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Many Ceilings Yet to Crack

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

My initial reaction to the news that a woman had won the Nobel Prize in economics for the first time was simple: Great! My second reaction was a bit more churlish: What took so long? Why aren't we done with these "firsts" yet?

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I'm 50 -- okay, 51 -- so the course of my lifetime tracks the biggest transformation in history of the role of women. Barrier after outmoded barrier has gone the way of the girdle, and thank goodness.

This may sound like an odd digression, but this change is, in addition to the fiendishly attractive Jon Hamm, one reason I so enjoy "Mad Men." The television series takes place at the precise moment when the male-dominated edifice is about to crumble and the first hairline cracks have emerged.

The current season is set in 1963, the year that Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique." The ad men are blissfully oblivious to the fact that the comfortable age when they could stroll into the office, hand their hats to the girl, and ask for a cup of coffee, honey, is soon to vanish. They can scarcely conceive of a female copywriter like the fictional Peggy Olson, no less a female Nobel laureate in economics like the real-life Elinor Ostrom.

As it happens, back in 1963 Ostrom was studying for her doctorate at UCLA and facing some of the same challenges and dismissiveness experienced by Peggy. Ostrom, chuckling with the forgiving bemusement of a new Nobel Prize winner, told an interviewer, "Having lived through an era where I was thinking of going to graduate school and was strongly discouraged because I would never be able to do anything but teach in a city college, life has changed."

It has, for all of us -- not perfectly, not easily, but remarkably. When I was growing up a generation after Ostrom, no one ever suggested that any path was closed to me. Instead, I watched, and benefited from, the procession of "firsts." The first class of women graduated from my college just two years before I arrived as a freshman in 1975. The first female Rhodes Scholars were picked the following year. The first woman -- not me -- was elected editor in chief of the campus newspaper.

After graduation, I applied for -- and didn't get -- a clerkship with a famous columnist. It never occurred to me that my rejection was based on anything other than the merits. (Perhaps it was; when he asked what I'd like to do in journalism, I cheekily suggested that his job looked pretty good to me.) It was only later that a woman who had worked at the same newspaper informed me that he had never, except at the height of the Vietnam War draft, hired a female clerk.

Things worked out just fine, and in the unlikely event that someone gives me the opportunity to hire a clerk, I'd be perfectly willing to consider men.

But I find it rather tiresome, 30 years after all that, that we are still celebrating "firsts."

Not because I don't think that every barrier broken is important. I do. Not because I think sexism has magically evaporated. I don't. Sexism, "Mad Men"-style, has been replaced by a gentler, subtler form. There are too many times I look around a conference table and silently count the few other female faces.

Rather, it's that I'd think we would have moved beyond all this by now. As my smart friend Ann put it, "The reason the 'firsts' still matter is because there remain whole huge chunks of vestigial 'Adam's Rib' thinking -- the template is male, and all must be understood as an adaptation to it or a falling in with it."

Ostrom represents a delightful rejection of the template. Her degrees and her academic position are in political science, not economics, which has some of the male propeller-head economists spinning. There's nasty talk on an econ grad student blog about how she only won because she's a woman.

And she does not look the part. "Forgive me for saying so, but a lot of people are looking at you and they're thinking, 'Boy, you look just like a sweet little grandma,' " a local reporter told Ostrom during her news conference at Indiana University.

"Indeed I do look like a grandma," she replied. Also, as it turns out, like a Nobel laureate.

marcusr@washpost.com



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