Sara Whitman

The Glass Ceiling: 18 Million Cracks and Counting

Filed By Sara Whitman | June 11, 2008 9:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, feminism, gender issues, Hillary Rodham Clinton, HRC, sexism, woman president, women's issues

In Senator Clinton's speech on Saturday, when she gave up her place in the race for President and gave her support to Senator Obama, she mentioned not having broken the "glass ceiling."

But she had made "18 million cracks in it."

I've thought a lot about Clinton's speech- at least what I've read, the clips I've seen. I could not watch it. It made me too sad. I believe she was the stronger and better of the candidates. I believe she was electable.

Mostly, though? She was a woman. As my friend said to me when I was considering who to vote for, whom to support, you've waited your whole life to see a woman in this place.

I have.

As a kid, I never understood why women or girls were treated differently. I could throw just as far and spit just as well. I knew when my mother would say girls don't do that... if I asked why... I was fortunate in that she thought about it and if she couldn't come up with an answer that made any sense, she let me do it.

As a young woman, I found myself bound by gender definitions that did not fit me. While it was acceptable to be a 'tom boy' as a girl, growing into adulthood, the expectations came crashing down on me. As I reached puberty, I was to be more feminine. I was expected to wear make up. I was expected to wear dresses in certain social situations. In my first job after college, my review included a note to be more feminine in appearance. My work was exceptional- but they requested more skirts, perhaps some heels.

I was a catering manager. I worked 12-hour days on my feet. Heels?

While my fellow co-worker, who wore the same suit day in and day out, with comfortable shoes, received a glowing review.

It didn't matter how he looked as long as he was neat. Groomed.

I was neat and groomed. I wore tailored women's suits- just with pants instead of skirts. It wasn't good enough.

I began to see how the world was made to fit men. Silly things, like the fact that our zippers are on the side or in the back of our clothes. More serious things like our legal rights to decide about our bodies being defined by government.

Can you image laws protecting sperm?

Why not?

Because, as I've found over and over again in my life, the gender roles women have been assigned are to keep power firmly in the hands of men.

As a parent, I have become keenly aware of gender roles and identification. Raising three boys, I see how being labeled "feminine" or in any way female is a disgrace to them. Sissy, wimp, Nancy boy... all references to a male as being less than, not good enough.

All references to a male being female.


After all, women can give birth, heal in a short period of time, and feed a human infant for up to a year without anything but her body.

Is that a definition of weakness? Or power?

Why is it okay to call a woman a bitch, to comment on her clothes, laugh and hairstyle instead of taking her seriously as a candidate? Or worse- making it part of the serious discussion of her as a candidate?

Why did my son tell me, Mom, Clinton will never win. She's a woman.

At 12 years old.

Girls may outperform boys in schools but the lessons being taught are far from anything we want our girls to learn. Just as a system that creates a 70% failure rate in African American boys has been successfully designed to fail those children, a system that sends girls out into the world with straight A's only to face from boardroom to courtroom, from pregnancy to contraception, from unequal pay to domestic violence, being handed the short end of the stick.

How do we dissect what is being taught to girls? And boys? How do we look at the gender role creation in our society? How do we evaluate all of our lives with a gender lens?

As I said to a friend yesterday, it's not simply about sexism. It's not only about the negative images but also about what are we reinforcing as positive behavior. Why are girls getting "good grades" and still unable to break through glass ceilings? How is our educational system failing girls?

And in turn, failing boys?

Personally, I don't want women's power to be defined as what a white man has. I don't want that- it's only led to haves and have nots, war and caste systems that have served no one but the master on top. Women are more intuitive, creative and linear is only something you hang laundry on outside. We value our children and instinctively move to protect them, protect the future of humanity. We move in public and private roles, often at great cost.

We must do more, be more conscious and question the roles we learn at 3, 4 and 5 years old. Gender is not biological but a social construct. We must find a way to teach our girls and boys the value of women's roles and the power behind them. We must flip the images on their side and reconsider what they mean.

Because, clearly, 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling is not enough to crash it down.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 11, 2008 8:41 AM

Sara, this is just beautiful! Thank you for all the boys told not to cry, who had to go in to therapy, and all the girls who were natural leaders who were called bossy.

I recommend you bring yourself to watch the speech. Yes, you will cry, but you will cry while standing up applauding. The speech helped wipe away a lot of the ugliness of these past few months, because she has so clearly risen about it all and wants to same for other women. Funny, because China aside, Clinton was never really all that identified with women's issues. I think the campaign really changed her, because as she heard the stories of so many women around the country, she realized what her moment in history really was, and thats paving the way for other women in the future. Watch the speech. You will feel like change is possible.

Thank you for your post! I campaigned for Hillary but I think deep down I knew she didn't have a chance. She couldn't get all the way through that glass ceiling.

It's interesting what you wrote about not wanting women's power to be defined by what a white man has. Society does seem to run according to white man's standards. Any hint of non-masculinity in a boy is suspect. That's why gay men are so feared and hated by the "white heterosexual male." Anything that remotely resembles femininity in a man is considered "less than." Young boys are taught to live up to "manly standards of behavior." Of course women can't be included in this category. So no matter how talented, clever or smart a woman is, she never lives up to those standards that are subjectively given by the white heterosexual male. It all boils down to being different - not being better than or worse than - just about being different.

Hillary Clinton has contributed so much to this political season, even if she didn't win. I think most people on the left should be glad she ran.

As I told Jerame the other day, it bothers me to see her close to breaking through. While I think she'd be a horrible vice-president for political reasons, I rather hope he picks her just to help shatter more glass.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 12, 2008 9:08 AM

Sara, when Jayne Byrne was elected mayor of Chicago she was the gutsiest person imaginable. I sent her a fan letter about her fortitude moving into Cabrini Greene to force the Chicago police to provide security to a blighted public housing building that she could even see from her home on Chestnut street in downtown. When she was defeated after one term I was saddened when people would say garbage like:

She didn't smile enough.

She wasn't feminine enough.

I responded: If a man made half the right decisions she had made and double the wrong decisions she made he would have been re elected. That was already 24 years ago (oh shit I am 55!) and it is better and will get better.