18 Million Cracks: A History Of The Glass Ceiling
“The light is shining through like never before.”?—?Hillary Clinton
“Well, this isn’t exactly the party I planned, but I sure like the company.”
It was June 7, 2008, and Hillary Clinton stood onstage amidst her cheering supporters, preparing to concede the election to political neophyte Barack Obama. The speech she delivered that night, now commonly referred to as her “Glass Ceiling Speech,” is one of the most lauded and memorable moments of a political career spanning over 40 years.
It was during this speech that Clinton said, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” At the time, Clinton was addressing her young followers, urging them not to give up on their dreams. Now, more than eight years later, her words take on a more prescient tone.
If everything goes according to plan?—?which, given this election, is unlikely?—?on November 8th, the United States will elect a new leader. And regardless of the outcome, Hillary Clinton will receive the results while standing inside the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, underneath a ceiling constructed entirely of glass.
It’s a meaningful metaphor, the perfect way to end an election cycle littered with casual misogyny, blatant sexism, allegations of assault and sexual misconduct. If Donald Trump has achieved anything positive through his pursuit of the presidency, it’s that he laid bare the truth about racism and sexism in America today.
‘The glass ceiling’: an idiomatic history
No one is entirely sure who coined the term “glass ceiling.” The phrase made its public debut in July of 1979 at the annual conference for the Women’s Institute for the Freedom of the Press. Katherine Lawrence, a former employee of Hewlett Packard’s medical electronics division, tells The Wall Street Journal that she used the term in her speech to describe “How in corporate America, the official policy is one way?—?the sky’s the limit?—?but in actuality, the sky had a glass ceiling for women.”
The glass ceiling goes global
It wasn’t until the 80s that the term really gained traction within popular culture. Editor Gay Bryant used the phrase in an interview with Adweek; she later included it in a book called “The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the ’80s.”
As the 80s stretched into the 90s, the concept became more divisive. Supporters and detractors argued for and against its existence in books, articles and scientific studies.
The glass ceiling became a popular TV trope, finding its way into episode titles for “Cagney & Lacey,” “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Living Single.” In 1991, the Department of Labor launched a research project called “The Glass Ceiling Initiative” and Congress created the Glass Ceiling Commission, both aimed at examining female and minority representation and organizational bias within corporate America.
As feminism evolved, women’s relationship with the glass ceiling evolved as well. In a 2014 speech at the Women In Entertainment Breakfast, Shonda Rhimes rejected the idea that she broke the glass ceiling within the entertainment industry, explaining, “Making it through the glass ceiling to the other side was simply a matter of running on a path created by every other woman’s footprints. I just hit at exactly the right time in exactly the right spot.”
Letting the light shine through
As she wrapped up her speech eight years ago, Clinton assured supporters that, “The light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”
Clinton’s prediction proved true on July 26, 2016, when those 18 million cracks splintered even further as she became the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. As the Democratic National Convention kicked off, the Clinton campaign again reiterated the symbolism, projecting a video of all 43 former presidents—then, the shattering of broken glass as Hillary’s face materialized on the screen.
Hillary Clinton began her career in 1973, six years before the term “glass ceiling” even existed. Like the many women who came before her and the many who will come after, she has used her body as a battering ram, throwing herself headfirst into the melee of public policy and gender inequality. Regardless of what happens on November 8th, the glass ceiling will continue to splinter. And the light will continue to shine through.