Heritage Winter 2014 : Page 12

WINTER 2014 cclaimed as one of the world’s wealthiest businesswomen, Sheryl Sandberg has somewhat inadvertently stimulated renewed attention to Jewish women’s exceptional achievements. Her recent book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013) conveys a feminist-inflected message. Ambitious and talented women ought not sell themselves short as they seek to balance career and family life. But Lean In is not only impressive autobiography with a heavy dose of self-help advice; it evokes (without always acknowledging) a number of longstanding American and American Jewish themes. Lean In has been frequently compared with a path-breaking book by another Jewish woman, Betty Friedan. In fact, Sandberg’s memoir shares polemical aspects with Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique , a work credited with helping launch a second wave of feminism in the United States that took the women’s movement well beyond the struggle for mere legal equality. However, unlike Friedan (who expressed surprise at the impact of The Feminine Mystique ), Sandberg actually anticipates the possibility of creating a movement around her book. Toward this end she has established Lean In, a non-profit organization promoting change for women and girls. Sandberg’s book has older pedigrees than Friedan. It resonates with another famous Jewish woman’s story, Mary Antin’s autobiography The Promised Land . This 1912 memoir of an immigrant from Polotzk to 19th-century Boston recalls the arc of slave narratives as well as Christian “born again” themes and Enlightenment ideals of the re-creation of self. “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over… Is it not time to write my life story?” Antin asks in her famous opening. Her question could aptly characterize Sandberg since she, too, traces an account of self-transformation. In Sandberg’s case, she describes herself as a high academic achiever, a rather bossy sister, and someone who was convinced she needed to marry after college (which she did). Only after that marriage quickly ended did Sandberg seek out the challenges that would lead to her phenomenal success. Veering from the established and preferred path for women turned out to be crucial to her accomplishments. As the historian Werner Sollors observes in his introduction to the centennial reissue of Antin’s book, Antin asks her readers, “Should I be sitting here, chattering of my infantile adventures, if I did not know that I was speaking for thousands?” Sandberg, too, imagines that she is speaking for thousands. She repeatedly references data on women in the workplace to complement her own personal story. Lean In’ s strong showing on The New York Times bestseller list appears to justify her assumption. In addition to these links to the earlier writings of American Jewish women like Antin and Friedan, Sandberg’s success story inevitably brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s classic autobiography. Franklin A begins by addressing his son: “Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a stage of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world,” not to mention enjoying considerable “felicity,” he deems it worthwhile to compose an autobiography “fit to be imitated.” Sandberg, too, has acquired both enormous wealth and reputation, although she did not grow up in either poverty or obscurity but rather in an upper-middle-class Jewish home. Nevertheless, her ascent is dizzying. She occupies an enviable position as a woman at the top of one of the newest Internet industries. She sits on Facebook’s board of directors, the only woman to do so. And she, too, writes her life story because she implicitly sees it “fit to be imitated.” Sandberg begins her book: “I got pregnant with my first child in the summer of 2004. At the time I was running the online sales and operations groups at Google.” Lest readers think she walked into a famous, established company, she explains. “I had joined the company three and a half years earlier when it was an obscure start-up with a few hundred employees in a rundown office building.” This is an opening worthy of both Franklin and Antin. Sandberg begins at a moment of transformation: she is months away from becoming a mother, and Google is similarly poised to become “a company of thousands” located in a “multibuilding campus.” Of course, joining a company with hundreds of employees hardly matches arriving unemployed in Philadelphia with a loaf of bread under your arm as Franklin did. Nevertheless, Sandberg’s Dr. Joel Sandberg and Adele Sandberg were co-founders of the south Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry (SFCSJ). During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, SFCSJ published a series of books that documented up-to-date histories of Soviet Jewish refuseniks, which served as an essential resource for activists worldwide. In the photo below, the Sandbergs present volumes of the case histories to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin circa 1980. AJHS holds the Joel and Adele Sandberg Papers. 12 www.ajhs.org

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