Is the Working Class Just Sexist?

IN THE 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton and her surrogates hammered again and again on the idea that breaking the “highest, hardest glass ceiling”172 would be an historic achievement. Her planned victory celebration was even going to be held in a building with a massive glass ceiling and would feature confetti that looked like shattered glass, reinforcing that central campaign metaphor.

It was a class-clueless metaphor.

Shattering the glass ceiling means giving privileged women access to the high-level jobs now held almost exclusively by privileged men. And for many professional women, it’s a meaningful dream—which is why so many of those women felt completely gutted by Clinton’s loss. In her they saw a woman who, like themselves, had been forced to walk the likability/competence tightrope, who had often put her husband’s career ahead of her own needs, and who, over and over again, had been held to a vastly higher standard than less qualified men. Watching her shatter that ceiling was a dream that mattered deeply to them. Indeed, a key message of the election, drowned out by all the attention to class (including by me) after the 2016 election, is that the glass ceiling is more shatter-resistant than most of us thought.

But can you explain why a white working-class audience—male or female—should care about it? They don’t. It’s not that the working class is more sexist. It’s that gender, and gender equality, mean something different in the working-class context. Working-class women would never get near the C-suite even if they were men.

Many working-class women have the same kinds of pink-collar jobs their mothers did, but their husbands don’t have the blue-collar jobs their fathers did. As a result, their families are in precarious shape economically. It is in these women’s self-interest, and their families’ self-interest, to get those blue-collar jobs back. The Tea Party women Hochschild met in Louisiana (virtually all of them employed or retired from jobs) based their politics on “their role as wives and mothers—and they wanted to be wives to high-earning men and to enjoy the luxury, as one woman put it, of being a homemaker.”173 Their focus was not on gender equality. A woman from the Appalachian section of Ohio said that she was voting to save her boyfriend’s job.174 “If I turned down every candidate who objectified women,” a nurse observed tartly, “I’d vote for no one.” “I have so many friends whose health care costs have doubled and are having to get extra jobs just to pay their insurance,” observed a Chattanooga student studying to be a mortgage broker.175 Trump won among white working-class women by 28 percentage points; if Clinton had won even 50% of their votes, she would have won the election.176

What working-class women see is that blue-collar jobs with good pay are heavily gendered as male; men ensure they remain so through severe sexual harassment of women who try to enter.177 It can be porn on the walls, or a disgusting photoshopped picture in your locker. Co-workers may refuse to train you, or loosen a screw so that using a tool can maim you.178 Not surprising, then, that most working-class white women don’t aspire to “men’s work.” Instead, they invest more of their identity in family in a very gendered way. Arlie Hochschild summarized their feelings: “‘I may not be the boss here, but I have another life where I am’ . . . ‘I may be subordinate here, but I express myself fully at home.’179

The poor quality of child care adds to the allure of stay-at-home motherhood. “For most working-class families . . . child care often is patched together in ways that leave parents anxious and children in jeopardy,” noted a 1994 study that described a family in which the oldest—age nine—was home alone after school. This mother said wistfully she wanted to quit but couldn’t, because they needed the money.180

The problem has only gotten worse since 1994. Remember tag teaming from Chapter 3, where mom works one shift and dad works a different one? Here’s a typical scenario, from a family with children ages 9, 2-1/2, and 18 months, where dad is a day laborer, the mom a janitor. “By the time Manuel comes home from work, I have left for work,” said Flor. “When I get home around 11:30 p.m., Manuel is asleep. The next morning at 5:00 a.m. when Manuel leaves for work, I am asleep. It doesn’t give us much time together.” For many working-class families, having mothers in the workforce represents not gender equality but stress and disruption. Tag-team parents divorce at three to six times the national rate.181

For working-class whites, and Latinos like Manuel and Flor, the breadwinner-homemaker family looks pretty good, not just for practical reasons but also for symbolic ones.

The notion that women belong at home while men went out to work emerged in the nineteenth century;182 from the beginning, it was a key way that elites distinguished themselves from the working class. A man’s ability to support his family signaled his status. Having a stay-at-home wife became something the working class aspired to. In the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. working class attained the breadwinner-housewife ideal for two brief generations. By the twenty-first century, a new generation of workers had lost the ability to sustain the ideal they had seen their parents and grandparents achieve.183 Small wonder many felt bereft.

Among whites, the breadwinner role unites men, but stay-at-home motherhood divides women. For working-class white women, becoming a homemaker signals a rise in status, not only for herself but for her entire family. But for PME women, becoming a stay-at-home mother entails a fall in status, from investment banker to “just a homemaker.” The diminished value of caregiving in the elite is best dramatized by stay-at-home moms’ painful loss of status. In a milieu where social honor stems chiefly from work devotion, telling people you are “just a housewife” can lead them literally to turn tail and flee at cocktail parties. Perhaps the best example is when a former New York Times reporter, after she quit to care for her baby, was asked, “Didn’t you used to be Ann Crittenden?”184

Note that on this issue, African-American families have always been quite different. Many fewer were granted entry into the separate spheres ideal, and it held less allure. Black men have for so long been barred by racism from good jobs that many black people—both women and men—associate motherhood with both caregiving and earning.185

What all this means for politics is that gender does not necessarily bind women together across social class—although it can. Women share some experiences across class lines, chief among them sexual harassment. But professional-class women cannot assume a sisterhood with working-class women. If elite women want to create that sisterhood, they will have to create a coalition around shared interests. If the Clinton campaign had spent more time talking about Trump’s sexual assaults and less time talking about the glass ceiling, they would have been far better off.

Other dynamics also weakened the appeal of Clinton’s gender equality theme among white working-class women. As mentioned previously, Hochschild was initially mystified by a Louisiana woman who loved Rush Limbaugh, specifically because of his “criticism of ‘femi-nazis,’ you know, feminists, women who want to be equal with men.”186 Hochschild gradually realized that this woman saw Limbaugh as protecting her red-state honor against blue-state belittlement. It’s the same effect we saw with respect to race: Progressives have inadvertently made sexism into a way of expressing class anger. The dismissive charge of “political correctness” is a weapon forged against progressives on the anvil of their own snobbery.

What about working-class men? How much of their rapport with Trump can be dismissed as sexism? Trump was seen as standing up for real men in an economy that has deprived many working-class men of breadwinner status. Men can be winners in two different ways: they can be “good men,” or “real men.” A good man reflects a gender-neutral concept of decency: being considerate, moral, and honest, for example. What’s a real man? “Take charge; be authoritative.” “Take risks.” “It means suppressing any kind of weakness.”187 Trump to a T.

The Clinton campaign could have countered this definition but didn’t use weapons handed to them on a silver platter. Trump’s sharp business practices have hurt blue-collar men when he stiffed the blue-collar guys who worked on his buildings. How about the Philadelphia cabinet builder Edward Friel, Jr., whose business eventually had to close after Trump refused to pay a large bill for work building the bases for slot machines at Trump Plaza?188 Friel or someone like him should have been at Clinton rallies across the country.

Instead of mobilizing themes that could have appealed to working-class men and women, the Clinton campaign stuck to two main talking points: that Clinton had the resume to be president and Trump was unfit to lead. Straight out of the feminist playbook I, myself, helped write. In a 2014 book I wrote with Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work, we pointed out that women need to provide far more evidence of competence than do white men in order to be seen as equally competent.189 So Hillary proved her competence over and over and tried to show Trump’s lack of credentials.

But prove-it-again bias is only one form of gender bias—and not the most common.190 Tightrope bias stems from prescriptive stereotypes that mandate that women191 should be team players, helpful, modest, sympathetic, and nice. This kind of behavior, expected of women, gets you liked—but not respected.192 Being both respected and liked is extremely difficult to pull off if you’re doing a masculine thing like running for president. The most successful strategy is to try to do a masculine thing in a feminine way. Clinton did this immaculately well in the first debate, with all the smiles and that famous shimmy. But I suspect she got tired of playing Ms. Nicey Smiley. Since she was ahead in the polls, she returned to what felt more comfortable, stressing her credentials and attacking Trump. Likeability was a big problem for Clinton.

If Clinton had a likeability problem, Trump had an unlikeability epidemic—but it didn’t matter.193 Likeability is optional for men, but it’s mandated for women: if a woman isn’t nice, she’s a bad person. (” Lock her up!”) A man can be unlikeable and still be seen as a man to be reckoned with. Trump was a real man. Clinton? A nasty woman.

No doubt working-class men felt threatened by the change that Clinton symbolized and promised more of. As working-class people, they value stability and tradition—including gender traditions—rather than gender flux. Moreover, men in general, and working-class men in particular, tend to ramp up displays of manliness when their masculinity is threatened.194 This effect will emerge to the extent that working-class men feel embattled as breadwinners and belittled as men. Many feel both.

Does Trump’s victory signal that working-class men are sexist? It’s not as simple as that. When it comes to gender equality, elite men tend to talk the talk but don’t walk the walk; working-class men walk the walk but do not talk the talk. For example, the average working-class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian than his professional-class counterpart; but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.195

In one study, blue-collar emergency medical technicians were far more involved in family life than were white-collar physicians. They shared children’s daily care in ways the doctors did not: they picked up kids from school, fed them dinner, stayed home when they were sick. Some turned down overtime completely: “Family comes first for me,” said one, repeating the common working-class refrain. Many regularly consulted with their wives before accepting overtime, and turned down shifts when their wives objected, in sharp contrast to the physicians. Emergency medical technicians regularly swapped shifts to accommodate their family demands, and many “seemed happy with their schedules because they allowed the EMTs to participate in childcare.”196

Jennifer Sherman also found shifting attitudes toward gender roles among the working class in the rural California community she studied. Being a good man had been redefined as jobs left the community. Back when the mill was going strong, being a good man meant providing for your family; if you went out and drank with the guys and slapped the wife around a bit—not a problem. No longer. As jobs became scarcer, and more and more men were permanently unemployed, families redefined being a good man as being a good father, which was defined in terms of contributing to children’s care, and keeping off drugs and alcohol. Domestic violence was no longer tolerated.197

At the other end of the class spectrum, a survey of Harvard Business School MBAs found that elite men still have fairly traditional views of whose career should take precedence. Robin Ely, Pamela Stone, and Colleen Ammerman summarized their research thus:

More than half the men in Generation X and the Baby Boom said that when they left HBS, they expected that their careers would take priority over their spouses’ or partners’. . . . Notably, this expectation was less prevalent among men of color than among white men. Forty-eight percent of the former—compared with 39% of white men—anticipated that their spouses’ careers would be of equal importance. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women across racial groups and generations anticipated that their careers would rank equally with those of their partners.198

Elite men can talk the talk of gender equality because they know in their bones that their careers will deliver them dignity (male varietal). Economic power, both inside the family and in the society at large, is their trump card.

I am not saying there is no sexism in the working class. I’m just saying that sexism is a pervasive problem that crosses class lines. Deflecting blame for sexism onto the working class may be comforting. Just don’t mistake comfort food for insight.

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