Rules of One's Own

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annua
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer and Member of the Board of Facebook, speaks during a panel session at the 43rd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Keystone/Jean-Christophe Bott)

As Jews around the world start to prepare for Passover, our holiday that remembers our enslavement and journey to freedom, we face a mixed message. On the one hand, during our Seders -- ritual meals where we recite the story of the exodus from Egypt and chant prayers of gratitude -- rules relax. Rather than sit stiffly in our seats, Seder guests are allowed to slouch to the left, recline on a pillow or, to use a phrase in current parlance, "lean in." Celebrate freedom, sing and question the rules, the holiday proposes. On the other hand, Passover presents tough rules. No bread -- not even a crumb -- is allowed in the home. Jews must eat matzo, unleavened bread, to remember the rush out of Egypt when bread didn't have time to rise. We must taste bitter herbs to remember our ancestors' suffering. If you are more observant, even tougher rules emerge. Housecleaning involves scouring the home for crumbs, changing dishes, pots and pans and utensils and shopping for foods stamped with "kosher for Passover" by the rabbis. Celebrating freedom actually presents a tension between abiding by rules and relaxing them.

"Leaning in" seems to be the phrase of the moment. Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean-In hit bookstores this week, promising women the wisdom to command more authority and success in the workplace. Many writers and columnists have debated whether Sandberg is elitist or progressive in her position as both a wealthy COO and a self-declared feminist. An attempt to place more women in positions of power ignites debate and fury. Flooded with hearing and reading stories about Sandberg, I've been thinking about how we face rules that hold us back and how we lean in. This is a tension we can examine during Passover.

I haven't yet read the book (I wasn't given an advance copy), but Sandberg had me at the quote she gave Jodi Kantor in The New York Times, saying that we "hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in."

How women moderate strength and power -- how we keep moving out of our metaphorical enslavement -- captivates our imaginations. And, as Susan Faludi wisely observed in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, when we push forward, some backlash results. Some like to characterize feminists as shrill and angry. There are even daughters of groundbreaking feminists who direct their rage at their mothers (and their mothers' feminist arguments) rather than at patriarchy. So, it's not surprising that discussions switch ever so quickly from the content contained within a book's pages to critiques of the conditions of the hand of the woman writing. I am not focusing here on the qualities of the writer's hand but rather on the message -- that of how to explore a tension between rules and freedom.

The recent hype and debate around a book that tackles how women lean in, hold back, or otherwise conduct ourselves, reminds me of the publication in 1995 of a "self-help" book called The Rules, although that agenda involved turning back the progress made by feminism rather than trying to move it forward. Marketed as an instructive guide for single women hoping to master the mysteries of dating, The Rules repackaged patriarchal and hetero-normal divisions of power and gender, arguing that women should not actively pursue those they desire but rather should be pursued. By manipulating "the game" of dating, such logic reinforces a traditional paradigm in which women are passive sleeping beauties waiting to be awakened by a Prince Charming. Happily-ever-after dreams will come true for the woman who can "just say no." Sandberg's book shifts the focus from the marriage plot to the workforce and promises to progress feminist aims and revive debate. Despite their many differences, both books instruct women how to behave and both have garnered significant media attention.

This week, I am thinking about rules, freedom, leaning in and holding back. I am not only planning my Passover meal, but I am also exploring my professional drive. I've been in the process of writing a book for many years. Years. I would like to finish it. But I get distracted from writing by all kinds of rules and obligations that consume my day, causing me to "hold back." To remind me that it's OK to delay such things as washing breakfast dishes so I can devote time to writing, I hang a dishtowel on the over door that pictures a 1950s housewife and reads: "a clean house is the sign of a wasted life." I try to heed Nora Ephron's wish that: "I hope you will choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there." Despite Ephron's guidance and periodic glances at my ironic dishtowel, I still walk around with lists of things to do -- not only home and work obligations (cleaning my apartment, doing my laundry, preparing class, grading papers), but also old-fashioned ladylike rules, such as selecting "just right" birthday gifts, compiling family photos into albums, and hand-writing thank you notes. I have other rules too, about social service, responsibility and action. They manifest in ways large and small. For instance, despite pleas from my daughter to step into a clothing store on our corner with mannequins in funky clothing, I refuse. Entering would mean breaking my rule to shop only at stores that donate to our public school auction. Loyalty and community giving rank high among my rules. How certain rules appear on my list is, admittedly, more mysterious than religious dictates that spell out how to clean one's house of crumbs. I use the word "appropriate" so often that my kids and husband wink at one another when it comes out of my mouth. But don't many of us have idiosyncratic rules that interweave objective responsibilities and unconscious moral dictates? Mine mix a dash of Martha Stewart, Sigmund Freud, Simone de Beauvoir and Vogue magazine. Go figure -- many contradictions there. The origin of those rules is a puzzle too complex to unravel in one blog post. But I have been thinking about how my rules keep me from "leaning in." Much of the time they have to do with how I think about the needs and expectations of the Other. It's certainly not a bad thing to think of others -- in fact, I would argue it's part of a feminist agenda -- but being "appropriate" and keeping up with my rules can detract me from my "leaning in" to my work. Sometimes, one needs to be inappropriate.

Despite my own internal contradictions, I'm always surprised when I hear other people dictate traditional "rules," especially to children. Haven't our consciousnesses been raised beyond heterosexism and patriarchy? As the mother of a teenage daughter and a "tween" son, I aspire to create an egalitarian home where sex and gender "rules" hold no sway over either child. Gloria Steinem brilliantly observed that: "We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters." Boys should be allowed to cry and talk about feelings. Girls need not objectify themselves for boys nor inhibit their sexual desires for fear of the stigma of judgmental elders. Nevertheless, I frequently hear "rules" recited to developing girls by well-intentioned parents. They pop up like the pesky pimples on my chin, just when I think the surface is clear. Some sound reasonable -- shorts should be longer than the underwear line, shirts should cover at least most of the torso, no bikini posts on Facebook -- while others seem to come straight out of June Cleaver's mouth.

But since I struggle with my own bizarre rules, I cannot be too judgmental. Instead, I wonder, how can I explore or relax my internal rules, especially the ones that hold me back from my writing? As I await my copy of Lean In, I turn to a book that has sat on my shelf since college and will remain by my side until I die: Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. In her brilliant meditation on the subject of "women and fiction" Woolf begins by setting out two rules: "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." Like Sandberg, Woolf has been critiqued as elitist. She had servants and cooks. She came from an established literary family. She wrote about white women. All true. But Virginia Woolf's insights have been expanded upon by women of color (for example, Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens.) Woolf shone a light into the difficulty for all women to write if they were denied education, if they had to write anonymously due to fear of repercussion, if they were denied control of their bodies and reproductive rights, if they had to suppress their unconventional desires, and if they had to spend their lives working to sustain themselves rather than create fiction. By articulating her own observation of basic "rules" -- the need to provide equal financial, educational and professional opportunities for women -- Woolf has helped many women to break many of the rules that hold us back.

This Passover, I will ask my Seder guests to share rules they'd like to abandon and how they'd like to "lean in." After encouraging girls and women to "break the rules," Nora Ephron added: "I hope you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women." If we want to set our books upon the shelves, we have to write them -- not only for ourselves but also for other women. Freedom is a journey that demands deconstructing the rues, leaning in and, as Woolf envisions, allowing Shakespeare's sisters to emerge.