Sheryl Sandberg's new book, Lean In, may be good, but it's the backlash that has people talking. Is Sandberg the best - or worst - role model for young feminists?
FORTUNE — I began Lean In anticipating a repackaging of Facebook FB COO Sheryl Sandberg’s TED and Barnard speeches, which targeted my demographic (I’m 23). There are the expected chapters on not leaving before you leave and finding a soulmate who also loves changing diapers. But it’s the breezy stories about Sandberg’s life that sparkle more than her sweeping advice.
Did you know that … Her kids almost spread lice to a bunch of Silicon Valley execs while flying home from a conference on eBay’s EBAY corporate jet. (Gross!) In 1996, Sandberg sat in on a meeting about restructuring the IRS; then-Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin called her out, asking for her opinion. Silence followed, as she knew nothing about the topic. (Totally been there!) Sandberg has anxieties about not being a stay-at-home mom. (No way!)
Sandberg claims Lean In is “sort of” a feminist manifesto. For me, it was simply a powerful woman’s tale of getting to the top. My amoebic blob of a career, very much in its infancy, appreciated the nuggets of wisdom shared. Finishing the last page, I thought: This is a book every young woman needs.
These past two weeks, I found out I was wrong. Very wrong. Lean In means something different to each of its readers.
There are those who claim Sandberg’s book distracts from feminism’s larger goal of institutional change and instead focuses on the personal– and Lean In‘s followup campaign is all about Sandberg. (Maureen Dowd)
A louder contingent believes Lean In excludes large groups of women lacking Sandberg’s financial privilege. Who does she think she is, preaching from her 1% cloud of wealth? (Jodi Kantor)
Sandberg spends the better part of her book presupposing these sorts of criticisms, apologizing that her words don’t meet universal demands, but she still can’t catch a break. Even Time magazine “celebrates” the Silicon Valley executive with a far-from-positive headline on its cover: Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful.
The bashing is unsurprising, as it’s become something of a trend to tear apart powerful corporate females in an attempt to promote the women’s movement. (See guys, we are confusing!)
Perhaps no book can be a “feminist manifesto” today because there’s no one-size-fits all definition of a feminist. My twentysomething friends and I are feminists, though we don’t often define ourselves as such. Feminists aren’t supposed to like The Bachelor. (We do.) They don’t hang out with fratty boys who sometimes make politically incorrect jokes. (We do.) Feminists don’t trash-talk other women. (Oh wait, nevermind.)
To put it bluntly, we don’t have the same hangups as older generations — what feminism means, what a feminist voice sounds like, and what a female role model looks like. (And that, of course, is because of the many battles those women fought and won.) We just want to be successful at whatever we do. Period.
I gladly accept Sandberg as my generation’s motivational cheerleader; I respect her. But instead of seeing her as the prescription, I see her as an inspiration. Ironically, her critics lean on her to be their all-purpose feminist solution — and the anger directed toward her for not solving women’s social, economic, and workplace problems in less than 200 pages polarizes an already confused movement.
When asked about returning to politics in Time‘s most recent issue, Sandberg says there’s interest but now is “not the right time for my family.” The Lean In platform certainly doesn’t harm any aspirations she may (secretly) have. She’s young, powerful, wealthy, and passionate — qualities that allow her to eventually create institutional change where it really matters: Capitol Hill. Too bad for her that she’s not seen as the political voice every woman needs.