Sisterhood Blog

What 'Having it All' Really Means

By Elissa Strauss

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One of the threads of the heated discussion surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is whether feminists should rid themselves of the phrase “having it all.”

Rebecca Traister at Salon writes:

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.

Lindy West at Jezebel adds:

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.

While I agree with the larger points Traister and West make in their responses, I would like to defend the use of the term “having it all” on behalf of the many feminists who, like me, totally got it.

Never once did I think that having it all, meant, literally, “it all.” I didn’t expect a high-paying, well-respected job that only required me to work 8 hour days. I never foresaw a highly supportive boss who encouraged me to work from home or take the afternoon off when my child needed it. I never expected the same things for my husband, who, would take delight in his flexibility and surprise me at the carpool line on a Friday afternoon, after which we would spend the rest of the day eating ice cream in the park and hearing our child talk about his hopes and dreams.

I never imagined a life free of guilt or stress, but full of easy-to-prepare, ecologically sustainable meals after which my independent but adoring children insist on cleaning up. I never believed that managing daycare, school and summer camp with work would require anything less than the precision of a high-operations military unit on behalf of my husband and me. Lastly, I never thought squeezing in yoga, sunset jogs, or weekends away with friends would be effortless.

Instead, when I heard the phrase “have it all,” I thought it meant, very simply, “have all the opportunities.” This is what, as I understand it, feminism has pursued and is still pursuing.

Never, ever, have I been so foolish that I ignored the fact that, at some point or another, “work” and “life,” or career and family, is a zero-sum game. All the subsidized daycare, flexible work-schedules and supportive partners in the world can’t undo the fact that we can’t be in two places at once. At some point, all of us, will have to choose. There is no perfect solution, and especially not a one-size-fits-all one.

Still, even though we can’t have it all at once, we can have it all in terms of choices and options that allow us, all of us, men and women, to organize our lives in the best way possible.

Here is my list of “it all” as I see it when it comes to improving work-life balance.

•A reliable system of childcare support, whether provided by the government, employer, family members, private facilities or home-care — whatever works for the individual family. Though we all should be able to have a few options. Today most of us have only expensive private facilities or home-care to choose from.

•An end to “time macho” work culture, as Slaughter refers to it. Research does not support the idea that working longer hours and weekends makes us produce higher quality work. Nor does my California upbringing, where I witnessed many people do just-fine while incorporating leisure into their lives. (Slaughter even gives a special shout-out to California in the piece. “California is the cradle of American innovation—in technology, entertainment, sports, food, and lifestyles. It is also a place where people take leisure as seriously as they take work; where companies like Google deliberately encourage play, with Ping-Pong tables, light sabers, and policies that require employees to spend one day a week working on whatever they wish.“ So take that, busy east-coasters.) No more 12 hour work days. Humans made it pretty far without this 24/7 work culture. Quantity is not quality.

•A general shift as a society on valuing parenting and understanding that good parents create good citizens, which benefits us all. Instead of saying, “Oh man, Judy can’t make the 5 o’clock meeting because she has to go to her kid’s piano recital,” supervisors will simply say, “Judy can’t make it to the meeting,” with the implication that her support of her child is vital for giving him or a her a healthy self-esteem. And then we all win.

•Fathers who really, really care about parenting. Like so much so that they blog and write columns about it, and swap tips in the elevator and during breaks in their basketball games.

•Paid parental leave. To me it makes as much sense as paved roads, and science pretty much backs me up on this one. Let’s make it a priority.

•Workplaces that really, truly understand that there is not yet parity between the sexes and actively try to counter any subtle harassment or overt sexism that may be taking place in their offices.


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