Kate Bradley reviews Dawn Foster’s Lean Out (Repeater Books, 2016), a book that challenges the liberal feminism promoted by Sheryl Sandberg’s business advice book, Lean In.
Lean Out was a book that needed to be written. Liberal feminism is little better than no feminism at all, and now, instead of having to explain why every time we meet a passing Blairite, we have a handy guide to outline the basics for them. In eighty-one pages, Dawn Foster shows how the ‘feminism’ of figures like Theresa May and Sheryl Sandberg does not work in the interests of all women, and how, in fact, their ‘feminism’ actively disadvantages other women by propping up and sanitising a system that exploits and oppresses women disproportionately, both as part of the workforce and as domestic labourers and carers in the home.
Most of Lean Out will not be unfamiliar to socialists and feminists, but Foster provides some useful topical critiques of ‘corporate feminism’ and its invariably-two-faced advocates. For example, Foster draws attention to Margaret Thatcher’s insidious role in covering up the sexual abuse of children and young women. She discusses how the Tories are currently facilitating violence towards women in detention centres such as the Immigration Removal Centre at Yarl’s Wood. Foster also develops her earlier ideas on the concept of ‘emotional labour’ and its psychological toll on women workers.
Foster’s core argument is important: we, as feminists, must wrest our movement from the over-privileged women who currently claim to represent it, and must place the material suffering of ordinary women at the heart of feminism. However, beyond this point, Lean Out is fairly weak, failing to articulate exactly what ‘leaning out’ could involve. This may be partly because Foster ignores whole swathes of struggle that are emerging from the new feminist movement, such as fights for trans rights and liberation, and organising against street harassment and cultures of sexual violence.
In her blanket criticism of modern feminism’s “individualism”, Foster takes several swipes that fall well off‑target. She criticises feminists’ focus on individual choices, but misses how young feminists’ self-questioning arises from a well-placed desire to help prefigure a better world. Young feminists of various backgrounds are asking “should a feminist shave her legs?” not because Gillette told them to, but because they want to make decisions which will empower and politicise themselves and other women. In ignoring the difference between Hilary Clinton’s feminism-from-above and this idealistic attempt to make change one-woman-at-a-time, Foster lumps in many well-meaning young feminists with the elite women she rightly criticises. In our efforts to bring class back into the conversation, we should not make the same mistake.
This review was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine