school the girls were “creaming” the boys at virtually everything. She said they were better at sports and got better grades and ran all the extracurricular clubs. But the one thing she and her friends could not get anyone to do was join the feminist club. The answer to her particular predicament seemed obvious to me, the old feminist, although it felt impolite to say it at the time: My daughter, it’s time to kick you out of the house and then shut the house down. You need to build your own house now.

A few months after my book The End of Men came out, sociologist Stephanie Coontz published an op-ed in New York Times, “The Myth of Male Decline.” She argued that men were not ending, because women were still paid less than men in most professions. Many of the points made by Coontz and other members of what Liza Mundy, author of The Richer Sex, calls the academic Fempire are true, in a selective sort of way that elides other truths. (I debate in greater detail with Coontz here.) But what surprised me was the collective sigh of relief, on Twitter and elsewhere, in response to Coontz’ piece. (“Marry me, Stephanie Coontz,” is one example. Most of the women sighing were young and quite successful, and as far as I could tell hadn’t been held back all that much in their careers by the patriarchy. They were exactly the types of woman I portray in the book as benefiting from the new age of female dominance, when women are better prepared for this economy, have more independence to choose their life path and are less vulnerable to physical assault than ever before.

There comes a point in nearly every book event I’ve done when a little feminist revolt stirs inside the crowd. I can feel it when they save their applause for the moment I mention a sin committed against the women of America, say, our appalling lack of paid maternity leave (which is appalling!). Or when a well-prepared member of the crowd, or even a reporter interviewing me in New York or Paris or London or Berlin reads back to me in a triumphant tone statistics about the tiny percentage of female CEOs, as if I had never heard them before. “Lets call it what it is: THE PATRIARCHY,” said a woman at one of my recent events who described herself as a recent college graduate, and who was very angry. This must be what Mayer means when she says feminists operate with a “chip on the shoulder”—a tendency to cloak yourself in the grievances, even when they don’t really seem to fit.

Women’s success doesn’t mean there are not battles to be fought. But insisting on the term “feminism” may be getting in the way of fighting them. The women Coontz worries about, who are choosing low-paying professions, could use some collective action to boost their salaries. But as a group, they don’t generally identify with the term feminism, and many are actively hostile to it, as I discovered in reporting my book. So why alienate them? And for the women who are Sandberg’s audience, the young and ambitious, traditional movement feminism does not quite capture what they need, either. After all, she is helping boost them from successful to uber-successful, from midlevel executive to CEO. They need tips and strategies, just like young men do. But they don’t necessarily need consciousness-raising groups, and they probably don’t have time for them anyway.