As austerity impoverished the lives and communities of ordinary people, particularly affecting women, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s viral TED talk and popular book Lean In offered a simple answer to the multiple and complex problems we face: women must be more assertive and ambitious at work.
Perhaps this looks laughable written here. But as Dawn Foster explains, ‘corporate feminism’ is attractive and persuasive. Advocates highlight individual success stories of super-wealthy women, able to ‘have it all’ – narrowly defined as high-paid employment and family life. It is understandable that women, struggling on ever-tighter incomes, might be curious about what they have to say. However, according to Amazon Kindle statistics, Lean In is one of the books readers are least likely to finish.
Fortunately, with Foster’s Lean Out you are almost guaranteed to reach the end feeling informed, angry and hopeful. Foster’s short and accessible manifesto is a powerful response to Sandberg and others’ ‘trickledown feminism’. She leaves us in no doubt of the real nature of women’s marginalisation and poverty: that it is structural and not down to an individual’s apparent lack of assertiveness. She says capitalism, patriarchy, racism, ableism and other oppressions all act to disempower women. Corporate feminism itself is part of the problem as it seeks to capture feminism’s empancipatory project in order to legitimise the very system that is harming us.
Foster illustrates her argument by drawing from a wide range of examples, looking at the policies, politics and culture that perpetuate women’s often multiple oppressions and the lived realities of these women. The increased precarity of paid work with zero-hours contracts and increased fees for employment tribunals, the abuse of migrant women locked up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, the demonisation of people claiming benefits, and how the housing crisis is denying women fleeing domestic violence the secure homes they need. Helpful and interesting statistics accompany many of the examples she describes.
As well as clearly explaining the root causes of the deep inequality and injustice women face, Foster talks about solutions. In contrast to the emphasis by corporate feminism on individual acts, Foster argues it is collective action that has and will bring about radical social change. In the final chapter she gives a brief and uplifting tour of some of the current inspiring working-class, women‑led campaigns and organising around basic needs, including Focus E15, the Anti-Raids Network, 3 Cosas campaign and Southall Black Sisters.