Silicon Valley and the Pentagon may not yet be especially close, but yesterday they symbolically got at least one little step closer. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, is the sponsor for the new USS Massachusetts, a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, whose construction is set to begin in 2018.
Sponsoring ships is a tradition that goes back centuries if not longer. In the United States Navy, sponsors attend the keel-laying of the ship, etching their initials into it. When it comes time to christen a ship, the sponsor will be the one who smashes a bottle upon its bow, and at the commissioning, the sponsor is supposed to say “Man our ship and bring her to life,” imbuing the whole affair with an aura of reanimation.
In 2010, the Navy began the process of opening service in submarines to women. It began integrating women earlier this year. In May, Sandberg took to Facebook to praise Navy secretary Ray Mabus, writing:
Last week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus introduced new measures to empower women who serve—including doubling maternity leave, extending childcare hours, boosting career flexibility, and pushing to recruit more women in the Navy and Marine Corps. These changes will make a world of difference — especially to those with young families — and will create a more inclusive military. Women play a mission-critical role in our armed forces, and leaders like Secretary Mabus are showing that supporting them isn't just about what we say—it's about what we do. #LeanIn
It is perhaps in this spirit that Mabus named Sandberg the sponsor of the vessel. If the future can give us a Captain Janeway in the Federation, then surely the present can make way for submarines crewed and commanded by women.