Don’t blame feminism for the concept “Having It All.”
(This isn’t a response to the article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic, which I have bookmarked to read this weekend, but rather to much of the reaction to it I’ve read over the last several days.)
What Second Wave feminists of the 1960’s and 70’s were advocating was legal equality for women, and equality of choices and opportunities, and a cultural and societal evolution that would bolster and sustain that equality and expanded roles. (They also promoted the idea that traditional “women’s work” should be more highly valued and compensated.) It wasn’t feminists who coined “bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan;” that was a pop song, and an idea that required little change from the cultural status-quo or traditional roles, only more expectation heaped upon women.
As so often happens with any cultural movement, the message of feminism was co-opted by media and commercial interests in order to sell products. “You’ve Come A Long Way Baby” sold cigarettes. The first reference to “Having It All” that I remember seeing was in a book by the same title by Helen Gurley Brown, at the time the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. (And if I recall correctly, her version of HIA meant career and marriage, but not kids.)
At least in the U.S., our society is still very much structured in a way that makes juggling work and family obligations difficult. Good quality childcare is expensive and hard to come by. There is no uniform paid family leave, aside from unpaid leave mandated by FMLA. While some companies have adopted telecommuting, flex hours and other adaptations to the work schedule, they are in the minority. The standard work week still holds sway, as does the idea that getting ahead means long hours in the office.
But here’s the other thing that chaps my hide, when the phrase “Having It All” is invoked, it’s always in reference to women. Which tells me how far we still have to go. Sure, men increasingly talk about wanting to work less and spend more time with their families, more power to them (and us!). But the chiding, the contempt that this phrase evokes is always directed at women, the implication being either that we’re wrong to want it, or inadequate if we haven’t achieved it. Silly selfish women, you’re short-changing your families, your employers, your husbands! Or conversely, look at her, she’s an investment banker and still has time to hot-glue 300 buttons onto her child’s Halloween costume AND make clever cupcakes for the class party!
So let’s bury this phrase in the trash heap of pop culture, where it belongs. The reality is that women do work and have families and it’s damn hard. We do the best we can, we prioritize, we learn, we grow. But let’s continue to agitate for change that supports the reality: flexible work hours, paid parental leave, supports that women in other industrialized nations enjoy.
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