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Goodbye to All That: The Fracturing of Sisterhood
Nancy Astor became a political superstar at the twentieth century’s beginning. Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady, was the UK’s first female prime minister and an icon of the century’s later decades. And as a new century got under way, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic primaries and his party’s presidential nomination.
Three women. Three careers. They frame this book, and frame a century in which educated women’s lives were transformed. Astor, Thatcher and Clinton take us from an old world to a world that is still very new; and Clinton’s defeat is as central to the story as Astor’s or Thatcher’s victory.
Nancy Astor was an American, born in Virginia in 1879 and married to one of the world’s richest men, Waldorf Astor. She was famous as the first woman to enter Britain’s Parliament, a society hostess and an agitator for social reform. She became an MP in 1919, just twelve years after Finland elected the world’s first-ever female legislators, and held a tough urban seat for twenty-five years through the Great Depression and eight general elections. She died with the Vietnam War raging and Swinging London already a cliché. And yet none of this would have happened if her older sister had not been stunningly beautiful.
Nancy’s father, Chillie Langhorne, was a Southerner. He made his money after the Civil War, as a contractor providing labor for the railroads, and his beautiful second daughter, Irene, became a “Belle of the Ball.” For that reason, and that reason alone, his family were launched into first New York and then European society.
White Sulphur Springs is a hot-water spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and was a center of the Southern marriage market before and after the Civil War. “To get to the Springs, to lead a masked ball . . . to be a reigning Belle, was the only ideal in life worth pursuing for a southern debutante . . . Your life could be transformed by one appearance at a ball,” explains Irene’s great-nephew. Irene Langhorne’s beauty made her not only the Belle of Virginia balls, but one of America’s “top four Belles”; she was selected to lead the Grand March at New York’s Patriarchs’ Ball, the “great annual event of the Gilded Age.” That meant, in 1893, instant stardom. And it was that stardom, based entirely on Irene’s looks, that ushered her younger sisters, including Nancy, into New York and European top society, with a far larger and richer range of potential husbands.
Yet by 1964, the year that Nancy died, a very different Member of Parliament was just eleven years short of capturing the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher was a graduate research chemist turned lawyer. She had already been in Parliament for five years; she would become both the UK’s first female prime minister and the longest-serving British prime minister of the twentieth century. Her father owned a small shop in a nondescript provincial town. Her only sibling became a shy farmer’s wife. And her life changed not because of a ball but through an academic scholarship to the University of Oxford.
And why is Hillary Clinton a third key figure? Why were the 2008 Democratic primaries so important? Because of why a woman lost.
Hillary Clinton entered the primaries as the front-runner. She had strong support among the female working class and she and Obama were level-pegging among the non-college young. But what mattered was the college vote, where women are the clear majority. That vote turned out in force, unlike young non-college voters. As Elizabeth Cline, in The New Republic, noted, “girl-power momentum” told. But it wasn’t behind Clinton. It was behind Obama.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Barack Obama was a defining moment in the story of today’s successful women. Not because a woman could well have taken the US presidential nomination but, on the contrary, because what ultimately decided those primaries were the votes of a certain sort of woman. And those women didn’t think that the candidate’s gender mattered.
For many of today’s young women, being female is not the most important thing about their lives. It does not define their fate in the way it did for all females in previous human history, including women born as recently as Nancy Astor and her sisters. In those 2008 primaries, college-based voters, both women and men, signed up to Obama’s promise of change. Which is just another way of saying that contemporary college women do not think there is any strong reason to vote for a woman candidate just because she is a woman.
For today’s graduate women, education opens up the world, as it did for Mrs. Thatcher. These women are successful. They increasingly hold postgraduate as well as full bachelor’s degrees, they do professional and managerial jobs in a world where women can hold almost any position and they earn at levels that were inconceivable a short while ago.
These women are also a minority. At most, around a fifth of the adult female population falls clearly into this group, which combines higher education, good incomes and prestigious occupations. But then, highly educated, high-earning professional men also number only about 15 to 20 percent of males in the developed world, and far fewer in developing countries.
Feminists once talked of “the sisterhood,” but educated successful women today have fewer interests in common with other women than ever before. As we will see, they are increasingly distinctive in their patterns of dating, marriage, child-bearing and child-rearing. But above all, women have parted company from each other in their working lives. The highly educated professional minority now have careers that are increasingly like those of the successful men they work alongside. In this shared work environment, it is entirely normal that professional women should be ambitious, and that men can and do work for women, and not just the other way round. And this drives wholesale social change.
The workplace is newly central to women’s lives, but of course women have always worked. They worked in fields, gardens and homes; they looked after children, nursed the sick at home, prepared food from scratch, sewed and mended clothes. “They worked their fingers to the bone,” as the saying went. It was not only the poor who worked hard. Through most of history, middle-class and affluent women also worked long hours on domestic tasks and caring for their families.
Until recently, though, only poorer women worked for wages, and they, even after the Industrial Revolution, worked overwhelmingly in other people’s houses. They were paid, in other words, to do the domestic jobs they would also carry out in their own homes as daughters and, hopefully, as wives.
For all classes, marriage was women’s desired near-universal goal. There’s a moment in the first episode of the hit TV series Mad Men that encapsulates not just the 1950s but all of previous history. Joan Holloway, the office manager of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, features. She is “mid-twenties, incredibly put together,” says the script, and she has advice for a new secretary—female, of course—who is commuting into the city.
In a couple of years, with the right moves, you’ll be in the city with the rest of us.
Of course, if you really make the right moves, you’ll be out in the country and you won’t be going to work at all.
It is the 1950s version of long-standing advice. In 1800 or 1850, 1900 or 1950, working-class girls went to work in their early teens. They worked to earn, contributing to the family finances. If they stayed single, they kept working. But if they made a decent marriage, to a man with a stable, reasonably paid job, they stayed at home.
This pattern was later-arriving for middle-class girls, and hardly applied to the rich, but only because, through most of history, these girls never took paid employment at all. Right through to the mid-twentieth century, even in the industrialized West, the most common single pattern for a woman—any woman—was to work for pay until she married and then stop.
The history of the marriage bar tells us how unquestioned all this was. From the late nineteenth century, educated middle-class girls started to enter paid employment in large numbers, as teachers, nurses or civil servants. They too stopped work on marriage. Indeed, few could have continued even if they wished. In most countries the public sector, their main employer, had a statutory marriage bar for women teachers and civil servants that lasted until startlingly recently. You stayed single or you yielded your job in favor of a male breadwinner.
In the US, economic historian Claudia Goldin estimates that the marriage bar, at its height, affected three-quarters of local school boards and more than 50 percent of all office workers. It was largely abandoned in the 1940s, but persisted into the 1950s in some places. A marriage bar for teachers and the civil service lasted until 1945 in the UK; until 1957 for civil servants in the Netherlands, the 1960s in Australia, 1973 in Ireland. I remember, in my intolerant teens, disapproving rather of an aunt who had quit teaching when she got married; I had no idea that, a few years earlier, she would have had no choice. She herself saw her behavior as totally normal. Staying home was what married women did.
And she definitely wanted to be married. Women did. We can barely imagine the terror that spinsterhood inspired in a world built around marriage. Being an “old maid” and being left “on the shelf” condemned you to a life with little or no respect and few opportunities. And this was true for every type of woman, middle and working class, educated and uneducated alike.
Wars were catastrophic, not just for the young men killed and maimed, but also for the women who would have married and now never could. In America, the Civil War resulted in by far the largest number of American casualties ever, in absolute let alone relative terms: well over half a million men perished, and in the Confederate States this encompassed almost one in five of all white males aged thirteen to forty-three.
In 1920s England, France and Germany, it was the slaughter of the First World War that hit societies on a massive scale. Suddenly there were far more young women in the population than young men. Millions of women, across much of Europe, had lost boyfriends, fiancés and husbands. Those in their twenties at the end of the war were hardest-hit: 35 percent of these women failed to marry.
What had happened was devastating; but the newspapers of the time also make clear how much people’s responses were shaped by a common assumption. Women existed in order to be wives. If there were no husbands, they were now surplus to requirements.
In her moving book about this generation, Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson quotes some comments from the British press:
“Problem of the Surplus Woman—Two Million Who Can Never Become Wives” (Daily Express headline, 1921)
“Britain’s problem of two million superfluous women” (Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail)
“Two millions of surplus woman-folk” (The Times, 1921)
One of that First World War generation, her fiancé dead, remembered sitting in the train at the end of the day, “looking at the white, indifferent, tired faces opposite me [as] the wheels sang ‘surplus two million, surplus two million,’ and I was one of them.”
This was not just a problem for the educated. Nor was it just a problem for the poor. The “surplus” women came from all classes; because for all women in all classes, life as a married woman, raising children in a home of one’s own, was seen as the best and natural existence. Women were indeed “sisters under their skin.”
Only in the final third of the twentieth century did this global pattern vanish. And with it the commonality of human females’ lives.
At first sight, this isn’t obvious. Women still want to get married; and large numbers do, albeit fewer and fewer, as we will see below. A world of married women at home has been replaced by a world in which most married women work. Everywhere, they get out of the house, away from the sink, finding sociability as well as financial independence in adult employment.
But adult female employment today isn’t a common shared experience in the way that tending home and family used to be. On the contrary, it sorts and separates. Women differ profoundly in how they work, when they work and why. And a good place to start exploring the change is Scandinavia.
Degrees of separation
Is there a female Paradise on earth? You might think so—a Nordic one, perched up above the fifty-fifth parallel, on the shores of the Baltic Sea.
Scandinavians are seen by the world, and see themselves, as flag-bearers for sexual equality. They are peaceful, egalitarian and economically successful; and they pioneered social programs designed to guarantee opportunities for women. As well as free nurseries and preschool provision, they offer extremely generous paid maternity and parental leave. They have declared war on the “glass ceilings” that may be blocking women’s progress: most recently when Norway required all large public companies to make sure their boards were at least 30 percent female.
The Scandinavians set out to do well by women. Yet today they provide the clearest illustration of how yawning gaps open between different groups of contemporary working women. And the two things are linked.
We tend to think about discrimination and equal opportunities in numerical terms: the number of women on company boards or in the cabinet, whether there are female airline pilots, or carpenters, or marines. Given its strong commitment to opening up opportunities for women, you might reasonably expect that in Scandinavia if anywhere men and women would be working alongside each other, equally represented at every level of every occupation.
People certainly do expect exactly that. At a 2012 book launch in New York, for example, I sat listening to East Coast Americans assuring each other that sexual stereotyping had vanished from Scandinavia; men took just as much time off when children were born as women did; and Swedish men were just as likely to be home, or on nursery duty, as Swedish women. So yes, you’d probably expect it. And you’d be wrong.
In fact, the highest levels of gender segregation anywhere in the developed world are found in the labor markets of egalitarian welfare-state Scandinavia. The International Labour Organization, a diligent observer of labor market inequalities, has calculated that if you wanted to make all occupations “gender neutral” about a third of all Scandinavian workers would have to move to a completely different occupation.
So is this rank hypocrisy at work? Not in the least. Scandinavian labor markets are like those of the whole developed West. They have professional occupations where women are succeeding alongside men. And then they have lower-paid occupations that are overwhelmingly female or overwhelmingly male. That is exactly what happens everywhere in the developed world; but in Scandinavia the divide between the two is even larger and sharper than for the rest of us. To understand why is also to explain how the modern workplace detaches our female elites from both history and the rest of female-kind.