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Glass Slipper, Glass Ceiling: The War Among Women, and How it Got that Way

Democratic operativeHilary Rosen got into trouble the other dayfor saying that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.”Her comment’s getting widely criticized as rude. I think it’s also inaccurate. In my experience, no “work” was more demanding than staying home with an infant.  Rosen meant to say that Romney had never been a wage-earner, which is apparently true.

Inspired by Rosen’s dust-up, CNN headlined, “War Over Women Rages a Second Day.”

We’ve got so many wars raging that you could easily forget about the one that actually involves human lives and limbs getting lost in Afghanistan.

But Rosen’s comment is one skirmish among many in another war to add to the list: a war among women.

Let’s consider how this war began. Six decades ago, women weren’t divided over stay-at-home motherhood. There were no “motherhood wars”—just motherhood. Women didn’t share the same life circumstances in the 1950s–at all–but they had a similar dream, across class. The glass slipper, Cinderella dream of falling in love, marrying, having kids, and staying home was pretty much a consensus one. Only trailblazers and mavericks flouted it.  

In 1970, an AAUW survey found that among the “best-educated” women, almost half still thought that a woman’s major role was “wife and mother.” In 1965, 70 percent of women just graduated from an elite university planned not to work at all after children. Half the women in America were married by age 20 in 1959, across all classes. The elite-educated Alix Kates Shulman recalls, “I hadn’t really wanted to marry at all. But…only freaks didn’t…. Old maids started forming at 21.”

The wealthy Ann Romneys differed from their working-class sisters mostly in circumstances, not aspiration. They wouldn’t have to be wage-earners after they got married, while poorer women might. In 1959 sociologist Vance Packard distinguished between wives who could “power the local charity drives,” and others who “had to go to work.”

One reason that women shared the glass slipper dream is because they didn’t have much choice. With institutionalized sex segregation, no amount of money or class privilege could buy a woman admission to Yale or the Gridiron Club. No amount of money could trump corporate rules against the promotion of women. Almost all wage-earning women (90%) made $5,000 or less a year, so even if you dreamed of a self-supporting, fulfilling career, your options weren’t great.

In 1956, the number of women graduated from all U.S. law schools would have fit comfortably in a large Starbucks. A 1963 study asked 430 law firms to rate personal characteristics. Being a woman drew the most negative reactions of all, after “Incompetents.” In these ways, and as a class, women were in the same boat—even the rich ones.

The women’s movement changed that. With the Title VII trump card in hand, feminists slayed the “male-only” United Airlines “executive flights;” they integrated all-male clubs; they filed complaints against every law school in the U.S. that received Federal money for discriminatory admissions; they opened the Ivy League and professional schools to women; they moved from the stifling “women’s balcony” of the National Press Club to the front row.

 In the 1970s, women made the most dramatic gains in workforce participation and occupational distribution in history.  

 Dreams changed too. By 1983, a stunning 85 percent of elite college women aspired to have it all, to be “married career women with children.”   

These women didn’t just want the glass slipper. They also wanted to use the glass slipper to shatter the glass ceiling of the professions.

 “I can’t picture myself [just] married,” a Princeton undergraduate 1979. “Maybe I resent the diversion of so much energy into such a small undertaking because truly, in the grand scale of things, one marriage is pretty small.” Although a blunt, non-family values statement by today’s standards, this wasn’t an unusual view–and it pointed to a division in how marriage and motherhood was perceived as an aspiration.

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 The Civil Rights Act removed barriers against women, on account of sex—which inevitably unleashed differences among women, on account of class. This wasn’t feminism’s “fault,” but a collateral complication of feminism’s success.

Women with bachelor’s and graduates degrees were “entrenching themselves in Upper America” and achieving “striking gains” economically in the 1980s, comments Kevin Phillips. Less educated women and single mothers didn’t fare as well and became a “have-not constituency.”

 By 1983, 20% of women held a professional or managerial job, the exact percentage as among men. In the early 1990s, they were inching closer to a majority in college enrollment, and to parity in medical and law schools.

Meanwhile, service jobs that didn’t require college paid little, and the skilled, blue-collar trades that might offer economic independence didn’t open up in the ways the professions did. One in a hundred electricians or firefighters (1%) was a woman in 1960, a little more than 1% in 1983, and, in 1998, 2%. The percentages are similar for heating and air conditioning mechanics, machinery repairers, painters, construction workers, and truck drivers.

The more feminism succeeded in creating a level playing field for women with men, the more divisions among women emerged, and the more vulnerable a consensus view became—or, really, a consensus dream about what gave a woman’s life a sense of purpose, value, identity, and social authority. 

Rosen was trying to highlight one aspect of this division–most women in America don’t have the latitude that Romney does or, indeed, that many well-paid career women do.

It came out badly. Women’s comments on other women’s parental lifestyles often do. Instead of sisterly unity, we occasionally get something closer to the sororial rivalries of King Lear. That doesn’t mean that feminism failed, but that it succeeded–and that we still have more work to do.


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