When I was a teenager in the mid-80s, my parents laid out how my life was to be lived even before I lived it. As a girl, I was expected to find a job in a secretarial pool, or in a similar service-sector career, before marrying and having several children by the time I reached my mid-20s. Had I been a boy, I would have been encouraged to find a manual-labor job, ideally in a high-paying trade and as part of a union. Why go to college and struggle for a degree? My parents asked. Why reach for the stars when I could be happy on earth?
My dilemma was emblematic of the struggle so many professional women from the working-class have faced: the struggle to break free of the constraints of the working-class world and successfully segue into that of the upper class. Little is expected of children from the working class, and for working-class girls, even less is expected. This is why I opted to change the status quo by blazing a path to college instead of by following the path of least resistance and taking a clerical job, as so many of my peers had done.
What I learned by taking a different path was that all the struggles men have to escape the working class are amplified for women. This is because the working class traditionally defines women more strictly than it does men. In this world, where women as a rule don’t have parity with men, they are usually valued only for their ability to be mothers, housewives, and caregivers. Working-class parents, knowing that their daughters have especially poor life chances, will encourage their daughters into either working within the home or, at best, working within the aforementioned service sector, steering them into life and career paths that they believe will not disappoint them.
Working-class women face steering early on, while they are still very young. For example, a working-class girl tells her guidance counselor that she’s good with numbers and wants to go to college to be an engineer. She’s told that she could instead pursue a teaching degree and become an elementary-school math teacher, or that she could pursue a nursing degree because nursing uses a lot of math. Of course, working-class boys with an aptitude for numbers could face an equal amount of steering into professions deemed appropriate to their social standing. But for working-class girls, the struggle is always greater, and it all has to do with the perceptions the working class has of its women as nurturers and protectors.
Working-class women have traditionally been stereotyped by the professional upper class as obese, unattractive, undereducated, and prone to raising children alone and on public assistance. No matter how well-educated a working-class woman is these prejudices can often militate against her in her struggle for upward mobility. Also, in the upper-class world, where women are encouraged to be highly accomplished, even the educated working-class woman sometimes strikes a discordant note, either for her mannerisms or for her way of speech and comportment.
I have experienced this type of prejudice firsthand, when I applied for a job at a small, home-based business that was located on Philadelphia’s Main Line, an enclave of affluent, upper-class towns on the outskirts of the city. The proprietor chose to phone interview me for efficiency’s sake, and I was summarily contacted by a haughty woman who spoke in the classic stilted, clenched-teeth, Katharine Hepburn-esque Main Line accent. As she asked me what my qualifications were, I answered in the Philadelphia dialect I have been speaking my entire life. Mind you, all she had to go on was my voice and my resume, which, by the way, listed all my stellar academic achievements and plentiful experience. Fifteen minutes later, she emailed me – not called, but emailed – to let me know that she had just interviewed and hired a more suitable candidate and to thank me for my interest. I don’t know how naïve she thought I was to fall for that. It was obvious that my coarse accent had caused her to form a negative judgment about me and to disqualify me from consideration for the position.
The highly-educated working-class woman can often face ridicule and ostracism in her own world as well. When all her working-class peers can talk about is which bar to hit that night or whether or not the Eagles will win their next game or how many lottery tickets they should buy, and she discourses on Manet or Nihilism or the Pythagorean theorem, a certain disconnect takes place. Gradually and sadly, the people she has known her entire life begin to either distance themselves or completely drift away.
The working-class woman is deemed from girlhood to not have any gifts outside her aptitude to become a housewife or a menial laborer. She is therefore never expected to earn money from her intrinsic talents. Working-class parents don’t ponder whether their daughter will make better money as a lawyer or an accountant. Rather, they hope she’ll succeed in convincing her high-school sweetheart, who has a union job in a high-paying trade, to walk down the aisle. Such a man will make sure she and their children will be well cared for. In addition, he will also help her family by getting jobs in his union for her male relatives and by taking care of her parents in their old age. So the parents will push their daughter in that direction because the financial well-being of the family depends on her reeling in a big catch.
Young working-class women who are single and still living at home are a profit source, as they are expected to turn over most if not all of their pay to struggling parents desperate to put food on the table and keep the electricity running. I well remember my younger years where my parents expected me to hand over huge chucks of the money I earned for the “privilege” of living at home. It was agonizing for me to watch money that could have sent me back to school used instead by my parents to buy groceries or to pay their bills. Whatever goals these young women have wither on the vine, as money that could be put toward achieving them is instead diverted into their parents’ income streams.
The price a working-class woman pays for bucking the system is high, and caught between two worlds that hold stringent definitions of what a woman should be, she is never at home in either. Women intrepid enough to fight their way out of the working-class world pay a steep price, and not just in terms of money. Friendships fray, family members distance themselves, and she sometimes receives scorn and ridicule for her intelligence and talents. This scorn extends even into the upper-class world into which she has climbed. She finds no solace there, either, as her working-class roots brand her an outsider. But like the parable of the bumblebee, the intelligent, educated working-class women is going to fly no matter that conventional wisdom says she can’t…and fly she will.