Lean In Feminism… Religion Style

Just about everyone is piling on Facebook-COO Sheryl Sandberg, who aims to launch not only Lean In the book on March 11 but a slickly-designed national Lean In movement to propel more ambitious women up the ladder. 

“I always thought I’d run a social movement,” Sandberg has said.

“People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down,” replied Maureen Dowd on Sunday. “Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”

Details, details, details.

I for one am not complaining that the Sandberg hype is helping rebuild feminist buzz. I like hearing those syllables—feminism—sounded out proudly to the world, especially by people who are making off like bandits with its benefits. 

But I do wonder how Sandberg’s “Lean In” instructions would translate to the domain of the world’s most intransigent gender inequalities: religion.

Are you a Catholic woman who feels called to ordination? Find a powerful enough sponsor up the food chain and… oh, wait. All the people up the food chain look like this.

Are you a Mormon woman who dreams of the day someone like you might actually be allowed to offer the invocation or benediction at your faith’s semi-annual worldwide General Conference? Be sure to adjust your posture and tone of voice you use when you take your seat at the table and negotiate with… oh, wait. Are there women at the table where such decisions are made?

Are you a Jewish woman who wants to pray at the Western Wall? Convene a lean-in circle of other women with whom you can discuss your ambitions… oh, wait. Small gender-segregated groupings for women are actually the wall’s status quo

If segregation is doctrine, where exactly should one lean? 

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.