Reconsiderations and Reflections on Having It All

Anne-Marie Slaughter's cover-story in this magazine provoked a flood of conversation. Rebecca Traister zeroes in on the unattainable goals set forth in the premise:


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.

Slaughter, responding to the conversation, and particularly to Traister's critique (which she called "brilliant") reflects and now agrees:

For my generation, women who came of age in the 1970s and entered the workforce in the 1980s, "having it all" simply meant that women should be able to have both careers and families in the same measure and to the same degree that men do. 

But I now see that thirty years later, when so many Americans have so little and so many men appear to be dissatisfied with their lot (judging by the number of responses that essentially say "men don't have it all either," a better and more accurate title for my article would have been Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Stay in the Pool and Make It to the Top. (Not sure that would have been catchy enough to motivate over a million readers to read and debate it, however.) 

So let's find a better way to talk about these issues that will produce the honesty I believe we need and still encourage women and men to stay in the game and push for change.

I should confess that Slaughter's piece left me a bit conflicted. I don't want to say that leading a privileged life robs you of the right to protest. Nor do I want to say that people don't have the right to speak toward their particular demographic. And yet, I can't help but see how much pick-up this story has gotten, and not wonder if that has to do with a kind of nexus of privilege between Slaughter's class (and I guess mine too, now. When did that happen?) and the people that write for the front page of the New York Times. You wonder if a piece on the really disturbing choices working mothers in struggling communities around the country have to make would have gotten that same sort of pickup. 

But beyond the media coverage it left me wondering about the goals of feminism, as Slaughter sees them. Surely work-life issues fall disproportionately on women. And yet Slaughter's complaints sounded to me like a lot a lot of Dads I know. At what point does it stop being a class issue (gender, race, wealth etc.) and become an issue of a messy America? What want is equality of choice--but can we eliminate penalties for making a choice? Won't people who put their desire to have a family before their work always suffer against those who live their work? Is that even wrong? Don't people whose work is primary for them deserve to reap the rewards of that decision? 

Circling back to Traister, blaming feminism for not solving work-life issues, feels like blaming the Civil Rights movement for not ending urban poverty. I could see a world where women are totally equal and these problems of family and career remain. 

At any rate, I was glad to see Slaughter continue the conversation, and reflect a bit. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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