Editor’s Note: This month, TueNight is all about “Women. Getting. Paid.” That may as well have been a Gen-X mantra, we who stormed the boardrooms and smashed the glass ceilings and launched our own businesses in record numbers. But the storm isn’t over yet; as we find ourselves in midlife there are new obstacles to overcome. AARP and #DisruptAging just released a study showing how hard things are for some of us: 21% of female workers between 40 and 55 are underemployed, due to COVID, caregiving responsibilities or the impacts of gendered ageism. So we went out to find the stories behind the stats, and we’ll be sharing them all month here on TueNight, in our TueNighters community and across all of our social space, thanks to AARP and #DisruptAging. Join us and tell your story, too, using the hashtags #GenXEquity and #DisruptAging!
Somewhere in Las Vegas my Father is dying. I’m backstage at Riot Fest in Chicago. I’m here to talk about the sociopolitical movements — punk rock and feminism — and how the cross-pollination between them generates change, along with two members of Pussy Riot, Henry Rollins and a few other GenXers.
My phone rings. I look at it, now a reflex, waiting for news about my Dad. It’s from an HR lady. I’ve been interviewing for a senior leadership position. I’ve met with a host of people, including the President of the company. Yesterday, my references were contacted. Always a good sign.
“Marcelle? Listen, you didn’t graduate college. That’s going to be a problem.”
She is right about one thing: I hadn’t graduated college. I became successful without a bachelor’s. I’d co-founded a feminist Third Wave zine. I’d become a yoga instructor and a reiki healer. I was currently an executive at a prestigious entertainment organization earning a six-figure income, which is where I’d been for most of my forties. I’d raised a feminist daughter as a solo parent. Plus I had a dog who continued his reign of cuteness. These little points of achievement were empowering high fives I gave myself every day, this all that I had accomplished: family, health, legacy.
I want this job. My current job, well, I’ve been vocal about the misogyny and have not made the needed allies; my days are numbered. And as I’m about to state my case to the HR lady for the new job, a kid with a headset pops in and tells me it’s time to go.
I follow him to the stage, stunned, furious, too, for all the work I’ve done, for it to amount to this, a dismissal over this? As I rehearse my talking points for the panel, the gnome inside my head screeches: get your fucking degree.
I’ve been at this capitalist frontier, a rebellious executive, for the whole of my professional career. I’ve pushed my way up to the edge of that glass ceiling, shoving men’s roaming hands aside (so many white men who failed up trying to tap my fine ass is a whole book series I’d call How to Get Ahead in Business: A Story About Gender Oppression and Assery), their privilege, their beacons.
The fury of inequity that reverberated through my veins in my twenties has turned into a rage of indignation here in my fifties. Weathering bullshit in service to a mathematical equation of dollars and sense dictating my choices — college looming, my sixties in my face, no partner to help absorb the anxiety that drenches me constantly. I face the suffocation of the patriarchy on the daily, clinging to my feminist legacy, a shield keeping my very fine ass guarded — but rarely protected.
But then my Dad dies, I do get fired and I spiral. And I don’t get that job.
Fast forward to Summer of 2020. It’s been six years since the incident at Riot Fest, and I am still without a job, without good health insurance, very much single and in the throes of a pandemic. Bills are mounting. The money earned and earmarked for retirement? Going, going, gone, in these years of unreliable freelancing and my daughter’s college tuition, and the hiccups of health.
I’m about to start a Zoom interview, the third of what may be myriad rounds. The first was the basic gatekeeper of all corporations, the HR person, who uh-huh-ed and ahh-ed her way through our conversation, and she moved me to the next round. The second interview was with the man I’d be working for, who, because he’d just done a six-mile run, and was sweaty, opted to talk to me off-camera. Um, yeah. This third round is with his counterpart.
She shows up to our meeting promptly. I’m relieved to see her, a 35-year-old woman sitting on her messy couch lined with pillows, cats prowling over her keyboard, her hair in a haphazard ponytail, evoking a Liz Lemon vibe. I feel an immediate kinship to her, this woman on the rise, a millennial who will take the baton from my Third Wave hand, showing the future how intersectional feminism could be done right.
We talk about leadership and her cats and then she asks: So how will you feel working alongside my babies?
I pause, realizing she’s realized I am not in my twenties.
I tell her, with measured patience, about a panel I’d conducted on cross-generational employees’ working alongside each other, and the benefits of working within departments that reflect the full spectrum of DE&I. I tell her that when you have a team that reflects the panoply of the culture, of shades and shapes and ages working alongside each other, you have a team that thrives as it learns. That a team that is not diverse does not grow professionally or personally. I can see her eyes start to glaze over. Grasshopper is not interested in me, and it’s clear to me she has yet to feel the brush-off of a younger woman dismissing her.
In the hour or so after the interview, I am in a state of chaotic anger. The sting of her hubris, it remains, the remnants of a slap on my being. It is not simply her rudeness that is my undoing: it is this avalanche of weary: weary of the relentless amounts of interviews with strangers, the forced smiles, the internal suppression I have to employ every time I do an interview, this self-training of not ever allowing myself to think I nailed it.
Worse, applying to jobs, every day, and feeling myself sucked into a void of tacit rejection. Or hitting up my friends who are still employed, hoping they can make introductions to the hiring manager. The endless nights tallying up the dwindling dollars, of all that I have earned, of so little that is left; of the wanting, the desperate wanting of someone to say yes, yes you should come work with me. Maybe I am not being considered for jobs because I am a college dropout. Maybe the algorithm is betraying me, giving me up, every time. Whatever. That’s not going to be a problem for much longer.
Because now, now I am a student.
Grieving took up a great deal of time. But then that slap of reality hit, a bank statement demanding I wipe the tears away. I’d done the math of the next ten years, of these tenuous days that were long but these limited short years ahead; I needed to be employed. Men, particularly cishet white ones, seem to work basically until the day they die; women don’t have that luxury, forced to retire at the first sign of a drooping jowl.
I knew how to be a feminist badass. I could translate my intellectual seething into feminist scholarship, and teach generations of college students how to see the world in intersectional and inclusive dimensions. When I was doing my Third Wave zine, I provided a platform for women, agitating for the world we wanted to live in. In academia, I could continue that work. It was a Eureka moment for me, a seemingly doable solve.
But: to teach at the college level, I’d need to get a Master’s. Oh, before I could do that, I would need a Bachelor’s. And so began the Master’s Math.
The irony of all this is that I’m terrible at math, worse at saving money and in general have a disdain for numbers. The major I’d had in the eighties didn’t exist so I’d have to declare a new major, English Lit. Great. 36 credits of Shakespeare, Mrs. Dalloway and fucking poetry await me. Could I complete my bachelor’s in a year? Yes, because we were now in a pandemic and everything—from school to work—was done via video conferencing. So, I juggled freelancing with being a student. The math looked like this: I took classes during the summer sessions, I took full loads during the Fall and Spring and even fit in two classes into a three-week winter session. Bonus: I earned a mature person’s scholarship which cut my tuition cost in half. I graduated with a 4.0, which was as satisfying as my last orgasm.
The Master’s Math comes with some anomalies, although every math equation has a solution. You can’t afford NYU? Go to CUNY. Don’t want to take algebra again? Find your high school transcript. Your classmates are your daughter’s age? Regale them with stories of life before texting. The more I did the math, the more it added up to the Karp Theory of Survival aka my Feminist Mantra: Girl, You Ain’t Giving Up.
Now I’m in my first semester at grad school, working on my first Masters in Women and Gender Studies. If my math is correct, I’ll have that Masters in two years. Okay, sure I have multiple semesters of twenty-page papers ahead of me and working the full-time job I now have and hopefully more YA books to write but in two years, I’ll have a Master’s degree. I’ll be able to apply to schools to teach at. Toy with getting a PhD. Speak to a new generation of feminists as Professor Karp, extolling the power of intersectionality, these vibrant shades that are inclusive and beatific. Whispering, just above a scream, “let’s keep dismantling until we’re all standing, all us brilliant, bawdy badass multiracial feminists.”
Because: Women are not to be erased, not in our 20s, not in our 50s, not ever.