It seems not a day goes by when I’m not reading another headline arguing whether women can have it all, or, more accurately, why they can’t. In this week’s New York Times magazine, Jennifer Szalai’s “Had It All” does a fine job deconstructing the very origin of “having it all” as both a myth and misrepresentation of a classic book in the 1970s.
While Helen Gurley Brown’s editors coined the title for her 1982 book “Having It All,” the thesis was more self-help than a debate of the sexes, and definitely did not include having children in the equation. But something in the last thirty years of feminist setbacks and victories revived the phrase “having it all” for a very narrow definition of women—professional mothers. While bringing to light the sad facts of working mothers struggling to find adequate childcare or help with housework, the concept of having it all and, more accurately, why women can’t, has been recently distilled down to two distinct, and arguably classist, definitions of womanhood—having a career and having children. Why do feminist authors continue to define womanhood in such narrow and definitive terms?
Many women do not have careers or children. And this is not always by choice. Given the economic downturn in the past handful of years, plenty of intelligent and ambitious women found themselves stuck in dead-end or less-than-professional jobs in order to pay off existing student loans or mounting debt payments. While many people who were laid off turned to higher education, many more people abandoned higher education in order to avoid doubling or tripling their loan burdens. I am one of those women, who considered graduate school but ultimately stayed in a retail job out of hesitancy to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in graduate school debt plus living expenses. My retail job offered full health benefits and flexibility, but a career it is not. And some of my reasons to stay at said job were to keep the flexibility should I have a baby. But not all women can have or want to have children. Having married in my late thirties, I may be too old and economically disadvantaged to have a baby. Having no career, and no baby, am I arguably even a woman at all? Or am I a woman who has nothing at all?
Classism in feminist discourse is unavoidable as it’s unavoidable in almost every discipline. While feminist theory makes great and respectful strides to be inclusive of all women when defining different schools of feminist thought, the majority of feminist discourse in popular culture and media continues to discuss professional career women with children as though they represent women as a whole.
There are plenty of women who want it all, but that may not mean a professional career and children. Does that mean they are not entitled to argue for a healthy and equal work and home life? As for the women who want a career or a baby but can’t, are we not allowed to argue for life/work balance as well? I’m glad that Jennifer Szalai’s article exposes the very phrase “having it all” as a marketing gimmick. Perhaps the argument for women “having it all” will be equally exposed as a gimmick that barely addresses the complexity of all women and their need for equality at work, home, and the world at large.