Books

How the Ideas of 19th Century Feminists Helped Me to Break Through the Glass Ceiling in My Career

The ideas of women Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott have enduring strength.

Photo Credit: Damien Maloney

The following is an excerpt from the new book Sharing the Work by Myra Strober (The MIT Press, 2016): 

“It’s because you live in Palo Alto,” the chairman of Berkeley’s economics department tells me.

“I can’t have a regular job here because I live in Palo Alto?” He nods.

Chairman Break is tall, with football-player shoulders, and although I’m tall too, his massive frame towers over me. He’s the bigshot in of one of the most prestigious economics departments in the country. I’m the assistant professor wannabe. If this meeting doesn’t go well, he could decide not to hire me for next year. Under my jacket, rivulets of perspiration are making their way down my dress-for-success blouse.

“You have to live in Berkeley to be on your tenure track?” Again he nods.

I’m baffled. I never knew that. My husband, Sam, is a medical resident at Stanford and works incredibly long hours. Often he goes back to his lab late at night to check on his experiments. We have to live in Palo Alto.

“OK,” I say softly, getting up to leave. “Thanks very much.”When I get to my office, my hands are shaking. I can hardly insert my key into the lock. I feel drained, disoriented. Did I take something out of the freezer for tonight’s dinner? Lamb chops? Hamburger? I dial home, but Margie, my babysitter, doesn’t pick up. She’s probably taken the kids out somewhere.

I leave my office and walk across Sproul Plaza, surprisingly quiet after all the years of student demonstrations. It’s 1970, and the Vietnam War is beginning to wind down. I slide into my full-size blue Chevy with a trunk large enough to hold both a stroller and a carriage, and review my meeting with Break. I spend a lot of time in Big Blue these days. It’s about an hour between Palo Alto and Berkeley in the morning and longer in the late afternoon, and I do the commute three days a week.

Gradually, crawling in stop-and-go traffic toward the Bay Bridge, the absurdity of Break’s answer registers. My first response is to cry. I grope around in my purse, pull out some tissue, and dab at my eyes. But now the road is blurry. I switch my thoughts to my children.

“Mommy, Mommy!” Jason, my three-year-old, will scream with delight when he hears my key in the door. And Liz, eleven months, will follow his lead; she’ll speed across the living room on all fours, tug on my leg, and make joyful noises.

Suddenly, the traffic starts to move. I can never tell why the snarls dissolve, but I’m always grateful. As I drive at normal speed, my thoughts turn back to Break, but this time, instead of tears, I’m aware of growing anger—at myself.

What’s wrong with you?I scream inside my head.You let him intimidate you. You let him make you mute. You’re a smart woman, and you let him make you look stupid. Faculty don’t have to live in Berkeley to be on the tenure track. He fed you pure bull, and you bought it. You want to know why you can’t have a tenure-track job at Berkeley? Look at what’s real. There are no women except Margaret in the whole economics department faculty, and though she’s been there for more than twenty years, she’s still a lecturer. Wake up!

The difference between a lecturer and an assistant professor is monumental. Assistant professors have a regular job with an opportunity for promotion and lifetime tenure. Lecturers, on the other hand, are on a road to nowhere. They’re appointed from year to year, generally only a few months before their teaching is to begin, and have no chance of advancing. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to be content with second-class citizenship. I intend to get the real deal at Berkeley.

When I finally get onto the Bay Bridge, my anger changes. Now I’m furious with Break. How dare he tell me I have to live in Berkeley? The radio is tuned to a talk station, and I register Joe Carcione, the popular “Green Grocer,” instructing the whole Bay Area about choosing pumpkins. Ah, Halloween is coming. Maybe I could revisit Break’s office in costume. Witch? Skeleton? Big Bird? Surely some costume could shake him out of his “we all have to live in Berkeley” routine.

With my sheath skirt and matching man-tailored jacket, I’m wearing stockings and high heels. The stockings feel sticky, and the shoes pinch every time I accelerate. How I would love to kick off those shoes. Whoever invented high heels definitely didn’t have driving in mind.

I’m getting angrier by the second—at the traffic, which has snarled again; at my gluey stockings and too-tight high heels; and at my own naiveté. But most of all I’m angry at Break. Slowly I begin to understand what people mean when they say their anger makes them see red, because a swelling fury, a deep scarlet anger, now floods the car. The steel frame and glass windows can’t contain it, and it bursts onto the road like a flaming oil slick—a torrent sliding over the bridge’s girders and thundering across the bay.

As the lights of San Francisco begin to flicker against the darkening sky, I feel a flicker of light within myself. I become a feminist on the Bay Bridge. The anger and enlightenment of that day will energize the rest of my life. They lead me to become one of the creators of a new academic field and new institutions to study sexism and fight it.

It’s the morning after my meeting with Break, and I’m exhausted from lack of sleep. Sam was on duty at the hospital last night, so I couldn’t debrief with him—and by the time I got Jason and Liz to bed, it was too late to call my East Coast friends. (Since we’ve just moved to Palo Alto, I have no friends here yet.) So I spent the evening pacing back and forth trying to figure out next steps, and after midnight my dreams endlessly replayed the meeting.

At 9 a.m. sharp, I’m on the phone.

“I need another appointment as soon as possible,” I tell Break’s secretary.

“One moment, please. I’ll check his calendar.” Long silence.

“He says he can’t see you until early November.” “That’s more than a month from now.”

“Yes, I know. He’s very busy.”

Busy! He’s not busy, I think to myself, he’s just a coward. I’d like to punch his secretary right through the phone line, but I put on my best party manners.

“Well, thank you very much. I’ll see him then.”

What does an academic do when she’s mad? Research! Armed with newfound rage, I begin to spend every spare moment in the library.

Libraries soothe me. Vast, quiet, orderly, calm, an escape from routine racket and discord. I’ve spent so much time in libraries—the public libraries of my childhood in Brooklyn, then the university libraries at Cornell, Tufts, MIT, and Harvard. I’ve had the privilege of delving into some of the finest collections in the world. So many hours reading the wisdom and foolishness of those who have gone before.

My Berkeley ID gets me into Green Library at Stanford, and I feel my usual awe in the presence of so much scholarship. The library at Trinity College Dublin has busts of all the great (male) philosophers looking down on the reading room. But even without a physical likeness of the authors in Green Library’s collection, I feel their presence.

On this day, however, I’m not in search of male wisdom. I’m on an entirely different mission: purposely searching out the writings of women, trying to understand why a woman with all the right training and credentials from top-notch schools is not treated the same as her male peers.

Green Library has that authentic library smell—musty books, furniture polish on the big wood tables and card catalogs, and the accumulated sweat of generations of academics. I feel at home. All morning, I thumb through the card catalog. Then, after a quick sandwich, I climb the stairs to the stacks to match the call numbers on my pad with those on the shelves. Sitting on the floor, I page through potentially promising volumes.

I’m surprised to find how much women wrote in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and chagrined that I’ve never heard of such women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. I’ve had more than twenty years of education, and the only feminist name I recognize is Susan B. Anthony’s. The sole feminist cause I know about is suffrage.

I’m also appalled to see how little contemporary material there is on women, and particularly how little by economists. I have a second major insight only a day after my first: the almost fifty years since women won the vote in the 1920s have been a wasteland for efforts on women’s behalf. As I write this, I’ve come to understand that historians think there wereimportant efforts to improve the situation of women in the mid-twentieth century, but on that day at Green Library, I can’t find a trace of it—not in my own knowledge base, and not in the card catalog.

My greatest delight is finding the Declaration of Sentiments, the manifesto that Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote and presented in 1848 to the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, it begins by listing grievances, and the injustices concerning work resonate powerfully with me:

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments …

He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself.

As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.

Aha, I think. Economics is like theology, medicine, and law—occupations men have monopolized, where they don’t want women. I’d always thought there were so few women economists because women didn’t want to be economists. But now I think perhaps the scarcity of women in my field is created not by women’s preferences but by men’s power. Somehow I squeezed through the system and got my PhD, but now George Break and company are fixing their mistake. I’m being closed out.

As an economics student, I learned a great deal about the evils of monopoly. Monopolists (think Standard Oil, Alcoa, U.S. Steel) restrict production, charge higher prices, and amass greater profits than they could if they faced competition. They serve only their own interests. Even conservative economists, who oppose government intervention in economic activity as a matter of principle, support regulation of monopoly power.

My studies also taught me that there could be monopoly in the labor market: so-called monopsony, when, for example, a single employer in a company town hires fewer employees and pays lower wages than that employer would if it had to compete for workers. In fact, one of the arguments in favor of labor unions is that they counteract employers’ monopsony power, increasing employment, raising wages, and lowering profits.

But I had never thought about monopoly or monopsony power in academe. I’d never thought about it concerning women and men, and I’d certainly never thought about it as an explanation for my situation. Stanton gives me an entirely new way to think about my meeting with Break.

I hardly have time to take pleasure in learning how to name the problem of women’s exclusion and relate it to what I know about monopoly when, just a few pages later, Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments moves to the solution. Fight! The last sentences of the document are an inspiring call to action:

"… the speedy success of our cause depends on the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly."

“OK, Mrs. Stanton, I’m with you,” I call back across the almost 150 years that separate us. “Count me in for the fight.”

I feel a great affinity with Stanton. As I sit reading her words in the Stanford library, I am only slightly younger than she was when she penned them. She was already a mother, and so am I. And we both came to the fight for women’s rights through experiences of personal discrimination.

Early in her marriage, in 1840, Stanton and her husband attended the first international antislavery conference in London. Women delegates were segregated into a special seating area and not permitted to speak. One of the first motions of the convention (offered by a man) would have given women full rights as delegates. But in the debate on the motion, those opposed argued that it was unseemly for women to speak out in public, and the motion was overwhelmingly defeated. Stanton later pointed to that defeat as the spark that ignited her fight.

At the London convention, Stanton met Lucretia Mott, a powerful and intelligent Quaker more than twenty years her senior. Quakers not only permitted women to speak in public, they encouraged it, and Mott was a well-known orator. She became Stanton’s mentor, and it was in 1848, when Mott came from Pennsylvania to visit Stanton in Seneca Falls, that the idea for a woman’s rights convention was born.

In the library, Stanton becomes my mentor. It doesn’t matter that she’s been dead for almost seventy years. My isolation diminishes. I don’t have the word for it yet, but what I feel is sisterhood.

Real-time sisterhood soon follows. Shortly after I discover Stanton and Mott, my interdepartmental mail includes a notice of a noon meeting of women lecturers at Berkeley. On the day of the meeting, directly after my morning class, I walk across campus to the faculty club, a large building with lovely shrubs on the exterior and handsome wood paneling inside.

Never have I seen so many academic women in one place. We are all in skirts or dresses, all wearing jackets. Our hairstyles are conservative, and many of us, though not I, wear glasses, perhaps an occupational hazard from years of nonstop reading. Some of us are short, some tall. We are in our thirties or forties and in good physical shape. Every one of us is Caucasian.

At the door, we fill out small tags with our names and departments and paste them on our jackets. We represent numerous fields, even the sciences. Some of us will turn out to be well known, including Alice Stone Ilchman, a lecturer in political science who will become president of Sarah Lawrence College. The faces are uniformly friendly, and conversation is easy. Two of my new acquaintances ask me to sit with them at lunch.

I can’t remember who chairs the meeting—perhaps anthropologist Laura Nader, sister of Ralph and one of the few women faculty members on the tenure track. Most of the attendees already know what the chairwoman is about to announce, but to me, it’s all new. She begins with some history.

“You all remember last spring, when we worked with the Women’s Equity Action League to file a complaint of sex discrimination at Berkeley with the Labor Department?”

“Oh, yes,” sounds a chorus of voices.

“Well,” she continues, “I have good news. The Labor Department has decided to investigate, and they’re sending a team from the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in a couple of weeks, definitely before the end of the quarter, to do a whole lot of interviews. They want to find out what’s going on here.”

A jubilant buzz follows her announcement, but I’m puzzled. “What’s this all about?” I ask the woman next to me.

“Well, about five years ago, President Johnson issued an executive order that prohibits discrimination, including sex discrimination, by federal contractors, and in the last couple of months, the Women’s Equity Action League has filed a whole bunch of complaints with the Labor Department on behalf of women at major universities saying that universities are engaging in sex discrimination. Nobody quite got it before that universities are federal contractors too, and that, just like businesses, they shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate against women.”

I guess I still look blank, because she continues.

“You know, almost all women faculty at Berkeley are lecturers. We want equal access to the tenure track. And we want to earn the same salaries as men. That’s why we helped to file the complaint.”

My heart starts to race. OK, OK. So this whole travesty is not just about me. I have company. Not only that, I have fighting company. Filing a complaint with the federal government must surely qualify as one of Stanton’s zealous and untiring efforts. I walk back to my office humming, something I haven’t done since my meeting with Break.

Excerpted from Sharing the Work: What My Family and Career Taught Me about Breaking Through (and Holding the Door Open for Others) by Myra Strober published last month by The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

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