I’ll confess. When I first picked up Dawn Foster’s Lean Out, I wondered just how relevant it was. Was Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate Lean In brand of feminism not just a fad in 2013, like everyone suddenly snapping themselves naked on wrecking balls, or the Doge. Had we not, as feminists, successfully rejected Sandberg’s corporate feminism already? Didn’t feminism start digging a little deeper in its analysis? Wasn’t it kind of old hat? So, while I read Lean Out, I found myself nodding along, but questioning whether it wouldn’t have been more important had it been published this time two years ago.
Just as I put down Lean Out, feeling roused, validated and furious all at once, I made a terrible mistake. I clicked on a New Statesman link. And I saw this, by Sarah “Never Knowingly Right” Ditum:
Rumours of the demise of Sandberg’s brand of corporate feminism were premature. Women, according to Ditum, deserve to sit alongside men as oppressors, and all criticism of what women do as leaders is misogyny. Rather than questioning power as a step towards liberating ourselves from it, Ditum espouses the individualist, corporate brand of feminism that I’d thought was dead–or if not dead, at least no longer articulated quite so nakedly.
So Foster’s book is just as relevant as it would have been in 2013.
Lean Out seethes with raw anger, and yet Foster’s claim that corporate, individualist feminism not just ignores the conditions of the majority of women, but actively exacerbates them, is meticulously evidenced. She examines how austerity hits women hardest in often-painful detail, outlining the complicity of the corporate feminists in this continuing gendered oppression. She takes a look at Yarl’s Wood, and the attitudes towards poor and working class women having children, compared to those of the women in the boardrooms and parliaments. She looks at wars, and how women’s rights are often used as a justification for bombing women–again, this is more relevant than ever following the discourse around bombing Syria. She clearly explains how this individualist model of feminism turns a movement into a palatable brand, a series of personal lifestyle choices, as women further down the ladder struggle, starve, and find feminism increasingly unrelateable and irrelevant.
The world is fucked, and Dawn Foster does not mince her words in articulating this fact. She shows how these issues are interconnected, how trickledown feminism does little for the enormous majority of women except paint a feminist sheen on a system which actively harms most.
Despite the doom and gloom of the subject matter, Lean Out isn’t all doom and gloom. Foster writes with a fabulously sardonic humour, and ends the book on an uplifting note, a celebration of the resistance organised by working class women. The title, contrasting with Sandberg’s unimaginative invitation to lean in and only focus on your nuclear family and your job, invites women to organise and resist, to lean out and fight. It is perhaps one of the most accessibly radical texts I have read in a while, and I feel like few women who relate to Foster’s book (rather than feel attacked by it, as no doubt many of the establishment feminists will) are likely to find themselves unstirred.
In a very short book, Foster has neatly articulated the problem and its possible solution: it is a truly empowering text. As a bonus, it really is short: I read it on the tube to and from work, and then finished it off in a bath. It doesn’t even feel like preaching to the choir, but rather validation.
I hope that Lean Out becomes one of those seminal texts, that it represents the beginning of the end for the kind of complicit feminism that just wants a few more women to have a seat at the oppressor’s table. It certainly instilled me with a sense of optimism that maybe, just maybe, it might.