Glass Ceiling? What Glass Ceiling?

I've worked in a multitude of professional capacities over the years: intern, governmental agency assistant, mayoral staff aid, consultant, magazine reporter and writer. In a recent chatty phone call with my mother, I happened to mention in passing the common denominator in my disparate employment: that I've never remotely felt like I faced a "glass ceiling," and in fact have been highly respected and mentored by all of my male colleagues and bosses in every job I've had.

The deathly silence on the other end--a throwback to my more raucous teenage years--told me that I was in for it.

"Oh really?" she snorted. "That's the problem right there. Of course you think there's no glass ceiling. Because you haven't hit it yet. You should think about trying to get a new job or negotiate a better salary when you're around forty and have had a couple of kids and don't have the advantages of youth and attractiveness. Then you'll understand what a glass ceiling really means."

My mother wasn't just trying to teach me a lesson--she also happens to be district director of the U.S. Department of Labor, and has spent her thirty-plus year career fighting the rampant discrimination she's unearthed against women and minorities in companies that receive federal funding. Her comments shook me up, mainly because I've always considered myself an ardent feminist--erring on the side of women (single, working mothers in particular), passionately railing against the institutionalized barriers to advancement many women face--and suddenly I felt like a fraud. But not just because I haven't given much credence to the complexities (at best) of navigating the working world after I get a little older or have the kids I plan to have one day; upon further inspection (and especially once I graduated from an Ivy League University and entered the workforce with so many opportunities handed to me on a silver platter), I realized I also hadn't given an ounce of thought to the struggles my mom has gone through over the years raising my sister and me alone, and more importantly, without the obvious advantages of a very high level of education and/or income.

The recognition of my own hypocrisy is especially stark because I've been so disheartened reading all of the brouhaha about "choice" feminism and well-educated women who, if some specious data is to be believed, (which we now know it shouldn't) are "opting out" of very successful careers to stay home with their kids. Frankly, I don't really care what these women choose to do, as I am the least qualified person on earth to advocate or decry somebody else's idea of what a good (family/career) life consists of. But what's really bothered me (not to mention discovering that I have been reflexively thinking from a position squarely inside this paradigm) is the elitist lens through which feminism today is filtered. Does society at large somehow feel as though "elite" women are the only ones equipped enough to provide an apt foil with the men we're trying to gain equal footing with and the male-centric society we're trying to usurp?

It pisses me off that someone like Linda Hirshman (a feminist thinker whose work I tend to admire), who is so adamant in opposing the "opt-out" choice, also seems to bolster that very troubling assertion. She says in order to gain on men, women must "prepare [themselves] to qualify for good work," which in her mind consists of job titles such as lawyer, consultant, or banker, because "money is the marker of success in a market economy. It usually accompanies power and enables the bearer to wield power."

And that's where privileged women hold the advantage over everyone else, save for, of course, men. Forbes.com's Michael Noer (or "No-her," as it were) wanted to make sure we "feminists" know that at the end of the day, men are the only ones who count. That's why, he says, they shouldn't do something crazy like marry a woman with a career of her own because "the more successful she is, the more likely she is to grow dissatisfied with you." (In other words, what men have been doing to women since the beginning of time). However, he goes on to say the "career girl" he admonishes against marrying is most certainly not "a high-school dropout mining a cash register" but is instead has a "university level (or higher) education" and "makes more than $30,000 a year." In his eyes, only privileged women warranted enough threat to be publicly devalued and cut down to size.

People like Michael Noer--and the fact that we're even giving him the time of day--are precisely the reason why that unless we feminists don't begin to address our under-represented majority, we're not ever going to be able to change the system as it stands. It's like my mom told me (and she would certainly know), "When you're lying awake at night wondering how you're going to be able to buy your kids the books you want them to read, that's spirit-breaking." In other words, the real problem with choice feminism is not that some women decide to stay home with their kids. It's that many--most--women don't have the luxury of that very choice.