The Case For Trickle-Up Feminism

If the feminist movement makes room for new voices, powerful women like Sheryl Sandberg may stop being criticized for not speaking for women of all income brackets.

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Sheryl Sandberg in January.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In doesn’t come out for more than a month, but her particular take on feminism has been criticized for focusing on a specific group of privileged women — those with careers that give them opportunity to “lean in” and negotiate in the first place.

The conflict goes beyond Sandberg herself. Anne-Marie Slaughter got the same criticism for her Atlantic cover story on the impossibility of “having it all,” and a growing chorus of voices are urging mainstream feminism to spend less time on the professional advancement of women in white-collar jobs. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote a seminal essay critiquing what she called “trickle-down feminism,” puts the problem thusly: “When we talk about poor people we tend not to talk about women, and when we talk about women we tend not to talk about poor people.”

It’s a worthwhile criticism, but it also means that feminists advocating for more women in positions of power can get shouted down from within their ranks, while men who oppose such reforms get lauded from theirs. This kind of fighting feels almost inevitable. Feminism is a movement founded on women’s status as a marginalized group, and as a woman moves closer to the centers of corporate or government power, she can come to seem like, for lack of a better word, the Man. In Forbes, for instance, Maha Atal wrote of Slaughter, “The idea that this is a woman who doesn’t ‘have it all’ is hard to swallow.” But the concerns of relatively high-powered women who want professional parity with men might, somewhat paradoxically, come in for less criticism if the concerns of poor and working-class women had a better chance to be heard. Call it trickle-up feminism: The more underrepresented women get to speak for themselves, the less women like Sandberg or Slaughter will get taken to task for not speaking enough about them.

Of course, the point of making more space for underprivileged women isn’t to make middle- and upper-class feminists’ lives easier — it’s the right thing to do. It’s just that for feminism as a movement, it may also be smart: Making room for more voices will make it easier for each feminist to talk about what she knows, rather than having to talk about everything.

“To me feminism throughout its history is cacophony,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. “Feminism is made up of voices challenging each other.” That challenge can be productive — but, she says, “there’s no question that you can see that the conflict within feminism has left it self-immolated several times in its history.” Conflicts between sex-positive and anti-porn wings of the movement, or between older and younger guards, have threatened if not its existence then at least its strength.

And when women who do ascend to positions of power are heavily criticized, she says it’s often because of institutionalized prejudice: When a woman is one of the very few of her gender who gets to a position of power, she is supposed to represent all women, a pretty much impossible task. It happens in corporate America, in politics, and in pop culture. “If half of network programming was written, produced, directed, and starred in by women in their twenties and thirties,” Traister says, “no one would spend a lot of time talking about Lena Dunham.” So more representation — for women as well as for people of color and other underrepresented groups — would mean less pressure on each representative.

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Workers protest outside the San Francisco Grand Hyatt, July 2012.

If women in power get held to impossible standards, they’ll always be seen as less successful than their male counterparts. Gloria Feldt, former CEO of Planned Parenthood and now an author on workplace issues, links the critique that women in corporate America don’t care about working-class women with the idea “that women don’t support each other.” And, she says, “there are plenty of forces out there, people who are in power and who would just as soon women not have power, who would like to repeat that trope over and over.”

She agrees that women advocating for flextime in their corporate workplaces may well not be in tune with the concerns of waitresses or home health aides. But the solution isn’t to dismiss those women. Instead, Feldt says, “let’s help them think about the waitress.” She adds: “We have to keep fighting the injustice and not fighting each other.”

Feminism is always going to be many-faceted, and perhaps to some extent many-factioned — as Traister points out, it’s “a movement that represents fully half of the world’s population, and there’s no one answer, no one strategy that is going to adequately encompass or represent everyone it’s supposed to represent.” But rather than tearing down the movement’s most visible spokespeople, it’s possible to lift other people up.

Jodi Jacobson, editor-in-chief of the reproductive rights website RH Reality Check, offers one way of doing this: “I would love to see feminists focus on asking real women in real workplaces what challenges they face” — women like the workers at Hyatt hotels who are agitating for a seat on the company board. Cottom too would like to see the media and professional organizations “include the voices of the women who don’t get to be in our spaces all of the time. I don’t think the people considered spokespeople for feminism should always be the people who are produced by elite institutions.” She mentioned the site Flyover Feminism, written by women outside the country’s major media centers, as a potential source of new spokespeople.

In a recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Sandberg noted that “as a woman becomes more successful, she is less liked.” She was talking about the workplace, but she could just as easily have been talking about feminism. It doesn’t have to be that way — and a trickle-up approach could help.

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