Sheryl Sandberg advises women to “lean in;” the dangling preposition in her book title tells me that Sandberg offers little substance. She offers process without a predicate. Yes, I just judged a book by its cover.
More problematic than the ambiguous title is the megalomaniacal image that accompanies it. I know that I am to idolise the attractive face that bedecks the facile words. Beware the autobiography that attempts to preach solutions based on individual experience. I no more want Sheryl Sandberg’s life than my husband (thank heavens) wants to emulate Steve Jobs. When a book bears a solitary human face on it’s cover - whether that person is male or female, living or dead - a sermon awaits you. The sermon may be a hagiography: classic whitewash that hides all human foibles from the reader’s view. The sermon may be a jeremiad: woe betide the reader who succumbs to the same sins as the subject. Ms. Sandberg’s falls into the former category.
When Ms. Sandberg leans in, she runs a company obsessed with faces and known for its questionable ethics and stocks. Mr. Jobs’ face gazed piercingly from his biography. He too valued appearances and lent in when he verbally abused those who made his aesthetic forms function. I would rather live in a world where neither Sandberg’s nor Jobs’ style takes precedence over the dignity demonstrated by those who pursue a good life defined in terms of humanity embraced not dollars stashed.
Melissa Harris-Perry devoted an hour of her show to a roundtable discussion of Sandberg’s book. One panelist, Valarie Kaur, raised the issue that higher education intends to probe: what is a good life? Kaur argued that she and her friends share my disinterest, and indeed, distaste at life lived in the ‘C Suite.’ Ironically, despite Sandberg’s desire to land more women in the corporate board room, leaning in shrinks any circle. Rather than guiding more women to exist within the materially comfortable, but morally compromised, one percent, we need to redefine success to include more than money. Kaur said she and her friends look forward to childbearing with fear. The choice between curtailing other women’s lives (low wage nannies and housekeepers) in order to liberate their own and attempting to do everything at the cost of enjoying anything justifiably frightens. Kaur wants enough money to be comfortable and enough time to spend with loved ones and loved projects - wouldn’t we all?
So long as the subject of discussion remains individual people, whether Anne Marie Slaughter or Sheryl Sandberg, the circle remains closed. Slaughter stepped back, while Sandberg leaned in, and Amy Chua roared. No wonder Kaur and her friends feel confused. If they take each individual example as possessed of the ‘right’ answer, the rising generation of women will expire from the side-effects of these mutually-exclusive prescriptions.
The conversation about the good life came at the same time that the photos of Richard Briers’ funeral ran in Britain. Briers starred in a seventies sitcom called “The Good Life” about a London commercial artist who calls it quits to practice self-sufficiency in the suburbs. Every episode highlighted the frisky fun of Briers’ character with his wife over that of his successful, executive neighbor and his uptight, social-climbing wife. No crying children with their correlated stresses curbed this bit of pre-Thatcher, anti-capitalist fantasy. Hardly a feminist statement piece, the show portrayed a couple committed to making (literally) just enough as far happier, more generous - yes successful - than their frenetically affluent neighbors.
The good life has many messy forms in the real world. I hope Slaughter, Sandberg, and Chua live their individual definitions of the good life. I would prefer not to walk in their shoes. I have no doubt they would hate to walk in mine. That’s as it should be. A world of clones would be dire indeed.
Evanston, Illinois in the US.
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.