How Far We've Come

When I was in college, I took one of those life-changing classes that completely altered the way I thought about the world. It was called America in the 1950’s, but the discussions were really more about how American society had changed since that time, and the various movements that brought those changes about. One of the major topics in the class was about whether one can really change an institution from within, or whether change has to be effected by outside forces. We spent a lot of time talking about whether a hippie who takes a corporate job with the intention of changing the “old white male” mentality of that corporation could truly maintain his integrity, or whether he was just another sell out who would inevitably become one of the “suits” he intended to change in the first place.

What was never discussed in our class, however, was the idea that you could change an institutional mentality simply by rejecting the institution all together. If women, for example, just said no to Wall Street jobs, then wouldn’t Wall Street firms be forced to change in order to attract women? Why is it that this suggestion was never put forth? One explanation, perhaps, is our professor and his 1960’s peace activist roots. In his mind, change required action. Protests! Government intervention! Supreme Court rulings! Passively invoking a cultural sea change was simply not his style. But that can’t be it. Surely, someone in our class of Ivy League, politically correct, feminist English majors would have been willing to challenge our white male professor’s beliefs, even if it meant losing a few points on the grading scale. No, I think the real reason is that, way back in 1993, we just weren’t there yet. In 1993, women had no power. They were still trying to prove that they could hack it on Wall Street, and the idea that women would turn down jobs that they were barely getting offered in the first place would have seemed preposterous. The argument would have been met with a simple statement: if women turn down Wall Street jobs, Wall Street will just fill them with more men. And besides, Wall Street jobs were coveted. They brought money, security, prestige. And don’t forget money. Back in 1993, we were still too close to the eighties to even entertain the idea that smart people who worked hard would be willing to turn down money just to make a point.