Cracking the Glass Ceiling on Who Can Represent the Many

Hillary Clinton’s comment at the Democratic convention suggests we might be entering an era in which women can see ourselves represented in many diverse champions, writes Judith S. White.

August 24, 2016
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The line I will most remember from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech?

“After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”

I know it could be dismissed as a good headline and hardly historic rhetoric. Out of the context of the convention evening, it may not be profound. But I’d like to revisit it in the context of the convention’s closing event and my many years of work on “women’s issues.”

For four nights, convention watchers listened to many groups describing their goals and needs, as well as how they saw the Democratic Party and its presidential nominee prepared to address them. It seemed that almost everyone got a moment to be seen and heard. Some commentators referred to this as the pandering list.

But to most people who have been involved as campus activists over the years, it looked like the crucial ritual of acknowledgment -- a recognition of specific identities and issues not generally given airtime among priorities that garner resources. And it’s even more important that any women’s organization trying to make alliances articulate quite explicitly that we know women of many backgrounds and many men have differentiated concerns, those not immediately identified as “women’s issues.”

Can Women Represent the Whole?

The process of differentiation reflects a conundrum for advancing women: our concerns are identified as “women’s issues,” and those concerns are seen as different from rather than integral to all the other issues we share as members of our society. Rarely do we question as real and important a subject that systematically (even if unintentionally) excludes mention of women, but raising the question of their presence means women are separating themselves. Women can’t represent the whole.

On the convention's final evening, the ritual process ended a bit differently. After many groups had the opportunity to speak about their concerns, ending with women and “women’s issues,” Hillary Clinton came to speak. She mentioned the many groups but mostly talked about a large “we” who shared many hopes and goals. Then she brought that set of hopes and goals together by using a metaphor consistently used to convey the frustrations of women who face implicit restrictions, rarely spoken but still powerful: the glass ceiling on women’s advancement.

The metaphor is not inherently female, but it has been so closely associated with women it seems to have taken on a gender. Yet at that moment, as Clinton spoke of cracking the glass ceiling of limitations and clearing the way for sky-high possibilities, the crowd roared their collective identification with this smashing of boundaries. True, by Thursday night, it had been a well-orchestrated convention and the delegates might have roared at most anything. But Clinton’s skillful speechwriter and team had carefully chosen language that would offer a summation of the many different ways delegates and viewers had shared frustration and had broken through. The glass ceiling was finally broken on how a women’s metaphor could represent men, too.

Does that seem to stretch a point? Maybe, but I don’t think so. As one who started her career in higher education in the early days of developing Women’s studies, I was frequently asked, “Women’s studies? Does that mean studying just women?” No, I would reply, “it means not studying just men.” To add women, we had to announce we were there. That naming then immediately separated us from the core activities being studied. It would have been lovely to integrate women into all studies without this process, but most subjects were -- and too often still are -- defined in such a way that the work assigned to women, and many men, was not part of the canonical work of academic inquiry. Thus, we created separate programs in which to research and analyze the lives of women and everyone around them from the perspective of concerns that were not part of traditional subjects.

If Men Are Included, Shouldn’t We Change the Language?

Then, interesting debates started. People asked, if women’s studies is really about men, too, then shouldn’t we change the name to gender studies? Now that we realize men are involved, don’t we have to change the name to reflect their presence?

As the director of a Women’s Resource Center in the 1980s, I resisted with countersuggestions: maybe we should rename the English Department to reflect its specific content at this moment: Literature Written by White British and American Men. If adding women makes it women’s studies, shouldn’t excluding them get a gendered name, too? I understood the impulse that brought many campuses to name their programs and departments Women and Gender Studies or just Gender Studies. The work does include men and uses the concept of gender to question roles and parameters automatically assigned to the categories “women” and “men.”

At the same time, I chafed at the shift that meant no longer acknowledging women as the focus and source of this broader understanding. We were supposed to see women included when the plural “men” was used to represent us all. But men were never able to see themselves except when the representing form was neutral. Given our history, the neutral quickly became default male.

My concern was that as soon as those activities got more “neutral” names, we would lose the history of women’s contributions to change our society. That history, sadly, usually means hard struggle that has to be repeated in order to maintain full acknowledgment of women and their capacities. Will our struggle for inclusion always be rewarded with integration into the universal male -- which usually means a new round of invisibility for women?

Can Women Be Included Without Changing the Language -- and Losing the Focus?

Changing the language too often hides the history of struggle to change our exclusion. The tension around the importance of remembering those struggles is one of the issues that divides younger women from many of my generation. Interestingly, the posts on We Don’t Need Feminism! frequently acknowledge earlier work for women’s rights, then declare, “We can handle things ourselves now.” Women activists of my era -- second-wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s -- worked hard for changes that eliminated some of the most blatant forms of sex discrimination. We are delighted these younger women will not know those particular barriers.

But the focus on the history of feminist advocacy is about knowing that more barriers exist, and changes require attention to how women continue to be treated differently from men. Women need male allies who will join the struggle and expand the impact without losing the goals of advancing women.

Today’s young feminist activists -- the fourth and fifth waves my colleague Raymonda Burgman recently wrote about -- are making the critical alliances that expand the work of inclusion. They work with a much more diverse set of gender issues affecting the lives of women and men. They are clear about challenges women and many men share while also articulating the overlapping impacts and the intersections that need separate attention. They are also doing a better job than we did earlier in being explicit that that not all women are represented by a generic almost-always-white woman.

My generation is perhaps being overly insistent when we warn that women must still keep an explicit focus on “women’s issues.” But we have seen the many ways that discrimination against women and girls is reconfigured and continues despite so much apparent progress toward ending sexism. We do not want this generation to end up with some of our regrets of lost opportunities to keep women in the picture.

Seeing a woman accept the nomination of one of the two major parties as its candidate for president most certainly puts women in the picture today. Hearing everyone cheer at her woman-associated metaphor of breaking the glass ceiling suggests we might be entering an era in which we can see ourselves represented in many diverse champions, not just “neutral” ones. That’s the hope I take away from the convention and into my work with women leaders and men allies.


Judith S. White became president and executive director of HERS in 2005. For more information on HERS, visit


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