Senator Kamala Harris is prepared to "break things."
Senator Elizabeth Warren said she would "persist."
Senator Amy Klobuchar has challenged voters to discount women "at your own peril," while Representative Tulsi Gabbard insisted that a presidential race with six women is not an anomaly but "what an election should look like."
The women running for president are promising many things as they make their pitches to voters. They are being asked repeatedly how being women may affect their chances. But so far, none of them are emphasising the "glass ceiling."
In fact, the phrase "glass ceiling" was trending recently not because of anything the candidates had said but because of Nike. In an ad celebrating the World Cup-winning United States women's soccer team, a narrator intones, over black-and-white imagery of the players, the "I believe" chant — completing it to say that women will "conquer more than just the soccer field, like breaking every single glass ceiling."
The symbol remains intact. In politics, the phrase became associated with the aspirations of Hillary Clinton, who spoke at key moments of success and defeat about cracking the glass ceiling. But in this barrier-breaking field of female candidates, it is noticeably absent.
"Words have their moments, especially colloquialisms," said linguist Robin Lakoff, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, whose 1975 book, Language and Woman's Place, helped create the field of gender linguistics. "Often, after a word or phrase gets a lot of use, people simply stop using it — because we like to sound original and this one seems tired."
Which is not to say it is entirely verboten — or that metaphorical ceilings are not actually being shattered. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tweeted the term this month as part of a pledge for gender parity in national security, while Marianne Williamson notes on her campaign website that the "proverbial glass ceiling" is one of the things holding women back.
Aside from the record-breaking number of female candidates for president — along with those serving in Congress — there are more women CEOs in the Fortune 500 than ever before (though, of course, that number is still just 33), and a recent study published in the journal American Psychologist found that a majority of Americans believe women are just as competent as men — if not more.
"It's a pretty dramatic shift," said Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University who led the work, analysing public perceptions over 70 years.
Etymology of a term
As a term, the "glass ceiling" dates to around 1978, when it was discussed by female workers at Hewlett-Packard and used onstage at a panel discussion about women's aspirations by an employee of the New York Telephone Co. Each used it to describe the inability of white-collar women to rise beyond the mid-manager level in their jobs and the often invisible barriers preventing that rise.
The phrase gained traction in the mid-1980s, when it appeared in an article in Adweek (quoting the outgoing editor of Working Woman magazine) and then a headline in The Wall Street Journal ("The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs"). The New York Times ran an article in 1986 — the same year it proclaimed that, architecturally speaking, buildings made of see-through glass were "getting good reviews"— about the glass ceiling for female politicians, quoting Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization for Women.
"Our women tried to go higher, and I wonder whether they ran into a glass ceiling," Friedan said then, recalling the unsuccessful campaigns of Carol Bellamy for mayor of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman for Congress and Geraldine Ferraro for vice president.
"In corporations, women get to a middle level, and then there's a glass ceiling — not overt discrimination, just a feeling that you can go this high and no higher."
In the years following, the term continued to go mainstream — a kind of linguistic shorthand for a problem that could be difficult to pinpoint or describe.
By the 1990s it had been used to describe the experiences of Navy women, female lawyers, women in banking, older women, black professionals (women and men), women who worked on the campaign of George Bush and the plight of female journalists — as explained by The Washington Post's board chair at the time, Katharine Graham.
More recently, it has been uttered by the likes of Priyanka Chopra, actor Brie Larson (who this year played Captain Marvel in a rare female-led superhero film) and Madeleine Albright, who wore a glass-ceiling brooch to the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
The 'Highest, Hardest Glass Ceiling'
Still, nobody has used the allegory quite like Clinton, who has for years talked about the "highest, hardest glass ceiling" she was determined to crack. She spoke of it movingly in her 2008 concession speech, saying that while she was not able to shatter it, the ceiling now had "about 18 million cracks."
Eight years later, when she became the first female nominee of a major party's ticket, she leaned into the metaphor even harder. When she spoke by video to the Democratic National Convention a virtual glass ceiling broke onscreen; she accepted the nomination later in the week while saying, "When there are no ceilings, the sky's the limit."
And then, of course, there was the fateful night at the Javits Center in Manhattan, under a literal glass ceiling where confetti shaped like glass shards was supposed to rain from above as Clinton acknowledged victory.
"I remember thinking that the symbolism was going to feel so satisfying," said Emma Gray, 31, who reports on women's issues for HuffPost and remembers staring upward during a quiet moment at the Javits Center on election night. "We were under a literal glass ceiling and that ceiling was going to metaphorically shatter. And then it did not."
The next morning, Clinton gave a concession speech, and Google Search results for "glass ceiling" peaked, higher even than their previous peak during the Democratic National Convention that summer. She noted somberly that while "we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling," someone would, eventually.
'An Outdated Standard'
With six women in the 2020 race, perhaps the phrase seems "almost a little bit embarrassing, or maybe just irrelevant," said Lakoff, the linguist, adding that "of course it's not."
Which is not to say that the candidates are thinking about gender any less. To the contrary, the less they talk about it, the more it might indicate they're actually thinking about it more.
"There's a worry that if you draw too much attention to these biases, to your womanhood, that it reinforces people's doubts about it," said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business, pointing to research from the corporate world that illustrated that point.
"So if I were a female candidate in this cycle, which I realize is a strange sentence to say, I would be afraid that talking about the glass ceiling would only reinforce it."
And, anyway, there are other terms to play around with these days — such as "glass cliff," to describe the phenomenon of women and minorities being tasked with leadership during periods of crisis, which was recently added to Dictionary.com. (The "cliff" part is the idea that they're being set up to fail.)
Or "motherhood penalty" to describe bias specifically against working mothers and "likability trap" to refer to the challenge female leaders face by having to prove they are tough and likable at once.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old congresswoman from New York, has opted for "shake the table" and "build our own house" to describe breaking barriers, while Rep. Ayanna S. Pressley, the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, has noted that "When it comes to women of color candidates, folks don't just talk about a glass ceiling. What they describe is a concrete one."
This time around, Klobuchar noted that the term itself isn't just about winning the White House — it's about running in the first place. The number of women in the race is "a testament to the progress we have made," she said.
"There are still barriers, but the highest and hardest glass ceiling has so many cracks in it, it is well on its way to becoming an outdated standard."
Written by: Jessica Bennett
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES