Having It All, They Promised…Right?

Unless you’ve recently opted for a blog/media/pop culture break this June, you most likely encountered Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The author puts forth to her mind a pragmatic approach. Effectively: not everyone can be a superwoman (superman, which is less of a focus but sprinkled throughout) so we better get to ameliorating the situation by setting realistic individual goals and encourage changes in workplace policies, with a significant push for more women in the upper echelons of power. Slaughter’s article gained substantial traction. To use social media speak, it became a ‘trending article’ when a number of bloggers along with Facebook and Twitter users linked to it, in addition to many news and magazine outlets discussing ‘having it all’ at length.

One thing people across the media spectrum appear to agree upon is that achieving a work-family balance is a struggle for many and perhaps impossible, without significant adjustments, for most. Surely, this comes as no surprise to those familiar with any wave of the women’s movement in the United States or just their own personal, lived experiences. Yet, in a time where so much emphasis is understandably placed on legislative battles and policy outcomes, the amorphous cultural change surrounding what and how to connect to the twentieth-century women’s movement in the twenty-first is in many respects less clear. It receives dramatically less attention than the highly personalized debate over individual choices, which is often subsumed into the ‘having it all’ narrative.  The United States’ workplace environment, within this recent coverage, is typically presented in mainstream outlets as a by-product which must necessarily be dealt with in its current form given the economic state of affairs. As such, the focus revolves around family-friendly workplace policy changes and strengthening the pipeline for women to attain high level positions in business as well as government (and academia for that matter).

For an increasing number of individuals in the blogosphere the contemporary setting is not only undesirable, but rather is a profoundly unequal capitalist system. The winner-takes-all approach exacerbates the ever elusive work-family balance and takes place along many social fault lines (e.g., ability, nationality, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality) that continue to animate a broadly conceived contemporary women’s movement(s). One sociologist pushed back against the perceived trickle-down feminism advocated by Slaughter identifying it as being less than compelling for the majority of women in the United States.  Some argue Slaughter directly side-steps a number of issues in her often individualized account even while she clearly self-identifies her privileged position. Implicitly, this shapes her recommendations, as she pays less attention to larger, structural issues including a substantial focus on that it might not be just about women. And, emphasizing an even bigger ‘dream,’ Flavia Dzodan—a media analyst, blogger, and contributor to The Guardian—forcefully states:

I want my feminism to stop chasing this faux equality that puts us on the race to be better managers of exclusion and, instead, gives us the possibility of re-thinking a future where we no longer have underclasses within the underclass. I do not want any more of this reactive feminism that is devoted to creating opportunities for the few that are allowed in detriment of the millions whose only role is to cheer other women’s success in the name of sisterhood. I want a feminism of utopias and imagination. Then, maybe, we will be able to have it all. Even though probably, “all” would be something entirely different than how it is defined today.

The coverage overall suggests, regardless of your stance, the time is now for a renewed discussion of what it means to ‘have it all’ and to whom since as Stephanie Coontz asserts, “the women’s movement never told anybody that they could “have it all.” That concept was the brainchild of advertising executives, not feminist activists. Feminism insists on women’s right to make choices…” Slaughter’s write up and the buzz surrounding it provides an intriguing segue through which social movement scholars would be prime to enter into the discussion. The women’s movement is one of the, now, classic cases to study within social movement literature. Studying movement outcomes and the legacy of a movement over time are notoriously tricky—for those who study the women’s movement in its many manifestations historically or contemporarily, what do you make of ‘trending articles’ like that of Slaughter’s?

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “Having It All, They Promised…Right?

  1. Reblogged this on tressiemc and commented:
    Blogger Kathleen Oberlin links to my response to The Slaughter Article That Will Not Die.

    It is also a good segue-way into my radio interview tomorrow in which I will be discussing trickle down feminism, intersectionality, and why having it all is a capitalist fantasy.

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