Etymology of a Term
As a term, the “glass ceiling” dates to around 1978, when it was discussed by female workers at Hewlett-Packard and used onstage at a panel discussion about women’s aspirations by an employee of the New York Telephone Co. Each used it to describe the inability of white-collar women to rise beyond the mid-manager level in their jobs, and the often invisible barriers preventing that rise.
The phrase gained traction in the mid-1980s, when it appeared in an article in Adweek (quoting the outgoing editor of Working Woman magazine) and then a headline in The Wall Street Journal (“The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can’t Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs”). The New York Times ran an article in 1986 — the same year it proclaimed that, architecturally speaking, buildings made of see-through glass were “getting good reviews”— about the glass ceiling for female politicians, quoting Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization for Women.
“Our women tried to go higher and I wonder whether they ran into a glass ceiling,” Ms. Friedan said then, recalling the unsuccessful campaigns of Carol Bellamy for mayor of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman for Congress and Geraldine Ferraro for vice president. “In corporations, women get to a middle level and then there’s a glass ceiling — not overt discrimination, just a feeling that you can go this high and no higher.”
In the years following, the term continued to go mainstream — a kind of linguistic shorthand for a problem that could be difficult to pinpoint or describe. By the 1990s it had been used to describe the experiences of Navy women, female lawyers, women in banking, older women, black professionals (women and men), women who worked on the campaign of George Bush and the plight of female journalists — as explained by The Washington Post’s board chair at the time, Katharine Graham.
More recently, it has been uttered by the likes of Priyanka Chopra, the actor Brie Larson (who this year played Captain Marvel in a rare female-led superhero film) and Madeleine Albright, who wore a glass-ceiling brooch to the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
The ‘Highest, Hardest Glass Ceiling’
Still, nobody has used the allegory quite like Mrs. Clinton, who has for years talked about the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” she was determined to crack. She spoke of it movingly in her 2008 concession speech, saying that while she was not able to shatter it, the ceiling now had “about 18 million cracks.”
Eight years later, when she became the first female nominee of a major party’s ticket, she leaned into the metaphor even harder. When she spoke by video to the Democratic National Convention a virtual glass ceiling broke onscreen; she accepted the nomination later in the week while saying, “When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”