‘Having it all’ a dated feminist credo

Published 7:56 am Sunday, October 23, 2016


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The term “having it all”, coined in the early 1980s by Helen Gurley Brown, creator of the Cosmopolitan magazine, endures to this day, but is currently viewed more as a myth. The idea largely left women feeling inadequate, not empowered.

Being a mother and a professional, maintaining a social life, and volunteering are all demands we place on ourselves that set us up for failure. How could we be all things to all people, and why would we even try?

What Gurley Brown arguably intended was for women to have equal access to more, not to have to choose between having a family and retaining our own identities, or between caring for our families and providing for ourselves.

Largely a product of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s, equal opportunity was the prominent theme. Many women defined feminism as a woman’s ability and right to have it all. But feminism is not about having it all. Feminism is about the freedom to make choices and have access to opportunity. And it involves men.

In 2013, Ann Marie Slaughter spoke about the “myth of having it all.” Slaughter wrote, “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.”

The plight of women in the workforce in 2016 is different from that in 1970 and we need to have that conversation. Simply scroll your Facebook feed to witness ongoing gender tension. While we have advanced on some fronts, much work still needs to be done. A good place to start would be to include men.

Equality begins with an even distribution of responsibilities and families should be in this together. According to a study done by Pew Research, in close to half of two-parent families, both mom and dad work full-time. A closer look at Pew data shows that full-time working mothers seem to find the balancing act more difficult than fathers: One in five women said they found it “very difficult,” compared with 12 percent of men. Four out of ten or 40 percent of full-time working moms say they always feel rushed. Perhaps not surprisingly, roughly six in ten — 59 percent — say the mother plays a larger role in managing their children’s schedules and activities, while just 5 percent say the father does more and 36 percent say the parents share this responsibility equally.

As a society we need to investigate, find solutions to and modify our employment structure to address this disparity. Achieving a well balanced work-life schedule is a goal across the sexes. There are judgments if you work too much, or conversely do not have a successful career. Perhaps you have a nanny “raising your children” or you gave up your career to be a stay at home caregiver. These are all difficult challenges each and every one of us grapple with to find compromise. And these are reasonable challenges compared to what single working parents must contend with or those living below the poverty line.

If we change the goal from “having it all” to “we are in this together” by supporting shared, not gender-based, responsibilities and opportunities, and if we adjust the workplace to facilitate such outcomes, our children will prosper and so will we. For example, employers should support adequate paternity and maternity leave for mothers and fathers; increase employee flexibility in work schedules; and increase child care options that are affordable. A supportive spouse is not enough. The key factor is not gender per se, but addressing policies and programs incompatible with having families and career advancement.

Although challenges for women still exist in the workplace, I feel grateful to be a woman in the world today because it’s an exciting and important time for our gender and our families. I juggle a family and a demanding career and I do so honestly by embracing the chaos.

I go to bed with a sink full of dirty dishes, often run late and then I forgive myself. My goal has never been to “have it all” but to model compromise, ambition and confidence for my children. And as we move away from the “pressure cooker of having it all” and gracefully slip back into our natural state of being creative, nurturing, compassionate and receptive, we are beginning to shift the impact that women are making.

The past has been about participating more fully and equally in the world. The future will be about changing the world to have men as our partners, not as obstacles.

About Jennifer Kirchner

Director of the Danville-Boyle County Convention and Visitors Bureau; regular guest columnist for The Advocate-Messenger.

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