The Starbucks Sisterhood

A new generation of women is reinventing the rules of work faster than you can say, ‘Double decaf skinny latte.’

Sally Helgesen may have come up with the best way yet to make sense of the pressures putting the squeeze on working women. It’s not the “glass ceiling.” It’s not the “two-career lifestyle.” It’s Starbucks.


According to Helgesen’s new book, “Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life” (Doubleday, 1998), the ubiquitous coffee house offers a potent metaphor for life and work in an era in which the authority and order of traditional institutions are giving way to individual solutions and customized strategies. Starbucks’s menu of espressos, macchiatos, and Frappuccinos is the perfect analogue to the array of choices that women must make in the new world of work – among the shifting demands of their jobs, amid the unceasing barrage of parenting decisions, in response to the proliferation of financial-planning options.

Helgesen’s book begins by explaining the twin effects of women’s widespread entry into the workplace over the last 30 years: First it transformed the economy and society; then it transformed the women. To show just how much the world has changed, Helgesen juxtaposes her Starbucks Sisterhood with William Whyte’s Organization Man. Whyte’s celebrated 1956 study of the wing-tipped, gray-suited archetype of corporate conformity homed in on junior executives living in the bedroom community of Park Forest, Illinois. For her look at everyday revolutionaries, Helgesen conducted hundreds of interviews with the inhabitants of nearby Naperville, Illinois. The residents of Whyte’s Park Forest were mostly married, Republican, and Protestant; they bought the same cars, watched the same television shows, and subscribed to the same magazines. Naperville residents form a “postmodern pastiche” marked by demographic variety, ethnic diversity, and a profusion of niche lifestyles.

In almost every respect, the 1950s Organization Man is a perfect foil for the 1990s Hyperkinetic Woman. He embodied an absolute faith in large organizations, an overriding homogeneity, a sense of leisure and unhurried ease. His paradigm – life as a progression through predictable stages – has no relevance in a community where only 18% of households feature a dad at work and a mom at home with the children. Faced with increasing complexity and a squeeze on their time, the women of Naperville lead every trend of new-economy work – from entrepreneurialism to project work to careers punctuated by periods of education.

What makes the book compelling is Helgesen’s ability to convey a sociologist’s argument in a storyteller’s voice. Her strength here – as in her previous works, “The Female Advantage” (Doubleday/Currency, 1990) and “The Web of Inclusion” (Doubleday/Currency, 1995) – is her ability to capture the zeitgeist and play it back for the reader in the tones of everyday experience. In “Everyday Revolutionaries”, Helgesen mixes the real-life pathos of Naperville’s “improvising chorus” with a clear-eyed analysis of how the experiences of these women fit into a larger cultural landscape. In so doing, she breathes life into the now-standard themes of work and life in the new economy.

And she avoids predictability. Helgesen’s answer to the book’s implicit question – “What are these women revolutionaries after?” – is remarkable and unexpected. What they are looking for, she suggests, are “new vernaculars of work and life that seek to reconcile the demands of personal ambition with the need for embeddedness in family and community.” In other words, these revolutionaries part company with the women warriors of the last generation. Instead, their real kinship is with the bloomer girls, suffragettes, and immigrant women of the late 19th century. Their ultimate quest? To “make the whole world homelike.”

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Even everyday revolutions don’t just happen. to put her modern uprising in context, “Everyday Revolutionaries” author Sally Helgesen studied an eclectic assortment of insurrections past and present. She shared her annotated revolutionary reading list with Fast Company.

“Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life Jane Jacobs” (Vintage, 1985). A masterpiece by the woman who, 30 years before anyone else, recognized the revolutionary value of thinking locally.

“Post-Capitalist Society” Peter F. Drucker (HarperBusiness, 1993). The bible of our revolutionary era.

“The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change” Art Kleiner (Doubleday, 1996). A hidden history of some of the unsung revolutionaries who have made change happen in American organizations.

“Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West John Ralston Saul” (The Free Press, 1992). A brilliant, eccentric critique of the counterrevolutionary role that reason has played in our history.

“Sex in the Snow: Canadian Social Values at the End of the Millennium” Michael Adams (Penguin Canada, 1997). An illuminating comparison of Canadian and American attitudes toward the world – and a warning that Americans may be losing their revolutionary edge.