Thursday, February 9, 2012

Re-Visiting the Glass Escalator

Despite women's long history of being denied equality in admissions to universities and graduate programs, one of the earliest and most famous US Supreme Court cases regarding the right for state schools to discriminate on the basis of sex in admissions was brought (and won) by a man.

In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, the male-dominated US Supreme Court decided in his favor 5-4 in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She wrote:

"The facts are not in dispute. In 1884, the Mississippi Legislature created the Mississippi Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls of the State of Mississippi, now the oldest state-supported all-female college in the United States. 1884 Miss. Gen. Laws, Ch. 30, 6. The school, known today as Mississippi University for Women (MUW), has from its inception limited its enrollment to women."

Seems like they also limited enrollment, at least for a time, to white women, er, "girls."

O'Connor continues:

"In 1971, MUW established a School of Nursing, initially offering a 2-year associate degree. Three years later, the school instituted a 4-year baccalaureate program in nursing and today also offers a graduate program. The School of Nursing has its own faculty and administrative officers and establishes its own criteria for admission.

Respondent, Joe Hogan, is a registered nurse but does not hold a baccalaureate degree in nursing. Since 1974, he has worked as a nursing supervisor in a medical center in Columbus, the city in which MUW is located."

Of course he has.

The Supreme Court handed down this opinion in 1981, and 15 years later, delivered the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) opinion striking down the VMI's exclusion of women.

This is all old news, of course, from a legal and political standpoint.

However, the facts of the two cases really illustrate how state discrimination toward men and women is, oftentimes, not at all equivalent. And, I think some people forget that. In their zeal to make feminism, "gender egalitarianism," and/or gender studies appealing to men, I sometimes see this "men and women have/had things just as bad, except in opposite ways" meme perpetuated, and I think that's a pretty historically-ignorant claim to make.

In MUW, thanks at least in part to the glass escalator whereby men in traditionally "feminine" occupations advance much more quickly and easily than women, the male victim of discrimination was already a licensed nurse and was already in a leadership position in that occupation despite not having a bachelor's degree.

He also had opportunities to earn a bachelor's degree in Mississippi at non-sex-segregated universities. The barriers that men faced in entering the field of nursing were, for the most part, ones of having to endure social disapproval, shame, and being marked with the "taint" of feminine inferiority for choosing a "womanly" profession. Yet, just like in the fields of cooking, fashion design, and hair-styling, we see that many of the men who enter those professions often rise to the top for, what can look like on the surface, no other reason than their alleged Inherent Superior Male Competence At Stuff.

Sure, it might not be easy for men to deal with the shame of working in these professions, but there often are not the same structural barriers to entry in those professions as there were for women who historically tried to enter male-dominated professions where licenses were, literally, denied to them on the basis of sex. For instance, in 1872, when Myra Bradwell went all the way to the Supreme Court to try to get her law license, the men on the Supreme Court denied her request because "God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action." Far from being a supervisor who was already-licensed in hir chosen profession, as the MUW guy was, Bradwell was legally restricted from entering that profession in the first place.

Similarly, in VMI, the women were seeking entry into a prestigious military school that provided an experience that could be had at no other institution in the state, and few institutions elsewhere in the US. Unlike MUW, where the assumption was that men maybe shouldn't be nurses but that they of course had the competence to be nurses if they wanted to be, the state's assumption in VMI was that women shouldn't be VMI cadets and of course they lacked the competence and suitability to be VMI cadets.

The different treatment of men and women seeking to enter non-gender-conforming professions seems to follow an unspoken rule of "anything professional a woman can do, a man can do better."

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