Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a provocative piece in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It inspired a lot of discussion. Some were upset that she would put a damper on the ambitions of so many young women. Others praised her for telling it like it is.
My friend Nora Ephron, who died last week, gave the commencement speech in 1996 at Wellesley, her alma mater. In her speech, she said, “This is the season when a clutch of successful women – who have it all – give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all. Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all… It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications.” And she added: “you can always change your mind. I know. I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
Nora wasn’t kidding about the mess and the complications. This is why the whole question of “having it all” is irrelevant. I don’t even know what it means. My interpretation, and I think that of most women, is that it means having a great marriage, being a terrific mother and having a successful career all at the same time. I don’t know a single woman who has ever been able to manage all of this simultaneously without putting something or someone first some of the time.
The interesting thing is that in the nearly 45 years that we were friends, through all of the mess and complications of both of our lives, Nora and I never had a conversation about whether we could have it all. We did the best we could. It became clear that throughout much of that time we were both trying to “do” it all but we rarely “had” it all. There’s a big difference. We had husbands, we had children, we had careers. I think the biggest meltdown Nora and I ever shared with each other, (separately) was over nannies gone bad.
Certainly for me there were times when I put one before the other.You have to choose. Before I had my son, Quinn, I would alternate between putting my marriage first and my career first. After Quinn was born with a hole in his heart, had surgery at age 3 months, then developed medical problems and learning disabilities, my choices were obvious. Quinn came first, then my husband, whose support I desperately needed, and then my so-called career, which languished for sixteen years. Most women don’t have to face choices quite so dramatic. Some might have had different priorities which worked better for them. This is what worked for me.
I think where this whole argument went off the rails is when women began to judge each other for their different choices. I don’t understand why one way is better than another. We are all different and nobody should tell another woman how to live. Slaughter talked about how she used to feel smug about being able to have it all and looked down on other women who couldn’t see to make it work. Then she said she was criticized by other women when she quit her state department job and moved back to her family in Princeton because she had supposedly let the side down by choosing her family first. I have to say that Slaughter’s circumstances are so rare than even the most high-powered women couldn’t relate. She took a job with Hillary Clinton in Washington and left her family behind in Princeton, commuting home on weekends. Of course she couldn’t have it all. Duh!
During the height of the feminist movement, when Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were duking it out over the importance of marriage and a family. Gloria made a now famous statement that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” A lot of young women were completely traumatized by the whole notion that there must be something wrong with them if they wanted families and children and, God forbid, wanted some time to stay home when they had kids. I remember in the newsroom, a friend of mine came over to me, red faced, to tell me she was expecting. She was just beginning to show. “I know it’s not politically correct,” she said, “but my husband and I really wanted a baby.” There was a sort of “macho” quality among some women with children to see who could work the longest hours, the wife or the husband, in an effort to intimidate the men into sharing equal time with the kids. And I wouldsay that not one female friend with a career didn’t take the greater share of childcare and housekeeping.
Today, I’m happy to see now that so many younger women are confronting choices with a much more realistic view of life. Many are taking their partner’s name in marriage. (In a million years I wouldn’t have changed my name and still wouldn’t today.) Many are taking time off from work to stay home with their children. Many are working flexible hours. Some are in high-powered jobs and have nannies and baby sitters. I look around the newsroom and see some of the smartest people are women. All are making different choices. I respect them for whatever choices they make. Some will go to the top; some will decide not to. Some will wait and do it later. Fine. For me, it helped going to a women’s college. I went to Smith, as did Friedan and Steinem. All of the smartest people there were women, so it never occurred to me that women were anything but.
I have always believed that women can do anything, I have always believed that one day women will rule the world. When my son says “Mom, you should be president of the United States,” he’s only half joking. He could say that about most of the women I know.
Slaughter’s solution is totally unrealistic, certainly any time soon. She says to close the leadership gap we should “elect a woman president and 50 women senators to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. “ Great idea. Only problem is it doesn’t solve our immediate problem. It will take time.
Yes there should be more women in the upper ranks, especially since women are graduating from law, medical and graduate schools at increasing rates. These women are not “opting out” though, a really dirty phrase in feminist language. They are simply living their lives the way they want to live them. Gradually they are finding ways to be able to have the marriages, careers and families they want at the times they want them. The more women in power the more women will have the options to design their own lives.
Slaughter points out, rightly, that she is writing for a certain demographic. We are talking here about women who have the luxury of making choices. Most women in America don’t. They have to work.
One of the worlds in which “opting out” not being allowed, is in the world of religion. There is hardly any religion which does not treat women as second-class citizens and, consequently, that has to have an effect on the thinking of both sexes. When religions accept us as equals it will make a huge difference in the way women view themselves and the world around them.
As Nora said at the end of her Wellesley speech, “Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, nobody said it was so hard. But it’s also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option.”
So it’s time to stop whining and moaning about how we can’t have it all or boasting that we can. I once knew a psychologist whose mantra was, “You get what you want.” The point is that we can have the lives we want. And we should glory in the fact that we are women.
Sally Quinn | Jul 5, 2012 6:40 PM