PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- The U.S. Navy has made an unconventional choice to sponsor its newest submarine: Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who is known for advocating women's empowerment through her "Lean In" book and campaign.
Sponsors, who christen the ship, are always women but historically they were often the wives of senior officers or politicians with close ties to the Navy. According to Navy lore, sponsors are said to imbue a ship with their personalities.
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus chose Sandberg to sponsor the newest Virginia-class attack submarine, the USS Massachusetts. His spokesman, Capt. Patrick McNally, said Mabus looks for opportunities to connect the American public with their Navy.
"Expanding the variety of people who serve as sponsors is another avenue to strengthen that connection," McNally said in an email.
The first time Sandberg used the phrase "lean in," her shorthand for urging women to push for leadership roles in the workplace, was during a lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011.
Sandberg has publicly praised Mabus for changing personnel policies to empower women who serve, such as tripling paid maternity leave to 18 weeks. They have met several times and he visited her at Facebook headquarters in California, McNally said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says Sandberg's selection is an exciting statement about the Navy's future.
"She really has come to epitomize a successful empowered woman," he said Wednesday. "Her selection is merited in her own right. She's there because of what she has accomplished. She's not there as a partner or spouse."
Sandberg founded a nonprofit group to foster small support groups— "lean in circles" — to help women achieve their goals. The Department of Defense has partnered with the group to launch these circles throughout the military.
Sandberg has been critical of gender and racial biases within the military. She called on military leaders in September to "champion that equality makes us stronger."
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut said Sandberg will be the "public face" of the new submarine throughout its life. Courtney hopes she will inspire young girls to pursue careers in science and technology.
The Navy lifted its ban on women serving on submarines in 2010.
"We've got a lot of work to do as a country in terms of sparking that interest," Courtney said. "Having a high-profile person like her, I think, really sends a very powerful message."
Construction on the USS Massachusetts starts at General Dynamics Electric Boat's facility in Quonset Point, Rhode Island.
Sandberg went to Harvard in Massachusetts. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust was also chosen to sponsor a new submarine, the USS Vermont, McNally said.
Most of the submarines in the class, however, are sponsored by the wife or daughter of a politician or senior military leader. First Lady Michelle Obama sponsors the USS Illinois and former First Lady Laura Bush sponsors the USS Texas.
Sandberg could not immediately be reached for comment.
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Dave Goldberg and Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg to sponsor new Navy submarine
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is interviewed by Megyn Kelly, during a segment of her Fox News Channel âThe Kelly File,â program, in New York, Thursday, March 5, 2015. Sandberg has enlisted NBA stars LeBron James, Stephen Curry and some of the basketball league's other top players to convince more men to join the fight for women's rights at home and at work. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., left, and her husband David 'Dave' Goldberg, chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey, arrive to a morning session at the Sun Valley Lodge during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. Technology companies from Silicon Valley are expected to take center stage at this year's Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley conference as tech and media converge. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
DUBLIN, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 05: In this handout image supplied by Sportsfile, Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey, speaks on the centre stage during Day 2 of the 2014 Web Summit at the RDS on November 5, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE via Getty Images)
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., left, walks with her husband David 'Dave' Goldberg, chief executive officer of SurveyMonkey.com LLC, as they arrive at the Sun Valley Lodge ahead of the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Billionaires, chief executive officers, and leaders from the technology, media, and finance industries will gather this week at the Idaho mountain resort conference hosted by investment banking firm Allen & Co. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MUNICH, GERMANY - JANUARY 23: Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 23, 2012 in Munich, Germany. DLD (Digital - Life - Design) is a global conference network on innovation, digital, science and culture which connects business, creative and social leaders, opinion-formers and investors for crossover conversation and inspiration. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 09: Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, attend the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 9, 2014 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Many of the worlds wealthiest and most powerful businessmen from media, finance, and technology attend the annual week-long conference which is in its 32nd year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 08: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, arrive for the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 8, 2014 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Many of the worlds wealthiest and most powerful businessmen from media, finance, and technology attend the annual week-long conference which is in its 32nd year. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 10: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg arrive for morning session of the Allen & Co. annual conference at the Sun Valley Resort on July 10, 2013 in Sun Valley, Idaho. The resort is hosting corporate leaders for the 31st annual Allen & Co. media and technology conference where some of the wealthiest and most powerful executives in media, finance, politics and tech gather for weeklong meetings. Past attendees included Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
MENLO PARK, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks during a Safer Internet Day event at Facebook headquarters on February 10, 2015 in Menlo Park, California. California Attorney General Kamala Harris delivered the keynote speech at a Safer Internet Day event that is designed to promote safe, effective use of the internet and mobile technology. Safer Internet Day is celebrated in over 100 countries on the the second Tuesday in February. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SUN VALLEY, ID - JULY 09: JULY 10: Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and her husband David Goldberg arrives for the Allen & Co. annual conference on July 9, 2013 in Sun Valley, Idaho. The resort will host corporate leaders for the 31th annual Allen & Co. media and technology conference where some of the wealthiest and most powerful executives in media, finance, politics and tech gather for weeklong meetings which begins Tuesday. Past attendees included Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
FILE - This Jan. 15, 2013 file photo shows Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. âLean Inâ is now in its 15th printing and has sold 600,000 copies just three months after publication, Bogaards said Thursday, June 6. Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, has been encouraging a national conversation on how women can advance in their careers. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, file)
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, left, and Dave Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey, arrive at the Sun Valley Inn for the 2011 Allen and Co. Sun Valley Conference, Wednesday, July 6, 2011, in Sun Valley, Idaho (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)