The XX Factor

Why Is Lean In Honoring an Icon of Anti-Feminist Policy?

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen leans in, but if she got her way, few other women would have the chance.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

Sheryl Sandberg wrote her book Lean In and started an organization by the same name because she wanted to empower women to do better in the workplace. So why is the Lean In Tumblr honoring a woman who has routinely acted to undermine women? As Marc Tracy at the New Republic reports, the Lean In Tumblr page feted Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for her achievements as a politician. It’s true that Ros-Lehtinen is a hardworking and accomplished woman, but she is also a woman who does everything in her power to make sure that other women’s hard work will not lead to similar accomplishments, as Tracy details. Ros-Lehtinen voted against equal-pay legislation; has a zero rating from NARAL; and even voted to drain the previously uncontroversial Title X funding that is used primarily to help low-income women afford contraception, STI testing, and cancer screenings.

Lean In has responded to Tracy’s criticisms with an editor’s note:

This feature highlights the stories of women who succeeded against the odds and blazed a trail in their fields. Lean In does not run these posts as endorsements of specific policies or individuals. Lean In encourages everyone to support changes that help all women to succeed.

Which sounds an awful lot like they’re trying to celebrate Ros-Lehtinen’s accomplishments at gaining power while disagreeing with what Ros-Lehtinen uses her power for. That choice ends up validating the fear feminists expressed about Lean In when it was first published: that Sandberg was championing a rah-rah self-help mentality while ignoring the real-world problems women face when it comes to getting ahead. All the self-help books in the world won’t save you if your boss can exploit a legal loophole to discriminate against you for being a woman. It doesn’t do women much good to tell them to use their childless years to achieve greatness when they aren’t even allowed to have childless years because they’re unable to access contraception or abortion. 

Of course, this is hardly the first time that Ros-Lehtinen has been wielded as a feminist icon even though she is openly and obviously anti-feminist. From the Lean In Tumblr:

She hopes her presence in Congress will inspire little girls to lead across the country. “I think that every woman in elected office should think of herself as a feminist,” she told MAKERS.

If women aren’t given the tools they need to succeed, such as equal opportunity and control over when they have children, dangling the stories of women who flourish where they can’t is less “inspiration” than “taunting.” I don’t like the endless debates over the word feminist, but the term really shouldn’t be applied to someone who shoots down opportunities to end discrimination against women. The problem here is that organizations like Lean In and MAKERS are so eager to avoid the appearance of partisanship that they end up setting aside their ostensibly feminist missions to “honor” women who are doing everything they can to turn back the clock for other women. It’s good that they want a diversity of viewpoints and stories represented, but if your mission is to help women achieve in the workplace, it’s best to avoid honoring women who are fighting against that very goal.