The Problem with Penelope Trunk

I recently was talking to a friend of a friend about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, saying how I loved how it gave a broad overview to the conundrum of why women are doing better and better in university but these gains are not translating to women gaining powerful jobs. She suggested I read a blog that provides some counter arguments by a writer called Penelope Trunk. After reading the past year of blog posts from Trunk, I’ve compiled my response in this blog post, trying to be as brief as possible.

Here’s an example of some typical words of wisdom from Trunk:
I want people to feel like it’s fine to put getting married ahead of having a career. I want to feel like the friend who sits you down, with a hand on your shoulder to help steady you for the news. In this respect I think I’m part of a movement. And in that vein, here is a blog dedicated to showing the truth about life as a partner of a big law firm. I especially like the post that isan interview with a woman who couldn’t take maternity leave for either of her babies.”

Although she says “people”, I feel she’s specifically talking about/addressing women/women’s issues. As is typical with her writing/point of view, she accepts the status quo in the USA without question, celebrating/encouraging women to “lean out” of their carreers as being “better” for them (due to lack a societal/political protections), without showing awareness of having analysed other systems where there are fundamental differences, e.g. countries in which the state pays maternity/paternity leave, such as in Germany and Sweden.

Maybe that’s her defence mechanism. Contemplating changing society is too great for her,  so instead of comparing and contrasting different systems, she  vehemently embraces her situation and the society that made it difficult for her to carry on with her career. If she was really, truly satisfied with being a stay-at-home, homeschooling Mum, why have a blog as a platform to promote her books about career advice?

Although Trunk criticises Sandberg for lack of details about her home help (nannies, cleaners, child care etc), asking “how the single mother leans in”, she herself is also speaking from a position of privilege. The fact of the matter is that many households can’t afford for one partner not to work, or to work very little. Maybe Trunk can afford to do that as she took her own advice, going to business school “early” to “find a rich husband”
, as she advises young women to do.

I can’t help but think that Trunk’s vehement personal attacks on Sandberg, epitomised by her posts musing on whether Sandberg’s husband “killed himself” or not, come from some sort of feeling of guilt, as if she were being judged by society for making certain life choices (like giving up a career to focus on creating a family). This seems to cause a defensive reaction so great that she forgets about being compassionate towards a bereaved person, instead twisting the knife with a string of controversial posts, all for a few more paltry hits on her blog.

Dear Penelope Trunk,

Your personal life choices are exactly that: yours. No one has the right to make you feel bad about that. And I’m sorry that they do. People always have an opinion, and as women, we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

Please stop suggesting that women striving to have their own carreers causes their husbands to commit suicide, no matter how tempted you are by getting some extra blog hits. It is distasteful and damaging.

Also, not everyone wants to have children. And that’s OK too.

I leave you with this entertaining rant by John Oliver on the subject of paid family leave (maternity).


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