Have It All, Ladies (and Gents)… Or Else!

A lot has already been said about Anne Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover story for The […]

David Zahl / 6.27.12

A lot has already been said about Anne Marie Slaughter’s controversial cover story for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. Naturally, I hesitated to comment at first–do we really need another male point of view?–but as the debate raging around the article has shifted to somewhat more universal questions, e.g. what constitutes success and value in our society, indeed what constitutes a meaningful life, period, the resistance melted away. She’s clearly touched a nerve! If you haven’t read the piece, it is packed with vulnerability and smarts (if not, perhaps, an overflow of wisdom), very much worth your time. I’ll gladly leave the treacherous contours of women’s work-life balance to those who are more qualified, but suffice it to say, Slaughter highlights some real inequalities that need to be compassionately understood and addressed.

What’s more interesting to me–surprise, surprise–is how quickly the discussion of possibility turns into one of responsibility or obligation. That is, how self-justification rears its ugly head and hijacks the entire conversation, “having it all” (regardless of how you define “all” – and Slaughter defines it extremely conventionally) being an uncanny expression of The Law of Who Ought To Be. Indeed, most of the responses to Slaughter’s article have underlined the cruelty of the standard for women that it embraces, either intentionally or not. Lori Gottlieb’s frank column in the same publication, “Why There’s No Such Thing As ‘Having It All’–And There Never Will Be,” articulates the problems with Slaughter’s presuppositions, namely:

(1) Nobody, male or female, married or single, young or old, tall or short, educated or not, pretty or plain, wealthy or poor, with kids or without, can have it all — neither in the very narrow way Slaughter defines “it,” nor in the broader context of life.

(2) Recognizing this makes people happier! In fact, the people who accept this don’t lie awake at night wondering why they’ve been handed the keys to the palace but the gilded moldings just aren’t sparkly enough.

More on item 2 at the bottom. But it’s Rebecca Traister on Salon who brought out the ‘legal’ ramifications most dramatically:

We should immediately strike the phrase “have it all” from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again.

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.

What does “having it all” even mean? Affordable childcare or a nanny who speaks Mandarin? Decent school lunches or organic string cheese? A windowed office or a higher minimum wage? Public transportation that reliably gets you to work or a driver who will whisk you from kindergarten dropoff in time for the board meeting? Does it mean never feeling stress or guilt? Does it mean feeling satisfied all the time?

It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the “have it all” formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism – as opposed to persistent gender inequity – that’s to blame.

After all, if feminism is supposed to provide women with complete fulfillment, and allow them to have it all, then anyone who’s less than fully pleased by her lot – who works long hours, struggles to pay bills, spends more hours over dirty dishes than her mate, who’s guilty about missing her kid’s play or her business partner’s PowerPoint, who feels tugged in ways that she perceives her husband does not – is not simply experiencing firsthand the ways in which sexism, the economic divide, the wage gap and patriarchal models for public and personal life persist. She’s not even simply experiencing the human condition of dissatisfaction and yearning.

No. Thanks to the “have it all” phantom, she’s experiencing betrayal at the hands of feminism itself. She may well be betraying herself!

Wowza. I’d love to hear what the ladies out there think of Traister’s perspective. Of course, it’s precisely with people who have experienced a “short-fall” that Christianity is such a comfort; a song like “Jesus Paid It All” has much more resonance for someone who has felt fundamentally condemned by their inability–for whatever reason–“to have it all”. The Gospel maintains that the ladder of personal achievement, indeed the entire success/failure paradigm has been set aside, once for all, at least when it comes to ultimate meaning and value in life. That isn’t to say that justice and equality are no longer important–quite the opposite!–just that we are free to engage injustice from a place of safety and assurance, rather than insecurity and fear and bitterness (a reality apparently lost on these unfortunate souls – wowza squared!). Perhaps it’s best to conclude with a word from someone who understood these things a whole lot better than I ever could: