Did Feminism Say Women Could Have It All? Not Really

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Can women – or men, for that matter – have it all?

As a hope-to-one-day-be-a-working-mom, I’m wading into this Internet debate. I just can’t help myself. Aside from my firm conviction that “having it all” is an objectionable phrase that should have been retired almost as soon as it came into fashion, I also find this ongoing conversation to be, well, how can I put this? Silly. Not because there’s not a problem here – there is – but because the “solutions” proposed by the parade of working-mothers in glossy magazines are inadequate and incomplete.

There are multiple tropes, but many of them boil down to this questionable assertion: feminism lied to us.[1] Closely followed by a fusillade of prominent, accomplished working-mothers proclaiming – almost resentfully – that they are not feminists. Because feminists are militant and dour and don’t wear kitten heels and a power suit while brokering an international treaty all before picking up Junior from soccer practice. Or whatever. The bottom line is that women accuse “feminism” – that wretched straw-woman! – of selling us a bill of goods; we can’t have it all, they say. And all that marching and protesting and letter writing and policy-making our mothers and grandmothers – and fathers and grandfathers – did? Well, that was just a fraud. But this argument is nothing more than a front; a carefully negotiated distraction.

It’s a bait-and-switch because these nauseating missives about whether the fairer sex can-truly-have-it-all! distract us from proposing real solutions – like challenging and changing a culture that still rewards sexist and unequal behavior, passing laws that allow for greater family leave and paid maternity and paternity leave, subsidizing child care in a meaningful way and allowing greater working hour flexibility for ALL working parents and caregivers like, you know, most civilized nations. Instead, we promote quick fixes aimed at mostly upper-middle class, highly educated women, that do little to address the root of the problem.

Image: © Martin Klimek/ZUMAPRESS.com/

You want proof? Let’s take stock: Marissa Mayer, in a move so tone deaf I begin to wonder whether she was drunk (on power), installed a private nursery adjacent to her office at Yahoo! while simultaneously banning telecommuting for her employees, many of whom I suspect are working mothers parents. Anne-Marie Slaughter cut to the chase: you can’t have it all she declared in a much-hyped Atlantic article – at least not if you have a struggling adolescent at home and you’re commuting to DC to work long hours in government. Sheryl Sandberg told us not to “leave before you leave” and prescribed “lean in circles” for the privileged few among us who can pay for nannies to watch our kids while we learn how to be more efficient at work. And then, in the latest bout of woman-shaming, NY Magazine unveiled the earth shattering news that some feminists “have it all” by choosing to stay at home. Setting aside the question of whether “choosing” to stay home is really a choice when your options are significantly narrowed by time, money and the demands of parenting, my real problem with this commentary is the parading around of a seemingly intelligent and self-proclaimed feminist and “flaming liberal” who makes cutely “retro” statements like, “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully.” (In case it wasn’t obvious, if we don’t expect men to be co-parents, then they won’t be.).

But what I’m getting at is this: the idea that some kind of upper middle class corporate revolution of lean-in circles, a new breed of retro housewife and other ready made antidotes are going to solve this crisis is both foolish and short sighted – come on, we’re smarter than that. We know there’s a problem – and there will always be a problem for parents who want to work outside the home in a time where women still do the lion’s share of the housework, make 70 cents on the dollar and never have time to juggle their busy lives because they are constantly being asked why/how/if they have it all. But until we have real policy changes that drill down to the root of the disparity, inequality and just plain under appreciation of the balance parents and caregivers have to strike – and until we start asking men whether they can have it all, too – we might as well lean back, because ain’t nothing going to change. 

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