Individuality versus Individualism in Feminism


Experiment: Find the “bright line” between two public figures who agree.

In the past few years, I’ve watched too many TED talks. Here are two that I highly recommend:

Roxane Gay – Confessions of a Bad Feminist

Sheryl Sandberg – Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

Gay’s talk really speaks to me and Sandberg’s just seems to miss the mark even though her point is very good and I believe a lot of what she says. After a bit of reflection, I realized that the difference is between a feminism based on individuality and a feminism based on individualism.

Personally, I don’t define feminism as “guys versus girls” like Taylor Swift does (Stewart, 2012). I define feminism as opening up the space for underrepresented voices to be heard. It is a way to question practices and ways of thinking that are taken for granted. It is not just about women, but looking into the gendered nature of the social and political world. It is a way of viewing the world that “may sounds like an idealised or utopian version of what a self-conscious and politically committed, active and informed theoretical practice should involve” (Gross, 1986, p. 204) but I find no reason to be less idealistic. So, both Roxane Gay and Sheryl Sandberg are feminists by my definition (Taylor Swift probably is too), but the two are very different.

Roxane Gay is a writer and professor who stepped into the spotlight with her book Bad Feminist. In her essays she describes the ways that she fails the feminist movement — in a very humorous way (for example, her love of pink and how much she likes to dance to misogynist rap music). She feels like she cannot uphold the ideals of feminism, that she is a contradiction of feminist understanding and what may be anti-feminist practice. In a different time, hers would have been a voice that went unheard and, not long ago, whose contradictions would have been used as indictments of the feminist movement as a whole. But within her contradictions, we see her humanity, her individuality. She exists as a beautiful, complex, and knowable person – exactly the hope of feminism.

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and is worth at least a billion dollars (no, that’s not an exaggeration). She has been highly successful in the business world and in the past few years, came into the public eye with her book Lean In. Any woman I knew who wanted to be successful read and promoted this book like it was the new feminist bible. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into it. The message is consistent with the equality goals of feminism and the data behind the reasons that women aren’t making it into leadership is informative and thoughtful. But, especially when I hear her talk, I realize why her message does not resonate with me. She in not a promotor of individuality, she is a promotor of individualism and to me, that is a huge difference. In an interview a few years after her TED talk, she looks back on how she didn’t feel comfortable telling the (only) personal story that was included in the talk until another woman begged her to add it. Her TED talks are full of objective, third-person, rational discussion. It could have been delivered by a robot if not for this single story. She does not find her own voice even within her own stories. She also limits the other voices that will play a part in the story she tells. Especially in her TED talk, she often makes sweeping statements about the overarching political and social situations that hold women back. She dismisses them or says she can’t solve those problems and decides to focus on the individual aspects that she thinks women do have control over. But this is individualism, and is not a good fit with feminism. The two may be truly contradictory.

Here are a few quotes from her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (2013)

“The gender stereotypes introduced in childhood are reinforced throughout our lives and become self-fulfilling prophesies. Most leadership positions are held by men, so women don’t expect to achieve them, and that becomes one of the reasons they don’t” (Sandberg, 2013, p. 22, author’s emphasis).

“It’s a cliche, but opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized” (Sandberg, 2013, p. 34).

“Taking initiative pays off. It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do” (Sandberg, 2013, p. 35).

All three of these thoughts may be entirely true. Unfortunately, by stating her message this way, she clearly sends the message that the way to overcome oppression, discrimination, and social ills is just to work harder, to “lean in”. The feminist community is likely to give a more nuanced diagnosis, that there is a reality of the world of women and that “social practices produce that ‘reality’, which represents the particular social relations experienced by women  because they are gendered subjects. This formulation does not indicate that all women have the same social experiences because they are women, but rather that sexuation inflects subjective formation and experience” (Campbell, 2014, p. 106). This is much more in line with Roxane Gay’s discussion of feminism. She acknowledges her hopes and dreams and then sees them in the context of the social world. Somehow, Sheryl Sandberg misses this. She pulls humanity out of the equation, as if it were all just a game to be played and that there is a right way to make feminism happen.

Sheryl Sandberg is not short on critics. I will not join the bandwagon of those who criticize her. I don’t dislike her success and I don’t think she should stop leaning in. I do think she should speak up about her own stories and learn more about the stories of women who “lean in” but still don’t make it. As Roxane Gay (2014) says “Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.” By ignoring those women, Sheryl Sandberg has fallen into the neoliberal trap. This has been termed “neoliberal feminism” and it does not blend well with other forms of feminism.  “Unlike liberal feminism, which relies on the state to rectify problems of women’s unequal opportunities and underrepresentation, neoliberal feminism promotes individual responsibility, limited government, market-driven solutions to social problems” (Williams, 2014, p. 59). Williams (2014) continues her review of Sandberg’s book with the point that not only are societal ills ignored, but capitalism isn’t acknowledged as a factor by Sandberg either. “Neoliberal feminism, in stark contrast, absolves capitalism of playing any role in the oppression of women. In fact, according to Sandberg, the capitalist free market is the solution to gender inequality . . . She is convinced that companies are eager to exploit female talent because diversity is good for business. Not altruism but the bottom line is their motivation” (Williams, 2014, p. 59).

For the same reason that I have discontinued my participation with KIVA, I don’t believe that the market can solve all of our problems. I don’t think self-interest can actually lead to everyone prospering. If we forget our humanity, the potential for empathy that all of us have, or ignore the beautiful contradictions that we all contain, then it is all for naught anyway. The goal is not for women (or any of us) to rise up the ranks, the goal is for us all to be humans and to treat others that way. I just don’t think the market can give us that. The feminism that I want is that of Roxane Gay. As she says, “we don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”

Gay, R. (2014). Bad Feminist: Little, Brown Book Group.

Gross, E. (1986). Conclusion: What is feminist theory? In C. Pateman & E. Gross (Eds.), Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory (pp. 190-204). Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: Ebury Publishing.

Stewart, D. (2012). Don’t Go Calling Taylor Swift a Feminist, Says Taylor Swift. Jezebel. Retrieved from

Williams, C. (2014). The Happy Marriage of Capitalism and Feminism. Contemporary Sociology, 43(1), 58-. doi:10.1177/0094306113514538c


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