Oh, us modern women. Forever chasing the elusive "all of it," hoping to "have" "it" while still also "having" the rest of "it." Look at me, "eating" my "cake"! And that "other" "cake" too! (Sidenote: I want cake.) The latest exploration of whether of not women can "have it all" (meaning, in case you're not familiar with feminism's most boring cliche, both a satisfying family life and a successful career) is Anne-Marie Slaughter's much-discussed Atlantic piece titled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." (She's in the "no" camp, duh.) Which I suppose I agree with, seeing as "it all" is a completely made-up, baseless magical construct that doesn't mean anything. And no, we certainly can't "have" things that don't exist. (If I'm wrong about that, then my other car is a centaur where the front half is Ryan Gosling and the back half is the horse version of Ryan Gosling. BRB, tacking that on my vision board.)
Slaughter's piece is not stupid or terrible, and this is not a takedown. It is loooooong, though—and needlessly so, maybe. Around word 17,000, the piece starts to feel, fundamentally, like endless iterations of "Oh no! Busy people are busy!" For a minute there I was worried that it'd be impossible for me to have a family AND read this article all the way through.
But! That said, Slaughter is not some dummy, and she writes about her decision to sacrifice job for family with vulnerability and care. Slaughter worked as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department for two years, until 18 months ago when she quit and moved back to New Jersey to be with her husband and two teenage sons. And along with that decision came the guilty realization that "having it all" might not be so graspable after all:
I'd been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I'd been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).
...Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating "you can have it all" is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
I admire Slaughter as a writer, a woman, and a professional at the top of her field. But something with this argument just bugs me—something subtle, vaguely wrong, but not rage-inducing. To be perfectly honest, I've had difficulty putting my finger on it. But I think it's deeply wrapped up in what Rebecca Traister articulated so eloquently at Salon:
Here is what is wrong, what has always been wrong, with equating feminist success with "having it all": It's a misrepresentation of a revolutionary social movement. The notion that female achievement should be measured by women's ability to "have it all" recasts a righteous struggle for greater political, economic, social, sexual and political parity as a piggy and acquisitive project.
First of all, nobody's happy. Nobody "has it all"—not women, not men, not presidents, not heiresses, not babies, not kittens (maybe kittens). The idea that there is one homogeneous definition of "it all" that all women are supposed to desire is painfully reductive. "Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness," Slaughter says, "and let us start at home." That's the most presumptuous line in the whole article. Maybe some women don't find happiness at home. Maybe some women do find happiness in their careers. Or in unprofitable art. Or in providing for their families. Or in being alone. There isn't a singular goal for any person—man or woman—and yet feminism has sold us this prepackaged notion of success that, when you open it up, is totally undefined. And I think that's my main problem with Slaughter's article—that she tries to come to a conclusion about this thing that is almost entirely without definition. She seems to think that this nebulous goal, "having it all" (said it again! DRINK!!!), is a damaging one, yet she legitimizes it by writing about it so reverently.
Women, she says, are just different from men, and until the male-focused professional structure changes to accomodate our special lady-needs, we're fucked. We're just not going to make it work. Because, of course, all women are the same, want the same things, and react the same way to the same pressures:
The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case.
And that attitude comes heartbreakingly close to capitulation. Feminism is hard. Women are just different. The finish line is far. We're tired. Time out. As Traister points out, Slaughter got where she is (tenured professor at Princeton, high-powered diplomat) thanks to the struggles of the women who came before her. So for her to frame our deeply complicated present as some sort of weary end point is deeply discouraging:
Brains are still getting rewired, systems are still being reworked to accommodate evolving roles. Backlash politics (like the packaging of this article, if not the article itself) pushes back against every female stride, every achievement, and there's still enormous effort to put into righting gender (and racial, and sexual, and economic) injustices that make true equality elusive. A document like Slaughter's offers a valuable testament to these remaining challenges. But its presentation as a deadening diagnosis of insurmountability is antifeminist, anti-woman, cheap and reactionary.
The ultimate goal of any social movement, really, is that everyone gets to do whatever the fuck they want—but what Slaughter was doing before (State Department), and what she's doing now (mommy), are both tied to this archaic ideology. Oh, to break these professional barriers, women need to be tougher and smarter and more dedicated than any male colleague. Or, oh, to have a family a woman needs to make sacrifices and be a constant caregiver. Bullshit. It's all still playing into the idea that "being a woman" means a specific thing.
Women are not monolithic, and culture is so exhaustingly complex that there are no concrete finalities about what people should do. (There are open-ended ones, for sure—ones that facilitate choice and freedom rather than rigidity and conformity: People should not oppress other people. All people deserve equal rights. You know, all the old chestnuts.) Because we all grew up mired in this fucked-up culture—where women are objects and caregivers and capitulators—no one has enough perspective to come to a conclusion and say, "This is the way things should be. Women can't have a career and a family. Full stop." We can only think so many steps ahead. A hundred years ago the most radical feminist alive would have keeled over at the idea of a Slut Walk or "vagina-bombing" a senator. And in 100 years, we'll probably feel the same way about this nutty argument. Can women do whatever the fuck they want? OF COURSE THEY CAN. And it'll suck sometimes, and sometimes it won't. And all people will have to sacrifice certain things for certain other things. The only thing we can do right now is work toward a goal where everyone—everyone—has the same choices and chances. Any commentary beyond that is bound to be fatally flawed—because we don't know enough. And we never will.
Image via Alexander Smulskiy/Shutterstock.