Few people know that Harvard owns a hotel—or, in the words of a half-dozen corrections issued by The Harvard Crimson, owns a building that houses a hotel. The building is a nondescript DoubleTree Suites by Hilton at 400 Soldiers Field Road in Boston. Suite windows look over the ugly highway at the Charles River, toward the Harvard undergraduate campus in Cambridge. On the October day I stayed there, the Boston chill had just set in. The DoubleTree brand is represented by a much-touted “DoubleTree by Hilton” cookie, which I received in a lobby crowned with a jumble of shiny metal hanging from the ceiling and adjacent to a lounge with leather armchairs and art books. The rooms are arranged in a square around an open atrium, 15 floors high. To ascend, you step into a glass elevator that shoots you up through the middle, past floor after floor where all you see are dozens of housekeeping carts, piled six-feet-high with cleaning supplies, sheets, and comforters, being pushed door-to-door by discreet women in gray uniforms.
Harvard bought 400 Soldiers Field Road in 2005, when Jack R. Meyer, the famously successful CEO of the Harvard Management Corporation, was at his peak, guiding Harvard’s massive $37 billion endowment away from conservative stocks and bonds and into a diverse range of financial investments. Harvard bought real estate, bet on commodities like timber (at one point, Meyer had three professional lumberjacks on hand to advise him), and snapped up foreign and emerging stocks. Harvard is unusual in that it manages much of its endowment internally and has become a microcosm of capital itself, with high-paid fund managers—two of Meyer’s deputies made $25 million a year—and a mission to return annual gains of a few billion dollars. The endowment dwarfs the actual school, financially; just the endowment’s growth in 2014 was larger than the entire operating expenses of the university. Practically speaking, Harvard is a massive investment corporation with a relatively small amount of education attached.
VIDEO: How housekeepers took on Harvard—and won.
This endowment is perpetually bolstered by its high-caliber graduates, who maintain Harvard’s reputation as a training ground for American power. Influential people across the political spectrum attended Harvard, from Steve Bannon on the populist right, to Jared Kushner on the country-club right, to Obama on the centrist left. Elizabeth Warren, progressive Democrats’ favorite candidate, didn’t go there—but she did teach at Harvard Law School. Since integrating women in 1977, the university has produced not only our most powerful men but also some powerful women, though it continues to experience its share of controversy over sexism on campus and in the classroom. (The current Harvard president, Drew Faust, is the university’s first female president and has tried to address that problem, especially at the business school.) Before Trump, the last time an American president had not attended Harvard or Yale was 1989.
Part of Harvard’s money in the early aughts went to accumulate land in nearby Allston for the development of a science-and-engineering complex. There was no reason for Harvard to think that the purchase of Hilton DoubleTree Suites, conveniently located near this campus-in-the-making, would be different from any of its other investments. It was profitable in 2006, and by 2014 it would be bringing in millions. Since Harvard is a less experienced producer of hotels than of endowments or future presidents, Harvard Management Corporation kept Hilton on to manage it (Hilton has hundreds of these owner-operator agreements worldwide). The hotel hosts innumerable Harvard events, mostly for the nearby Harvard Business School.
Which brings us back to all those strange Harvard Crimson corrections, appended in 2013 and 2014 to articles dating back to 2005. Each one reads: “An earlier version of headline of this article and statements in the article stated that the DoubleTree Suites hotel is Harvard-owned. To clarify, the company is housed in a Harvard-owned building.” Harvard’s sudden reticence to claim its property stemmed from a straightforward labor dispute that would last three years and, in the end, lay bare the tension between a burgeoning corporate feminism and the rights of working-class women. A battle with 60 housekeepers at the Boston-Cambridge DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel offered a startling view into the perverse role of feminism within 21st-century capitalism when they asked Harvard’s first female president for help, and for one of Harvard’s most famous graduates, Sheryl Sandberg (BA 1991, MBA 1995), to lean in with them.
“Honestly when I began my job, I thought I wouldn’t last long,” says Delmy Lemus, speaking in Spanish. Lemus is a 34-year-old housekeeper at DoubleTree, born in El Salvador, a mother of two. We settled in to chat on the fourth floor of Harvard’s red brick Phillips Brooks House, home to the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), an important ally in the workers’ campaign. Near us hung a portrait of two identical sandy-haired young Harvard men with a model sailing boat, a reminder in oil that Winklevii spring eternal at Harvard.
Nothing has a longer lineage in feminism than chronicles of cleaning—how much it hurts, how little it is respected. Dorothy Lee Bolden, founder of the National Domestic Workers Union of America in the 1960s, declared that housekeepers, nannies, and in-home caregivers had built the nation from “the sweat of their brow” as surely as their parents had by working in the fields. Nearly half a million people work as housekeepers in hotels nationwide, about 90 percent of them women. Boston’s hotel industry thrives on university business—at Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, and others—putting up conference participants, parents of college kids, and visiting scholars.
Lemus described work as a hectic race: 30 minutes to clean a room, with no extra time if some louche businessman smoked weed, left dirty condoms around, or puked in the bathtub. Such a mess was common enough, but the detritus was less exceptional than the pace. Unionized hotels in Boston typically require housekeepers to clean 15 single rooms per day, while the non-unionized housekeepers at DoubleTree were doing roughly double that, by cleaning 14 suites (including a bedroom, living room, and kitchenette). As a result, according to a report released by Local 26, a Boston-based local of UNITE HERE! representing hospitality workers, the incidence rate for work-related injury and illness at Harvard’s DoubleTree in 2013 was 75 percent higher than the rate for hotel and other accommodation workers in Massachusetts in 2012. Workers complained of chronic back pain from lifting the sofa beds installed in the suites in 2008—to put them away, workers had to bend down, hoist a heavy mattress, and fold it back into the sofa. When surveyed by Local 26, 100 percent of the workers said that they were in pain. Their injuries sound like those of construction workers.
The hotel was a serene, white dreamland on top, all warm chocolate-chip cookies and Harvard Business School guests resting under thick comforters—with a sort of Dickensian factory churning underneath. One day as Lemus ran toward a bed, trying to beat the clock, “my foot got caught on the sheet and it twisted badly and I hit the wall and broke my nose. I was bleeding through the mouth, through the nose. I thought I had broken my teeth as well because I was choking on my own blood.” The first thing her supervisor asked as she was hurried to an ambulance was how many rooms she’d finished.
Such managers were almost certainly under pressure from above. Most workers at DoubleTree, when surveyed for a different union report, stated that the workload had gotten heavier in the last several years. Managers told workers to blame the economic downturn, but Lemus argues that it was more about the change in management. When the university took over, she says, things got so tight that the women were often told to bring their own cleaning supplies. While housekeepers juggled their way through each increasingly untenable day, longtime workers were fired. Lemus thinks they were trying to fire better-paid people for minor errors so that they could replace them with new, lower-paid people, “like a game.” A friend “had worked there for about eight years as housekeeper and was fired because they found a tiny piece of trash” in a room she had cleaned.
The mostly female housekeepers suffered especially from cruelty around their pregnancies. Lemus’s daughter Adriana is now a healthy 6-year-old, but when lifting heavy furniture while pregnant with her, Lemus began to feel terrible pain in her sciatic nerve. “I began to have contractions at eight months,” she said. “When the doctor examined me, he ordered me to bed rest.” She says her doctor sent notes to her bosses to no avail. She began to have back pains, which have persisted to this day. “Every time I was working I was crying because I felt my baby was in danger and might have birth defects. But thank God, my daughter was born healthy.”
In 2012, union organizers from UNITE HERE! Local 26 began knocking on the doors of workers at the DoubleTree. Local 26 already represented workers at nearly half of the hotels in Boston. Non-unionized workers were well aware of the benefits accorded their unionized brethren—affordable health insurance, a more reasonable workload, better wages. Many of the housekeepers didn’t need to be asked twice. Lemus took on an organizing role, persuading hesitant colleagues to sign on to the union drive, coordinating with the union representatives, and holding secret meetings out of earshot of management. By March 2013, a critical mass of hotel employees—not just housekeepers, but also waiters, porters, and custodians—had privately affirmed their desire for a union.
On March 11, 2013, two things happened: The DoubleTree workers filed a petition declaring their intent to unionize, and Sheryl Sandberg published a declaration of her own called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. That book began with a pregnancy story, too. After a bad experience rushing from the far end of Google’s parking lot to a client meeting while pregnant, “I marched in—or more like waddled in—to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office, which was really just a large room with toys and gadgets strewn all over the floor.” Stepping into the playroom of the maverick man-children, she demands pregnancy parking. Brin quickly agrees. She observes that there must have been other pregnant Google employees suffering all along. “Having one pregnant woman at the top—even one who looked like a whale—made the difference.” In 2008, Sandberg jumped to Facebook, becoming their COO. In 2010, she gave the TED Talk that made her famous: “Why we have too few women leaders,” which addressed “what we [professional women] can do as individuals” to make it to the disproportionately male top of the professional world.
As is now well-known, the talk was spun off into a book called Lean In, which, like the talk, encourages women to overcome their obstacles to corporate success by doing things like “sitting at the table” and “making your partner a real partner.” It encourages women to form supportive “Lean In” circles at work, a sort of corporate echo of 1960s consciousness-raising groups, and the Lean In foundation says that “85 percent of members credit their Circle with a positive change in their life.” Because the book aims to increase equality by changing women’s behavior, Sandberg has little to say about social adjustments like paid leave or childcare (she has since posted on Facebook about her support of paid leave).
Before Sandberg’s addition to Facebook’s board and C-suite, the company had faced a barrage of criticism for its sexist work environment and 100 percent male corporate board. While Silicon Valley was the burgeoning center of the financial world, it had not caught up to the norms of other big industries, which mandate at least gestures toward gender and racial equity. Tech sites like Mashable had issued criticisms of the company (it didn’t help that it famously started as a “Hot or Not” system for ranking women at Harvard and remained powered primarily by people looking at photographs of women). Activists with UltraViolet—an online organization dedicated to combating sexism—had actually picketed the company’s New York offices to demand female board members. Facebook soon added Sandberg to the board, where today she is one of two women. With a blockbuster book launch—supported by corporate partners like American Express, JP Morgan Chase, and Walmart—Sandberg entered the stratosphere of bestselling authors. She was no longer just a tech heavyweight. Alan Murray, editor of Fortune, noted in an interview that “you have sort of achieved one-name status: You’re now Sheryl.” She talked women and work on Diane Sawyer’s stage and on Oprah. Facebook’s COO became the new face of feminism. And with that, Lean In changed Facebook’s public image from that of a new-economy boys club to the home of tech’s leading feminist. Zuckerberg weighed in (on Facebook) to declare Sandberg’s book “radically realistic.”
In April 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, now a bestselling author, returned to Harvard Business School to celebrate 50 years of HBS’s admitting women, at the W-50 conference just before graduation. The event also marked the conclusion of a two-year effort by HBS to fix rampant sexism at the institution, consistently lower scores for women, and an inability to retain female faculty. The school had also been tainted, like the rest of Harvard, by the scent of sexism that wafted from Larry Summers wherever he went—in 2005, while president of Harvard, he had remarked that perhaps innate differences were responsible for women’s lagging success in the sciences. According to a lengthy report by The New York Times, Harvard President Drew Faust had appointed a new dean of the business school in 2010 who had set about trying to remedy the problem by doing everything from placing stenographers in every classroom to help study class participation (a crucial part of grading) to intervening in campus social life.
Sandberg began her address by congratulating the women on graduating 50 years after the first woman entered HBS. She asked them to lean in to their future workplaces, and tell their future bosses what they needed, enlisting those (mostly) men in creating a more equitable workplace. She talked about her book and told a story about her brother, a surgeon who had told the women on his team that he would support their pregnancies. “I’m going to help you take a leave, I’m going to help you come back,” he had said. Sandberg concluded that “that conversation needs to start happening in every workplace in America. Every. Single. One.” In the evening, conference attendees retired to the DoubleTree, where just such a conversation was being opened.
On March 11, 2013, the DoubleTree workers presented their unionization petition to their manager. They arrived in a group that included workers, union staff, Harvard students, and members of the City Council. Lemus describes it as a positive day, “but with lots of fear and nerves.” Her role was to present the petition. After she introduced herself and began to explain the petition, the manager turned on his heels, walked out of the room, and “left me talking to myself.” It was clear from the beginning that DoubleTree’s management was not interested in conversation.
A month and a half after declaring their intent to form a union, and a few weeks after cleaning the rooms of the very W-50 attendees whom Sandberg urged to stand up for themselves at work, the DoubleTree workers filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Hilton of interfering in their unionization process. Instead of allowing for what unions call a fair process, Hilton wanted a ballot-box election. The problem with such elections is that they can be held on the premises, and the employer can keep out supportive workers on the day of the election. Without a fair-process agreement, the employer can also show workers anti-union propaganda and engage in threatening behavior like speaking to them individually about the harm that a union will do to their jobs.
The workers began the public phase of their campaign and, with it, the endless meetings that define organizing. Every day, Lemus met with students, other workers, sympathetic priests and City Council members. Sometimes she brought her daughters. “The little one doesn’t understand,” says Lemus, why they had to be out picketing in the rain and snow. “But the oldest is a 12-year-old girl and understand what I am doing and says, ‘Mami, I am proud of you because you don’t give up.’” At first, her husband warned her against putting her job in jeopardy. Not to mention the most important obstacle: “I had to leave my husband without dinner because I had to go to so many organizations and attend meetings and he would be upset.” Couldn’t he cook? “He burns water.”
The obvious strategy was to go after Harvard, the hotel’s owner. According to Local 26 President Brian Lang, that strategy was “based on our experience in the hotel industry. Most hotels are not owned by the companies that operate them, so we have a lot of experience dealing with the owner-operator dynamic and without exception at the end of the day we’ve found that the owner calls that shot.”
The seeming strangeness of a Harvard-owned hotel was less strange in the context of today’s hotel market, in which most are owned by real estate investment trusts and private equity companies. “Dealing with Harvard was just like dealing with another financial institution,” explains Lang. “They do a little education on the side. I don’t say that to be derogatory, it’s just useful for us to understand.”
Going after Harvard meant enlisting the Student Labor Action Movement. SLAM has been involved in a number of prominent Harvard actions over the years, mostly recently as part of the struggle to help dining-hall workers win benefits. As paying Harvard customers, SLAM students have the ability to demand time with administrators, hold protests on campus, and generally freak out the administration a lot more than workers can alone.
Karely Osorio is a Harvard junior (still a sophomore when we spoke) and and a first-generation college student whose parents came from Mexico to Texas before she was born. When she was a child, she had never heard of Harvard, and when she got in, with the support of appreciative teachers at her private high school for low-income kids, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. “People just assumed I would say ‘yes’ to Harvard,” she says. We’re across from the dining hall that workers fought to unionize 78 years ago, and from which they went on strike this fall after Harvard refused contract concessions. “I always had an image in my mind of Harvard as this school where rich white kids go. I didn’t know if I would fit in there. My high school was 90 percent Latino, many of us were English Language Learners, we were all low-income kids.” She feared she would miss her family, and she does. One of the first stories she encountered from DoubleTree was the report “DoubleTree, Double Standard,” in which Lemus describes incapacitating back pain. Osorio’s dad works installing carpets, and when he was involved in a car crash years ago, the damage to his back made the heavy work extra hard. “He always would ask if I wouldn’t mind giving him a massage or something, or ask, ‘Would you please get me a glass of water or bring my food because I’m just tired and I don’t want to get up?’ And just hearing that this was happening in this hotel that my school owned was just horrifying.”
Ignored and insulted by managers, the workers decided to go straight to the top, and, with the help of their Harvard student allies, attempted to meet with Harvard President Drew Faust, the first female president of Harvard and a respected historian who first made her name writing about plantation mistresses during the American Civil War. Sandra, one of Lemus’s fellow housekeepers, told me that when workers visited the president’s office “they allowed three of us to enter. But the secretary dealt with us because none of the higher-ups at Harvard would deal with us.” Lemus reported that “many times we’ve come to protest and to be heard by the office of the president, and the police have been called, and they’ve removed us as if we were criminals that don’t belong.”
The students tried to get to Faust by signing up for her office hours. Four times a year, she sets aside two hours, and students or groups can sign up for 10-minute slots. Osorio had attended one of these sessions on behalf of dining-hall workers (other students attended office hours to prevail on Faust to help the DoubleTree workers). According to Osorio, Faust seemed fairly uninterested, telling the delegation they were welcome to send a letter to her office. Osorio recalls Faust denying control over the situation and asking why the students were coming to her. Says Osorio, “I think our response to that is, even if you don’t have ultimate control, you definitely have influence.” Faust’s office did not respond to the Nation’s request for comment.
Harvard would not clarify to the students, workers, or union who might have a say within the Harvard administration, and to this day, no one outside knows who was pulling the strings. Non-office hour delegations that tried to meet with Faust were met by a firm secretary and campus security. Fellow female historians signed a letter, expressing their delight at seeing a female colleague leading Harvard and “puzzlement” at Harvard’s refusal to support a fair process for a 90 percent female workforce. Historian Amy Kesselman, who circulated the letter, received a response from Faust saying that she would forward the letter to the employer relations department, so, says Kesselman, “our effort to invoke sisterhood and solidarity didn’t work.” The response made Kesselman “feel a little naive.”
Meanwhile, the campaign for a fair process took many forms. Along with relentless leafleting and tabling, DoubleTree housekeepers and SLAM members dragged beds onto campus and challenged Harvard students to make them up to the exacting standards of DoubleTree. The workers stood by and graded the students, and apparently had not gotten the memo about Ivy League grade inflation—no As were awarded. Then on March 27, 2014, the workers called a boycott of the Harvard DoubleTree. Delegations to Harvard and to Hilton had failed. There weren’t many tactics left. The boycott kicked off with a picket on a cold Thursday, with more than 100 workers and supporters in attendance. Lemus took turns on the picket line with her kid. Osorio served as a translator for the media.
On April 3, during this boycott, Harvard Business School broke the boycott by offering participants lodging there during, ironically, the second annual Gender and Work Symposium. Dozens of women gathered to discuss how women could better excel in business, giving talks like “Prescriptions for Female Solidarity and Women’s Relationships” and “Branding Feminism: The Race to Recruit the ‘Lean In’ Generation.” The union says they put fliers in mailboxes at the business school and tried to meet with professors, all to no avail.
One month later, with the boycott ongoing, one of the union organizers heard that Sheryl Sandberg would be coming to give a speech at Harvard’s class day on May 28. Lemus headed up a petition effort to persuade Sheryl Sandberg to lead a Lean In circle with the DoubleTree workers, all women who hoped to better their working conditions with many of the benefits Sandberg had demanded for herself—maternity accommodations, wage increases, and so forth. The DoubleTree housekeepers made a lo-fi video in front of the hotel: “Sheryl!,” they say, “we are leaning in!” The Boston Globe covered their plea, as did the Crimson. The housekeepers figured that if Sandberg talked with Harvard administrators, they might listen to one of their most famous graduates. According to the union, Sandberg said she didn’t have time. Or, in Lemus’s blunter assessment: “Maybe she wasn’t going to have a moment for those of us who are just workers in the lower classes. She had more important things with people from upper classes.”
Sandberg spoke at class day, charmingly. She thanked the crowd for being there “given the weather, the one thing Harvard hasn’t figured out how to control.” Meanwhile, two City Council members boycotted graduation, noting that they were “ashamed” of Harvard’s resistance to a fair process for DoubleTree workers.
Nearly out of options, in November, the workers went on a one-day strike. It was the first hotel strike in Boston in 100 years. They woke up early. Some prayed together at an old Boston cathedral. The students strung signs across campus listing the workers’ complaints of injured backs and bad pregnancies. The workers cleared out their lockers the night before, in case they were fired. They went on strike all day, protesting outside, and refusing to work. But they weren’t fired. And they weren’t given a fair process. Nothing changed, and exhausted, they waited.
On April 7, the union summoned workers and students to their headquarters. Hilton had agreed to a fair process. Three years of fighting were over. To this day, no one knows if Faust conceded the workers’ point, or if some obscure Harvard office decided that the fight wasn’t worth it. On April 11, the workers announced that they had officially voted to join UNITE HERE!
Today, the workers at DoubleTree have successfully negotiated their first contract, which brings their working conditions in line with those at the other hotels represented by Local 26. They also have one unique provision: Workers have the explicit right to negotiate for lighter loads during pregnancy. This may not be much—the contract doesn’t mandate any particular outcome—but it’s the first of its kind in Boston hotels, and a concession to women’s needs that the union hopes to replicate and expand when all the hotels come up for simultaneous negotiations in 2018. The story, in short, has a happy ending. But, says Osorio, “It’s easy to look back in hindsight and be like, oh yeah they stood up, that’s great, but that’s because we won.” Had they lost, the women likely would have been out of a job. Asked to comment on DoubleTree today, Sandberg told The Nation through a spokesperson that “The workers at the DoubleTree Suites successfully unionized, and I support their rights to organize.”
The courageous battle waged by the DoubleTree housekeepers shows how women have, against the odds, united since well before the election of Donald Trump, when the enemies were often liberals and liberal institutions. Today when we ask, “How can we resist?,” we might look to their example. As Magally A. Miranda Alcazar and Kate D. Griffiths have pointed out, the most vulnerable women have actually been engaged in the most militant resistance this year—prison strikes, the movement for black lives, Standing Rock water protection, and the “a day without immigrants” protest. The struggle for union representation strikes at the heart of growing inequality.
This poses a challenge to powerful liberal feminists like Faust and Sandberg, both of whom have publicly taken issue with some of Trump’s plans. Faust has signed a letter decrying Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and Sandberg has published Facebook posts about her great-grandmother’s immigration from Lithuania and about the harm that reinstituting the Global Gag Rule would have on women who rely on US foreign aid. She has also, after the death of her husband, acknowledged the difficulty of single parenting and mothers’ need for more resources. After receiving voluminous criticism for not acknowledging the Women’s March, Sandberg donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood and met privately with Women’s March organizers. After all, to be a corporate feminist is still to be a feminist—Trump’s agenda is appalling even to those who are safe from its most immediate effects. And Sandberg’s brand is now so wrapped up with gender that failing to engage with recent feminist organizing stands to harm her reputation.
Engaging with Trump-resistant feminism will not be so easy, though. The price that high-up women often pay for the honor of first-in-the-boys-club is that of cleaning up misogyny, laundering capital’s reputation. Sandberg tried to save Summers’s reputation when he embarrassed himself at Harvard, penning an op-ed about his concern for women, and saved Zuckerberg and Facebook’s by becoming its official feminist. Faust righted Harvard after Summers drove it into a ditch and now travels to girls’ schools abroad to champion the importance of education for gender equity. On December 14, Donald Trump hosted a meeting with tech leaders, in which he aimed to smooth their rocky relationship. Sandberg attended, looking appropriately unimpressed. She was seated front and center, two seats from Trump, right next to Mike Pence, who voted three times against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act while he was in Congress. (A spokesperson for Sandberg says that she raised the issue of paid leave in the meeting.) Faced with a choice between protecting Facebook by playing ball with the new administration and rejecting an odious politician, there is only one way a responsible COO can go. Directly to Trump’s left was Palantir Chairman Peter Thiel, part of Trump’s transition team and a member of the Facebook board.
Worse, labor issues may continue to divide corporate and working-class feminists. Faust has continued to oppose labor-justice and unionization efforts on campus. This fall, dining-hall workers went on strike, citing management’s refusal to agree to a $35,000 minimum wage per year and better health-care benefits. Faust has also opposed efforts by graduate students to unionize, despite their precarious employment and low wages. Along with other Ivy League presidents, including famous liberals like Columbia University’s Lee Bollinger, she has taken her opposition to the National Labor Relations Board, filing an amicus brief arguing that graduate students are not really employees. Her chances of success are bolstered by Trump’s election; as a passionate opponent of organized labor, his NLRB is likely to shoot down a greater number of unionization efforts. Corporate feminists like Faust seem determined to demonstrate the reasons that working people have ceased to trust liberal authorities.
Sandberg seems to have done a better job of catching up with progressive politics. In 2015, she announced new standards for Facebook’s contractors and vendors, including a $15 minimum wage. She offers paid leave to Facebook employees and has said she supports national paid-leave legislation. Through a spokesperson, she told The Nation that “women who are single mothers, people of color, and women who lack resources are especially vulnerable…and I believe that women who don’t face those barriers have a responsibility to stand with women who do.” She recognized the value of unions in protecting workers, noting “it is important that workers continue to have the right to collectively bargain and do not face unfair barriers in their right to organize.” When asked if she would support women in pursuit of a union in the future, she stated, “I am not sure that it is logistically or practically possible for me to make individual endorsement decisions on all the specific efforts women and men take across our country.”
SLAM demonstrates a model for real solidarity. During some of the first female-led labor struggles, at the Lowell Mill in the 1830s, middle-class women, as described in Susan Faludi’s “Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” were horrified by a deadly factory collapse. They “flocked to provide emergency relief and, radicalized by what they witnessed, went on to establish day nurseries, medical clinics and hospitals, and cooperative housing to serve the needs of working women.” Or take the National Women’s Trade Union League, established in the United States in 1903. According to historian Dorothy Sue Cobble (Cobble was one of the historians who signed a letter to Faust), the organization benefited from the sponsorship of elites as it coordinated internationally with working women to demand international labor standards—but the leadership was required to be mostly working-class women, affiliated with trade unions. Efforts to appeal to women through feminist billionaires, as was attempted by Hillary Clinton with Sandburg’s endorsement, cannot help but highlight a sort of careerism that is alien to most women’s lives.
What the majority of women want has, in many ways, not changed—economic security, good and accessible childcare, freedom from violence, the pleasures of life with enough education and leisure time to allow us to flourish. But intractable problems remain: Pregnancy is penalized by lack of time off, or time off for women but not for men, which exacerbates the wage gap. Childcare has been deemed unaffordable by the Department of Health and Human Services in every single state. Ninety-eight percent of women in abusive relationships are subject to financial abuse, and a woman without an income has a hard time getting away—a topic that was the subject of Sandberg’s own undergraduate thesis, “Economic Factors and Intimate Violence.” Luckily, we actually know quite a bit about how to fix these things. In Sweden, women and men are motivated to take parental time off (if the man doesn’t take his time, they both lose some), ensuring family time and a smaller wage gap. We know that universal childcare, as organized in Norway, produces happy kids and greater gender equity. In fact, America almost had something comparable in 1971, when a bill for universal childcare passed both houses, only to be vetoed by Nixon under the influence of a young Pat Buchanan.
Lobbying for universal childcare, unionization, or any of the other things we know help most women would mean making enemies in a way that advocating for “empowerment” or “banning bossy” never would. It would mean a fight not just with Republicans (Sandberg gives money mostly to Democrats, although she has paid into Olympia’s List and Facebook’s PAC, both of which have supported several Republicans), but with Democrats, too, and maybe even some of Sandberg’s pals on the Davos circuit. It would mean being political, and it would not serve her as PR. It would not help Facebook. But it would place her considerable resources in the service of women. Without solidaristic feminism, in the words of Osorio, “you haven’t solved the problem. You’ve just solved your problem.”
When I asked Lemus what she would have Sandberg do, she offered that Sandberg had enough money to make the government listen to the needs of women. Osorio noted that Sandberg might listen to women who are unlike her. The problem is not that women like Sandberg and Faust have failed to be saviors; as the DoubleTree workers have shown, working-class women are leading their own movements and stand at the head of their own struggles. It’s that women like the DoubleTree housekeepers are doing the concrete work of increasing equality, and women like Faust and Sandberg are thwarting instead of helping them. It is possible for a woman to sound like a feminist, and serve the function of The Man. We don’t need them to lead us, but if they aren’t going to express solidarity, they can at least get out of the way.