When ‘having it all’ misses the point

A new book by the president of Barnard College argues that the goal of feminism was never to make women's lives untenable

The question of whether women can “have it all” has been the source of many a polemic. The discussion is focused around the struggles of educated, upper-middle-class, heterosexual women to juggle demanding jobs, child rearing, and maintaining a sex life and marriage. Anne-Marie Slaughter kicked off the debate’s most recent incarnation with her 2012 Atlantic piece on the inflexible hours of prestigious jobs, “Why women still can’t have it all.” Sheryl Sandberg recommended that women “lean in” to those high-powered careers rather than scale back in anticipation of children they don’t have yet, while Judith Warner echoed this take in a story about stay-at-home moms regretting their choice to leave the workforce. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer drew criticism for ending the company’s acceptance of working remotely while she was allowed to bring her infant to the office. And Hanna Rosin said the patriarchy is dead, so this whole debate is uneccessary.

The newest entrant to the conversation is Barnard College president Debora Spar, with, Wonder Women (Sarah Crichton Books, $27), released on Tuesday. The work, Spar’s first foray into feminism, calls the entire premise of “having it all” into question: She argues that the pressure women feel to excel at everything is a misinterpretation of second-wave feminism’s intentions, which sought to open all avenues for all women, not to mandate that they traverse them all in stilettos:

By blessing women with so many options, feminism also—unwittingly and unwillingly—raised the bar on women’s lives and expectations. It pushed girls to excel at school and sports; encouraged young women to seize control of their love lives, their sex lives, and their careers; and urged young mothers to juggle the demands of work and family.

The way out of this perfection trap, she writes, is that women lucky enough to have options need to admit that something’s gotta give, and that doing so is a positive choice rather than a betrayal of feminism’s legacy. The laundry pile can grow if a work deadline looms; the kids will be alright if some meals aren’t home-cooked from locally sourced produce. And on a broader scale, women should organize and push for changes, Spar writes, like more flexible work arrangements. (Sandberg, whose “lean in” credo was first articulated at the 2011 Barnard graduation, makes a similar recommendation for women to gain resolve collectively.)

This basic message—that having many options available doesn’t mean women need to take them all—is commonsensical and appealing, as is a girl-power return to the barricades to push for workplace change. But it all gets muddled and diffused throughout Wonder Women, as Spar builds the case that what usually gives first in the “have it all” equation is a woman’s career, and that this is due to biological differences between the sexes:

[W]hen the choice is between compromising a job and compromising a family, women seem more inclined to focus on the family, men to stick with the job that pays the bills. Perhaps this goes back to our vestigial roles as feeders of children and killers of meat. Perhaps it is the media, still hammering stereotypes into our brains. Perhaps it is the modern workplace’s stubborn refusal to create schedules or structures that are even vaguely conducive to the rhythms of family life. But when push comes to shove—and it can, and it will—women are the ones who more often walk away.

Though Spar is careful to use hedging words like “perhaps” and “inclined,” analyses built on gender essentialism, the idea that there are characteristics inherent in a person’s sex, are retro and unhelpful. (At one point, she suggests that men are naturally more averse to domestic chores! That’s not biology; that’s mama’s-boy laziness.) She also can’t work through the biology argument: Spar says it may be in women’s natures to leave unforgiving jobs, but she also she recounts that Elena Kagan’s first “great act” as Harvard Law School dean “was to put free tampons in all the school’s bathrooms,” a helpful amenity that likely wouldn’t occur to a man. Spar bypasses the whole “sex and gender are distinct” thing—the concept that women’s “inclinations” are social norms rather than sex characteristics—though viewing societal gender roles as accidents of history has long been a mainstay of feminist criticism. That is, Spar is arguing that biology makes women have babies and then drop out of a patriarchal workforce. But unforgiving jobs aren’t inevitable; imagine how much a critical mass of Kagans would change things.

But the most disappointing aspect to Wonder Women wasn’t Spar’s resorting to biological excuses, it was her realtalk to young women. Again, rather than counsel the upcoming generation to work toward restructuring the workplace for work-life balance—something millennials are doing anyway—she recommends tempering their dreams:

Want to be an investment banker or technology entrepreneur? That’s fine. But assume ninety-hour work weeks and, if you want children, more than full-time childcare. Assume you’ll work nights and weekends and that the guy across the hall will have an easier time than you. Assume the baby will come down with croup the night before your major presentation and have a backup plan in place. If you don’t want to live like this—and let’s be honest, most people don’t—then don’t become an investment banker or technology entrepreneur.

Spar is convincing when she posits that it women shouldn’t feel crushed by unrealistic standards—that this wasn’t what earlier generations of feminists intended when they fought for gender equality. And she intersperses her reductive biological arguments with compelling first-person anecdotes that illustrate how overwhelming it is to “have it all.” These attributes, and an articulate rendering of statistics and studies, make Wonder Woman an overall enjoyable read. But Spar—a wife and mother of three with a prestigious academic career—never makes it clear what part of her “all” she would give up to live a more reasonable life. It seems unfair to try convincing younger generations to settle.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , , ,