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Sheryl Sandberg’s Mea Culpa and the Limitations of Jewish Feminism

On Mother’s Day, Sheryl Sandberg used her Facebook page to apologize to single mothers.

By her own second Mother’s Day as a single parent, Sandberg realized she’d shortchanged other single mothers in “Lean In,” her her manifesto urging women to embrace opportunity at work, by not recognizing how hard it can be to do that when you don’t have a partner at all, let alone the “right partner”:

In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally — and how important Dave was to my career and to our children’s development. I still believe this. Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.

It takes a very special strength of spirit to admit that you are wrong, and even more, I imagine, to do so in front of hundreds of millions of people. Sandberg’s action is inspiring and, of course, what she says in tribute to single mothers is undeniable.

She also acknowledges how lucky she is. She has a sprawling support network. She is, ahem, not poor, as so many single mothers are.

Awareness is important, and better late than never. But it goes only so far. In making those acknowledgements, Sandberg is consciously or not also revealing the weakness of what we can call “middle class feminism,” which emphasizes such issues as workplace advancement and the division of labor between a heterosexual couple. Sandberg is not middle class anymore, but that’s her background and “Lean In” falls in that category. Most Jewish feminism does.

Mine does. And it’s important, because all feminisms are. But given the privileged nature of its goals and the relative minority it serves, middle class feminism sucks up a disproportionate amount of airtime.

Do a little thought experiment and imagine that Sandberg loses her wealth next. Would she then take to Facebook to share her newly nuanced understanding of how hard it is to lean in when you’re poor? How would that read? Probably pretty similar to what she wrote on Sunday about parenthood. But where does that get us? More importantly, where does it get single mothers? Poor women?

God bless her, Sandberg should keep on doing the amazing things she does and I look forward to seeing what comes next. Maybe she’ll focus more on the structural problems that make leaning in so hard for some. In the meantime, her Mother’s Day tribute should also cause us to reflect on the need for more voices writing their version of “Lean In,” meaning maybe something completely different, and not just usual privileged feminist empathizing with people who have it tougher than she does.

Helen Chernikoff is a news editor at the Forward. Follow her @thesimplechild on Twitter.

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