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Marissa Mayer and the Great Class Divide

A few women I know were discussing, lamenting, the state of women and the women’s movement a couple of days ago, wondering why it seems that for every step we take forward we take two steps back. They were wondering, much like the Republicans seem to be, whether feminism’s messaging is off rather than whether or not what we are doing as women is somehow misdirected. Fifty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique it is a good idea to look at our messaging and see if it is off and off-putting. Yes. Are we sending some of the wrong signals? Perhaps. Even this many years on we still aren’t perfect.

But more important than our message or even the signals that that message sends is this. What are our beliefs? What are we fighting for? Who are we fighting for? What is it that we must have, that we need absolutely? And can those things be gained by all women of every race and class and background? In our discussion we simply must talk, deeply and really, about whether feminism, in the next generations, will be exclusive or inclusive. This is an issue which has been facing feminism from the very beginning, and especially from the beginning of second wave feminism. And we have yet to completely solve it. How do we speak to and provide options for all women of all classes?

Class is something we don’t like to talk about in the United States. We like to pretend it doesn’t exist. We like to pretend that everyone with a little luck and some hard work can become a millionaire. That all that divides us is money rather than values or lifestyle or desire or, frankly, birth. Of course that isn’t true. As so many have so eloquently stated: Money doesn’t buy happiness; it just makes unhappiness easier to bear. What divides the classes is far more than money: it is opportunity, it is access, it is power, it a voice. And the poorer one is the less power, opportunity, access and voice one has.

Marissa Mayer doesn’t get that. She doesn’t get that her particular brand of feminism — going back to work after two weeks and setting up a private nursery near her office, while denying her workers the chance to work sometimes at home so that they can have the kinds of relationships with their children that Mayer is trying to foster with her own child –is pretty awful. In fact, she is clueless in general. Her quote that babies were easier than she thought will come back to haunt her when her child is a toddler, going through an illness, or starting his first day at school. She will realize fairly quickly that tending to a mostly sleeping infant is a whole lot less difficult than every year after infancy. I want to see her juggle baseball and soccer and school science projects and bullying and everything else kids bring to us while she manages one of the largest companies in the world. Then let’s see how easy she finds parenthood. Even with millions of dollars and a nanny.

Those of us in the generations who came before Mayer are, understandably, cringing. She is just the kind of woman we don’t seem to be able to reach: the kind of woman who has no idea what women before her went through to allow Mayer to bust through the glass ceiling. Her money and her power cushion her from even having to think about those issues. But every woman in the U.S. with less money and less power and less flexibility — which is nearly a 100 percent of us — are still struggling with the issues of equality which we have been struggling with and fighting for, for more than half a century. Mayer is a rare bird. An exotic. She isn’t representative. And so that makes her statements about her workers even less valid. And far more sad. She simply does not get it.

Those of us who went to work in the ’60s and ’70s remember quite well when sexual harassment was de rigueur and how Anita Hill’s testimony set off a flurry of lightbulb moments. Those of us who grew up back then remember clearly the year we were allowed to wear pants to school, which may not seem like a big deal but in the context of that time was enormous. We remember how we faced date rape alone and ashamed, how some of us had illegal and unsafe abortions, how too many of us never received equal pay for our work and could not even imagine getting to the point where Mayer is. I remember a newspaper clipping I saved while I was in high school in the early ’70s: it profiled an all-woman law firm which at that time was a complete anomaly. And if more women than men are attending university today it hasn’t been that way for very long.

Women are still being raped and blamed for it. White male lawmakers continue to try and take away our rights. Women still don’t enjoy equality in the marketplace or the media. As far as we have come we have faltered, perhaps through no fault of our own but perhaps with complicity: some of us got a little too comfortable with the way things are now and we forget how hard it was to get here. Girls even younger than my 20-year-old daughter need to be reminded again and again how far we have come in just a few generations and how they mustn’t let the gains be taken away. But they also need to be encouraged to be completely inclusive. So must we who came to feminism decades ago be more and more inclusive, more sensitive to the needs of all women.

We women who watched second wave feminism’s birth need to retroactively and proactively include women of every color and class in our continued struggle. We need to dismiss the media attention of a woman like Mayer and concentrate on showcasing everyone else. There are far more women who are not like Mayer than who are like her. Far more women who struggle every day to work and raise children with none of the resources and help that Mayer enjoys and who would wish for more compassionate employers, employers who, rather than use Mayer as an example of what is possible, will use ordinary working women as the example of what is reality. Like the sequester, which will affect people disproportionately, feminism has done much for the middle and upper classes and less for lower class and poor women. As President Clinton was famous for saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” I say here: It’s class, stupid. Class. Class. Class. Class.

It isn’t just that Mayer has nixed Yahoo employees working at home. It is that she is completely blind to the hundreds of millions of women who are not like her. Here’s the thing: no one is equal until everyone is equal. That is as it has been and as it will always be.