Unless you’re one of those weirdos who doesn’t use Facebook, you’ve no doubt noticed that a recent article in The Atlantic has blown up your news feed. The article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of School of Public and International Affairs has been shared by both men and women alike. As the owner of two lovely X chromosomes, naturally I was intrigued. It’s a question I’ve admittedly asked myself frequently, usually while shopping: why can’t I have it all?
Without getting into the larger, more hairy–or, in the case of women, less hairy– issues of gender differences, I doubt that men ask questions like that in decision-making. As I read Slaughter’s article, I realized that I’ve never heard two “dudes” discussing whether or not they think a particular career decision will adversely affect their ability to meet a viable partner, have a family or, “have it all.”
Women have been saying for years that we can and should achieve parity with men in every area of life: education, career, financial independence, etc. I don’t disagree, but perhaps the truest mark of gender equality will be the day when a woman doesn’t bother to anxiously fret over whether she can have it all. This is a freedom which men have enjoyed since the beginning of time and can be clearly seen in the outfits they throw together without any seeming care for style, fit, cleanliness or color scheme. So Ladies, let’s stop trying to do things the way men do, get off the rat wheel of what everyone says a woman should be, and make that choice for our own damn selves.
You Just Grab That Brownish Area By Its Points and You Don’t Let Go No Matter What Your Mom Says
Betty Draper Francis is the character everyone loves to hate on MadMen, especially once she put on weight. Betty is the epitome of the “Feminine Mystique” of the 1950’s and ‘60’s–a beautiful woman who remains in a childlike state, largely because that is the only role that her culture will allow a white, middle class woman to have. As Betty grows “old” (a 34-year-old crone!) and “fat,” (hey, Henry Francis seems to like a little extra bump), her insecurity over losing her looks–her only skin in the game, pun totally intended–becomes palpable. “Thank God life isn’t like that anymore! We are valued for our sparkling wit and sharp minds” we think to ourselves.
Yet, despite the advances that all the various waves of feminism have made for women, the waters of revolution have not fully drowned out the societal voices calling for a more “traditional” version of womanhood–your main goal is to be beautiful, find a husband, and have a family. “Be like Betty,” that voice says, “be beautiful and pleasing and then a man will want you and you’ll have it all.” No, now the message is that if you’re going to be a career woman, you should ALSO be a beautiful wife and mother, or you’ve just failed as a woman. So instead of removing this particular societal pressure, we’ve just turned up the speed on our already spinning rat wheels. THE MAN IS KEEPING US DOWN!
I have yet to meet a woman who doesn’t have a mother/father/grandparent/nosy family member who wonders why she’s not married and having children. And if those family members are truly awful, will follow the question with some variation of “what are you doing wrong?” Maybe we aren’t expected to be good little girls instead of fully developed adults, but the messages our culture sends us through media and misinterpreted religious texts, is that we’re supposed to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” and singleness is the punishment for any deviations from that model.
So who cares that you are Ivy-league educated and have a successful career? You need to be beautiful and charming to snag yourself some life-justification in the form of a man. Educated, successful and single men (‘cause there are a ton of you reading this now, right?), how many of you have nosy family members questioning the reasons why you’re single? Please feel free to comment below. Do people heap anxiety on you that you’re single because you’re too smart or good at your job? They clearly aren’t stressing you out that you’re not properly groomed or hygienic enough to snag a wife. Just saying.
Then, after you’ve somehow convinced one of these better groomed dudes to stop playing Medal of Honor long enough to marry you, you need to have beautiful, smart, and charming children. All along the way, Botoxing out your stress wrinkles from worrying about whether you are a good mother, because you want to work…or whether you’re a terrible example of womanhood because you “off-ramped.” So, no we may not need to worry about living our lives like Betty Draper Francis, valuing ourselves based on looks that fade and a family that sort of hates us. But you’re lying if you say that you haven’t had a moment of panic about your life, because you’re single or childless.
Anything You Can Do…
I am fortunate to have been born and come of age during an era in which it was a given that a woman could do anything that she set her mind to. I was never discouraged from pursuing education or a career (in fact, extremely encouraged to do both), and no one ever laughed at me when I expressed lofty aspirations. But on this side of 30 and recovering from following the rules (academic domination in college, several jobs at “name” companies, “having it all” in a prestigious grad program, professional domination in a male-centric field), I feel less like “I am woman, hear me roar” and more like “I am woman, I lost my voice and now I want a nap.” I’m tired. And I feel like a one-dimensional version of myself. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’m also disillusioned. Why did we, as women, define success and parity mostly on our ability to compete in the rat race? A woman’s place isn’t in the home, it’s the boardroom! At least that was the message I received. Maybe I didn’t hear it clearly, amidst all that roaring.
We have been told, whether explicitly or implicitly that to achieve equality, we need to be more like men. We should work like men, the same hours and the same pace. We should not be emotional or appear weak or vulnerable in the workplace–in fact, be an asshole, because it’s a man’s world. We should put our careers first and then after we’ve achieved success, consider family if we want it. We should have sex with anyone we want, whenever we want, because men are free to do the same. And as we see from being just mere observers of the world, nothing bad could ever happen from living your life like this right? It’s totally a healthy, safe and well-rounded way to live. No negative repercussions ever.
I guess after following the rule book like the good little feminist/overachiever that I am, I’m starting to question not only whether this is the best road to equality, but whether it’s even wise. I’ve met a lot of men and I often find the way they make decisions and the values they hold above others to be…unwise. After all, you rarely encounter a group of women saying to each other,“look, you can totally jump from the top of that roof and into the pool. It will be awesome! Just do it! Nothing bad could ever happen.” So why have we let a male perspective set the terms of what the world should look like and how we should behave, in order to be “equal”? Why haven’t we dismantled the stupid fort they made out of barbed wire full of tetanus and shards of glass and rebuilt it out of pillows and with a lovely sun room?
I’m Not Your Superwoman
The sad thing is that both the traditional and “emancipated” voices harmonize to remind us that as women, we are just not enough. As a neurotic overachiever (I am woman, hear me mutter to myself over my to-do list), I thank God that I am single and childless, because if I had to worry about my body, my skin, my clothes, my job, my finances, my health, my dating life AND whether or not I was a fit mother, I think I’d explode. These voices blend in so seamlessly with the female tendency to set up our own courtroom drama in our heads. Women aren’t funny enough. We are never good enough, smart enough and doggone it, if we’re not perfect, nobody will like us. As the always sensitive Professor ‘enry ‘iggins would say, “why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
And isn’t that the big lie? The lie that tells us that we aren’t enough as women, so we need to be more like men. But we’re not enough like women, so we need to be more like an unsustainable feminine ideal. We’re running hard on a rat wheel built out of career and educational success and prestige, family obligations and what that means for the future of womanhood. Dorothy Sayers says it more articulately than I can:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made sick jokes about women; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took women’s questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out a certain sphere for women; who never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took women as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its point or pungency from female perversity. Nobody could get from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny or inferior about women.”- Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?
As I’ve discussed this subject with different men (one of whom you’ll hear from later on this week), their resounding answer to “do you factor in whether you can ‘have it all’ when making any life decision? is “haha, um, no” (or sometimes, “sorry, what were you asking? I was thinking about breasts just now”). This blissful lack of care about societal concepts of manhood or definitions of success is either a mark of how dense men can be or the final frontier in gender equality. This informal survey suggested that men aren’t necessarily insensitive to external pressures. But that they had always felt empowered to pursue whatever constituted “having it all” meant to them.
Now, I’m not advocating that women stop caring about their appearances, pull a Kramer vs. Kramer and divorce their husbands, or quit their jobs. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about how our decisions affect the people and world around us. Yes, we’ve been socialized to think that way, but that’s not a bad thing. It just becomes a bad thing when it inhibits our freedom to say “what does ‘having it all’ or the good life look like FOR ME? I’m going to do that today.”
Ladies, we need to stop trying to be like anyone other than who we are. If you want to become a wife and mother and make that a priority, good for you! We need badass moms. But if you don’t want to do that or it doesn’t work out that way for you, you are no less a woman than your SAHM sisters. And if you want to do both, that’s great! But whatever you do, live your lives. Make your mistakes. But let them be your mistakes. Be successful, however you define success. And laugh. To quote Rachel Held Evans: “Proverbs 31:25 says the wise woman ‘laughs at the days to come.’ I don’t think the Proverbs 31 Woman laughs because she has it all together. I think she laughs because she knows the secret about being enough.”
So let’s stop asking whether or not we can have it all and appreciate that we can have enough. And wear our dirty, ripped t-shirt, black dress socks with shorts and sandals, if we damn well feel like it.