Today's 'careerist': It's a tough job, but a woman's gotta do it

ALICE STEINBACH

January 28, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

Words, as we all know, have a life of their own. They come into fashion and go out of fashion in a way that is difficult to trace.

Think, for instance, about the following words that appeared on the scene rather suddenly but are now an accepted part of, dare I say it, the Zeitgeist: empower, politically correct, glass ceiling, holistic, parenting, lifestyle, mommy track, multicultural and peace dividend.

Now there's a new star, linguistically speaking, on the horizon. A word that's popping up everywhere. It is the word "careerist."

As in: Hillary Clinton, "the hard-headed careerist."

And: Zoe Baird, "a cool careerist."

And: Women who become "competitive careerists."

Question: Do you find yourself wondering why there is no mention of, say, Dan Quayle as a "hard-headed careerist?" Could it be that the word is somehow gender-related?

And not only that, but what the heck is a careerist anyway? It sounds bad to me.

Hey, I thought, why not look it up?

And so the search began.

First stop -- the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1989. It offers the following definition of careerist: "A person (esp. a holder of a public or responsible position) who is mainly intent on the furtherance of his career, often in an unscrupulous manner."

(Note to reader: Did you catch the Oxford dictionary's choice of the pronoun "his" before the word career? Very interesting.)

Next stop: a computer search using careerist as the key word. Here's what turned up:

Between the years 1969 and 1980, most references to careerists centered on political leaders, particularly those in Communist countries. Sample: "Communist China . . . warns against careerists and schemers such as Krushchev and Brezhnev."

Closer to home, the word "careerist" shows up briefly after Watergate, used occasionally to refer to the Erlichman-Haldeman crowd in the Nixon White House.

In the middle and late 1980s, the word begins to find its way into some articles on women who pursue high-powered careers. One such article concludes: "The most effective managers are not single-minded careerists willing to sacrifice family life to climb the corporate ladder."

(Note to reader: Although the quote above was being applied to men as well as women, I'm still waiting to hear someone describe the likes of Henry Ford or Ross Perot as "a single-minded careerist.")

Moving into 1990 we find an essay written by William Safire on "The Militant Women." Referring to the public's negative reaction toward the Wellesley women who protested the choice of Barbara Bush as commencement speaker, Safire writes:

"Millions of women who have chosen to work inside the home joined in the general castigation of the arrogant [Wellesley] careerists."

Finally. The battle lines are drawn. Women who work outside the home are "careerists." And those who work inside the home are . . . what? "Homeists?"

(Note to reader: A quick computer search turned up no evidence of the word "homeist" being used to connote such a position. Which may mean you read it here first. Or maybe not.)

But the word "careerist" really takes off in 1992 -- the same year, you may recall, in which Hillary Clinton burst upon the scene. From that moment on, the two of them -- Hillary and the word "careerist" -- can be found in close proximity on the printed page.

And the connotation is always overtly or covertly negative.

Finally, in October 1992, a New York Times opinion piece on Hillary Clinton asks:

"Is 'careerist' just a meaningless word that brings to mind the negative image of a woman who has a career, negative simply because she works in a profession where she shows commitment and expertise rather than in a job she doesn't care that much about?"

To recap: Our semantic journey has taken us from those old-fashioned Communist careerists and schemers like Krushchev and Brezhnev, through the Nixon White House, into the glass-ceilinged business place and, finally, to extraordinarily accomplished women like Hillary Clinton and Zoe Baird.

What a trip!

We've come a long way, baby!

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