Who Said Women Can Have It All?

Remember that Anne-Marie Slaughter article in The Atlantic about a month and a half ago, whose title—"Why Women Still Can't Have It All"—drove feminists bonkers, while the substance nevertheless rang true for roughly 70 gazillion working parents in this country who are doing the impossible every single day? Rebecca Traister proposed forever retiring the phrase "having it all" here, and I chastised the magazine for the framing. But the article's core idea was right, as I wrote at the time: 

 She’s right about this core truth: Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems. When I talk to friends who’ve just had children, here’s what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can’t be done right, so don’t blame yourself when you’re failing. You’ll always be failing at something—as a spouse, as a parent, as a worker. Just get used to that feeling. Slaughter’s entire article is worth reading for her nuanced exploration of that alone. It's true for people at the top; it's even more  true for people at the bottom, who have no sick leave, no choice in their shifts, no freedom to run over to the school if a child is sick. 

Now one of our feminist historians, Ruth Rosen, has come in to clarify that feminism had an entirely different idea from the start—and that the "having it all" framing was a creation of the ad industry and the media. Her essay at Open Democracy, "Who Said 'We Could Have It All'?," is worth reading in full, but here are some excerpts: 

The fact is, activists in the women’s movement knew women could never have it all, unless they were able to change the society in which they lived.

At the August 1970 march for Women’s Strike for Equality, the three preconditions for emancipation included child care, legal abortion and equal pay. “There are no individual solutions,” feminists chanted in the late sixties.  If feminism were to succeed as a radical vision, the movement had to advance the interests of all women.

The belief that you could become a superwoman became a journalistic trope in the 1970s and has never vanished.  By 1980, most women’s (self-help) magazines turned a feminist into a Superwoman, hair flying as she rushed around, attaché case in one arm, a baby in the other. The Superwomen could have it all, but only if she did it all. And that was exactly what feminists had not wanted. 

American social movements tend to move from a collectivistic vision to one that emphasizes the success of the individual. That is precisely what happened between 1970 and 1980. Alongside the original women’s movement grew another kind of feminism, one that was shaped by the media, consumerism and the therapeutic self-help movements that sprang up in that decade....

Self -help magazines and lifestyle sections of newspapers also began to teach women how to have it all. Both turned a collectivistic vision of feminism into what I have elsewhere called Consumer Feminism and Therapeutic Feminism. Millions of women first heard of the movement when they read about the different clothes they needed to buy in order to look like a superwoman and the therapy they needed to become a confident and competent superwoman...

In 1976, Ellen Goodman,  the feminist journalist for the Boston Globe (now retired), satirized the media’s bizarre view of a “woman who had it all:”

"The all-around Supermom rises, dresses in her vivid pants suit, oversees  breakfast and then searches for the sneakers and then goes off to her glamorous high-paying job at an advertisement agency where she seeks Personal Fulfillment and kids’ college tuition.  She has, of course, previously found a Mary Poppins figure to take care of the kids after school.  Mary Poppins takes care of them as if they were her own, works for a mere pittance and is utterly reliable.

Supermom II comes home from work at 5:30, just as fresh as a daisy, and then spends a truly creative hour with her children....She catches up on their day, soothes their disputes and helps with their homework, while creating something imaginative in her Cuisinart (with her left hand  tied behind her back)....She then turns to her husband and eagerly suggests that they explore some vaguely kind of kinky sexual fantasy.”

The feminist -- as remade by the media and popular culture -- emerged as a superwoman, who then turned into a scapegoat for a nation’s consumerism, the decline of families, and the country’s therapeutic culture.  For this, the women’s movement’s was blamed, even though this selfish superwoman who neglected her family seemed bizarre, not to say repellent, to most of the early activists.

How shocking that American culture would take a vision of structural social change and turn it into a personal mandate for superhuman success or guilty shame! Could we get back to that idea of policy change, now, beginning with paid sick leave for all workers? That's a change that even The New York Times editorial board is for, as they wrote this weekend.

More than 40 million American workers get no paid sick leave. They have to work when ill or take unpaid sick days, which can lead to financial hardship, or, worse, dismissal. The best way to address this workplace and public health problem is with a national law requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave — a normal benefit for workers in at least 145 countries....

While NYC City Council member Christine Quinn, among others, says such a law could hurt jobs:

Little evidence to support such fears has been seen in San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Connecticut, which require many businesses to provide the benefit. There are also economic benefits — lower turnover, higher productivity and morale, and reduced job loss for workers.

Expanded early childhood education would go a long way to relieving working families of the childcare burden while also helping the most disadvantaged children be better prepared to learn and have better nutrition. Paid family leave (at least for workers in businesses with at least 50 employees) would help mothers breast feed longer (as would clean pumping rooms and flexible pumping breaks), improving public health for those same children.

Then let's move on to universal health insurance with no exceptions for preconditions, contraception with no co-pay, pre-natal screenings for gestational diabetes, services for victims of domestic violence, breastfeeding counseling, and other things that families need to stay healthy and in the workforce. *Headslap!* Oh wait! We got that! And those rules kicked in last week. A win, for a change! (Cue a nice little Tigger dance.)

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