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Sandberg book advice in reaching for stars

Opinion Column

Donna Brazile

Donna Brazile

Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” has sparked a debate about the role of women in America — and everywhere else. She’s a self-described feminist who has been pilloried by the professional feminists for what she’s written.

Sandberg comes along at a good time. The firebrand feminists of the 1970s are barely heard from anymore. It’s been decades since a young woman felt she needed to burn her bra in public. The movie “Nine to Five” that supposedly ignited American women to rebellion is now a late-night classic rerun.

But it’s been only four years and a few months since Hillary Clinton came close to being nominated for president, and thus breaking perhaps the biggest barrier to women. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time,” Clinton told her supporters, “thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”

The “Feminist Revolution” has been around for centuries. It goes back much further than our American Revolution. Here it began with Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, who wrote her husband this advice as he worked in Philadelphia with other men, establishing a new nation:

“By the way, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”

Reformers and revolutionaries recognized that, for change to come, they needed to confront prejudices and long-held customs — their own included. Sandberg has taken the fight for women’s equality to the next level: She says at this stage, it’s women more than men who are holding women back. And they do it in part, she writes, by repeating sexist figures of speech.

Sandberg has written, from the parts I’ve read, a wonderfully readable book, laced with personal examples from her life and that of her family — including her divorce, pregnancies — everything a woman would share with another woman. It is an advice book for women seeking to reach the stars.

Sandberg is now the chief operating officer at Facebook, who realized her first day at work that Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, “was only 7 years old when I graduated from college.” She faced immediate resistance at Facebook. A colleague welcomed her by telling Sandberg she was “about to ruin Facebook forever.”

But Sandberg “leaned in,” pressed ahead, in other words, and observed as she went along, gathering lessons to share. Columnist Katha Pollitt, writing in The Nation, found much to like in the reading.

“Sandberg’s voice is modest, humorous, warm and enthusiastic. (I should mention that I attended a dinner she hosted for women writers and found her much the same in person.) She’s like someone who’s just taken Women’s Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends.”

Still, the lessons can be hard to bear:

“Much of what she says struck me as applicable to many women I know, including myself,” Pollitt says. “By the time I finished the book, my life looked like a blighted wasteland of missed opportunities.” Yet, Pollitt (a very successful writer) was so inspired that she bought two copies of Sandberg’s book, one for each of her daughters.

Sandberg’s suggestion that today’s women can “have it all” has sparked almost as much heated debate as her “lean in” advice. Critics say her book is slanted toward women of advantage, rather than the everywoman. (Don’t worry. Sandberg, despite her accomplishments, is the embodiment of the everywoman.) But the “have it all” debate is a sidebar. The phrase has as many personal meanings as the number of people who read it.

It’s Sandberg’s main focus — lifting women’s consciousness — that we should discuss. We need to talk about how we buy into self-defeating stereotypes that short-circuit our potential. I learned to embrace my gender’s qualities at my mother’s knee — while she raised nine children and worked two jobs. I learned to be a surrogate mother while she was at work, and to cook. We both “leaned in” to our jobs.

Having the desire to mentor, or mother, is a strength, not a weakness. We need to celebrate that and honor it. Women do differ from men in the emotions that are most pronounced in each; we should embrace what is ours. We each have our own unique perspective to offer; we each deserve the opportunity to share ours. Women also differ in the way we view and tackle problems. We have the right to solve our own.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.