Women and the American Dream
Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
For many years this writer has been saying something, and in Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam he wrote something, that listeners would usually disagree with vociferously. He has been saying that the American Dream, at least as taught to many of us in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and as still taught to many today, was largely a fraud. And remains largely a fraud. For the conventional view of the American Dream is that, given intelligence and hard work, there are no limits to what one can accomplish. Anyone who is smart and works hard can rise to the top anywhere. Any young boy can grow up to be president is how the matter was and is often put in the prevailing version of the American Dream.
This, of course, was always bullshit. Those born black, those born poor, those born Jewish, and many others were almost never going to rise to the top in anything. Whether they were willing to concede it or not, they were almost always going to find limits placed on them because of their family background, racial background, religious background, class background, lack of gilt edged education, or any one of several other handicaps having nothing to do with talent or willingness to work hard.
People didn’t want to believe this, of course. For to believe it was inconsistent with our driving mythology, a mythology central to American economic progress, and to believe it would create cognitive dissonance because of that mythology. Better, then, to ignore the evidence of the world all around one, to ignore the evidence that the poor, the black, and so many others so often could not rise significantly, to ignore the correlative but opposite fact that the high positions so often went and continuously continued to go to those to the manor born, to those who were born with winning entry tickets into the Yales and Princetons, with winning entry tickets into Wall Street houses or the leadership of Fortune 500 corporations or the leading political families.
Not wanting to believe it, people would oppose it with vociferous but totally illogical arguments born of a deep emotional need to maintain our national mythology. One prominent argument was that social and economic stratification was even worse in all other countries. That was and possibly still is true, though there are researchers who dispute it with regard to a number of European countries. But that stratification was (and is?) worse elsewhere doesn’t mean that the American Dream was true. It meant only that such a dream couldn’t even be spoken of in other, even more stratified countries. Another prominent argument was that lots of people were able to make progress here, sometimes considerable progress. Also true, and also no answer. For that some made progress, even considerable progress, altered neither the fact that others could not do so regardless of underlying talent and willingness to work hard, nor the fact that there were - - and are - - generally applicable limits to the progress of those who could and did make progress.
Today, however, there is one very large group of people who are beginning to understand that the American Dream is usually not true for them. They are just over half the population. They are women. They do not put the problem afflicting them in terms of the failure of, or in even terms of the phrase, the American Dream. They put it in other terms, terms more familiar, perhaps, to the modern ear. They write and speak of glass ceilings. They write and speak of being paid less for equal work. They write and speak of the fact that women sometimes vastly outnumber men in higher education and as recipients of degrees, yet do not rise to the top of corporations or law firms. They write and speak of having their intelligence and competence automatically discounted. (Persons who have changed genders tell remarkable stories about this.) They write and speak of having been told when younger that they could have it all, only to find that this is not true because institutions do not make arrangements, do not follow rules, that would permit them to be mothers while pushing to be rising stars.
No, they don’t write or speak the words “the American Dream” or “frustration of the American Dream,” but what they write and speak of is exactly that although expressed in different words. Far from the world being a place where they can advance as high as talent and hard work can take one, they are usually confined, with the confining factor in this case not being race or class or religion or ethnicity, but gender.
It is only a question of time until women realize that what is happening to them is of a piece with what happened to blacks, Jews, Southern Europeans, the poor, the lower middle class, and these groups’ fellows in bad fortune. It is only a question of time until women realize that to a great extent they have been sold the American Dream and that for lots of them (most of them?) it is as much bullshit as it was for the others.
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