Belfast Telegraph

Women having it all is nothing but middle-class myth

By Laurie Penny

Ladies and gentleman, but particularly ladies, I'd like you to do me a favour. I'd like us all to stop pretending that the topic of the month — can women really juggle a high-powered career and childcare at the same time? — is a very important question.

The reason we need to stop is that right now, in the midst of an enormous social, moral and financial backlash against women's independence, figures have emerged showing middle-aged women are by far the hardest hit by the rise in unemployment. So much for having it all.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high-achieving academic and Washington professional, has written an article on the ‘myth of work-life balance’, breaking the solemn news that even women like her still can't have it all.

What I want to know is: when did we get so unambitious? When did feminism narrow its horizons so that the absolute maximum we're prepared to fight for is the rights of a minority of women to be admitted into a sexist labour market, while managing the school run on the side?

Without wishing to sound like a conspiracy theorist, if I had to invent a way to undermine feminism as a socially useful movement, here's what I'd do.

I'd set up a ridiculous standard of personal and professional attainment, one unachievable for the vast majority of women who weren't independently wealthy, white and upper-middle class and I'd call it ‘having it all’. After I'd set up this impossible standard, I'd be sure to make women feel like failures for not attaining it.

If women believe we can and should have it all, that means it's our fault if we still don't feel free, our fault for not working harder, not managing our time well, not choosing the ‘right’ partner.

For many younger women, who watched our mothers struggle to have it all, the question of whether or not we should do the same has been mercifully sidelined.

Personally, with the economy the way it is, I don't have the time, money and stability to take care of a puppy, the thing I most want in the world, never mind a boyfriend or baby. Most of my friends are in similar situations, but we do have the freedom to ask questions.

Questions like: are we actually allowed not to want a husband? Or: am I still a valid person if I don't ever make £50,000 a year? Or: is planning not to get married, or have children, planning to pour your energies into selfish creative work or travel, still an option?

What is radical about Slaughter's article is its acknowledgement that the ‘have it all’ ideal has always been a fiction — even for seeming superwomen.

Within living memory, feminism had more imagination. There were campaigns for universal free childcare, wages for housework and a welfare state allowing everyone, not just women, to balance work and family life.

If the most modern feminism can achieve is personal liberation for a handful of privileged women within a labour market designed by and for rich men, we may as well all go back to the kitchen.

But if women's rights are going to mean anything in a post-austerity world, we're going to have to start asking for much, much more.

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