How the "Having It All" Talk Hurts Feminism


The traditional narrative of whether women can have it all — comfortably juggle a career, marriage and children — is back in the headlines. Call it the “mommy-wars.” Frivolous infighting or valuable cultural criticism, it is a definitely a controversial topic.

Back in July of 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter published a piece in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” A feminist firestorm ensued.

In her piece Slaughter explained, “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating 'you can have it all' is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

Slaughter’s piece has racked up more than 2,500 comments and counting, a strikingly high number of comments for the Atlantic. Needless to say, the subject of women “having it all,” not to mention whether young feminists are listening anymore, is up for debate.

Of course all of this discussion really begs the question, have all of what? Furthermore, is it reasonable to set up a dichotomy to suggest men “have it all”?

Columnist E.J. Graff at the American Prospect weighed in on this point noting, “ [Slaughter’s] own marriage is a counter-example; her husband, she explains, ran the parenting and home realms so that she could pursue her ambitions. And even those men can get dinged when, however briefly, they need to put their family lives first.”

As the New York Times recently reported, the current economic climate is shifting the face of who wears the pants in the family by necessity even beyond changing cultural norms.

Notably, the role of privilege in one’s ability to “have it all” has been a major sticking point for many feminists, who argue the question is not so much if women can have it all but if the 99% can have it all. Same-sex marriage also turns the conversation about whether women can “have it all” on its head when one considers what having it all would look like for a lesbian couple.

In a recent CNN segment, 10 women with backgrounds in varying professions (including a Democratic Senator, a Republican strategist, a filmmaker, and a journalist) shared their views on the matter.

“Having it all sounds like a lot of maintenance,” writes Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro-Choice American. 

Are young women actually waging the same battle as Slaughter’s generation? Fights for better maternal leave, against sexism, and sexual harassment in the workplace, and for equal pay are all certainly still relevant. But many working millennials seem to recognize a need for reliable social services allowing for a healthy work-life balance regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or class.  

In a piece published on in response to Slaughter’s piece, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, writes:

“Women with high-powered careers competing for leadership roles while raising a family face harsh and conflicting pressures, as Slaughter details. But the stark reality is that most working mothers face far more daunting obstacles simply trying to keep their families afloat.”

Many women today recognize the larger connections between economic struggles and continuing gender inequalities when it comes to achieving a healthy work-life balance. In this pursuit, women are increasingly leaving the “have it all” conversation behind.