Why Women Still Can't Have it All Discussion

September 01, 2012

Two professors, Meredith Woo, one grad student, and many undergraduate females walk into a bar...

Last semester I had the privilege of attending a fascinating Flash Seminar, as part of EngageUVA. The topic: "Why Women Can't Have It all." Our discussion was very much led by a woman who would appear to contradict the discussion title; she has risen quickly up the U.Va ladder, as a professor at Northwestern, a professor and associate dean at Michigan, and now a professor and the Clay Dean of Arts and Sciences here at U.Va. She is also, as a side-note, "thin and beautiful to boot," yet another aspect of "it all" that Anne Marie-Slaughter discussed.

meredith wooI think it is more helpful to link you all to the article than explain all of its points, but basically Marie-Slaughter points out the impossibility of excelling as a mother, a career woman. She briefly teases out the innate structural problems in society that deny women this chance, and, more interestingly to me, discussed the unconscious judgment women my age feel from women her age for not striving to "have it all"; Marie-Slaughter strongly asserts that this is a "falsehood," that personal determination is no longer a factor, and at this point the biggest obstacle is a society that is not equipped to support women who firmly engage in both their careers and their families. She thoroughly examines "The Half-Truths We Hold Dear," as a crucial factor in contributing to the perpetuation of this myth.

I can't advise all of you enough to read her entire article yourselves and become more informed about this topic; I will be speaking about our discussion of the article, not the article itself.

Dean Woo opened the floor by saying that the notion of having it all barely occurred to  her as she advanced professional and personally, and attempting to couch our discussion in that vein. She wanted to know what our aspirations are, how we want to "maintain other things that are valuable." She asserted, and I agree, that the idea of having it all is "individualist and possessive," a few of the other women chimed in with it being materialistic. As we spoke about what our own goals were, Dean Woo pointed out that a lot of us were referencing what our parents wanted for us; she asked to stop, and really think about what our parents would say if asked seriously what they wanted for us. Would they want us to be rich? To have changed the world? Or to be happy? She said it was probably the last of these. She also introduced the idea of, and we all thought about, what it means to make an impact. Anne Marie-Slaughter is a big deal- the pressures on her are of course different from what the pressures on me will be when I'm (ideally) a mother and an English high school teacher. Yet that is not to negate other experiences; Marie-Slaughter somewhat wryly acknowledges that women across the board are facing these issues, and many of them have it infinitely harder than she does.

anne marie slaughter

I want to mention what a few of my concerns were during this discussion. The first, and this is unfortunately somewhat common in my experience of gender discussions, is that there were numerous and dubious generalizations. At least three students started their sentences "I don't want to generalize" or "not to generalize men"... and then they did. Marie-Slaughter refers to her own discussion of this as "treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes." She then, however, makes the argument that "but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job." I want us to think about the fact that men are a production of, but not an equivalent to, the patriarchal system. I get a little uncomfortable when men reaping the benefits of their privilege is negatively reflected at them; why do we not have such frank discussions about white privilege? That said, where were all the men for this discussion? Privilege is power; the genders, the races, everyone should use their privilege and power to attain the equality our society needs to be fully accepting.

My bigger qualm has to do with having it all. Do we need it all? How do men have it all- if, as a few people argued, they are more free to choose jobs at their family's expense, surely that means that they are spending more time away from their families, and hence not having it all. Who has it all? And do they feel like they have it all? This felt like it came down to a question of self hood  or self-definition. Many of the students mentioned the oppositions of having a career and a family, of being successful or being a good mother. But why are these definitions and affirmations of our worth so externally created? There was a telling gap for self-definition; no one asserted that having it all would surely mean being happy in your own mind, in your own body, probably for these external reasons but not solely as a cause of them. This is me being hypocritical; I place very great stock in what my friends think of me, in my grades, in comparing myself to others. But the point is that I shouldn't. Defining our internal selves externally is all I do- but what else is there and what else could and should there be?

Our discussion ended with us thinking about choices. Our choices teach our peers and our colleagues what our values are. Our choices teach us who we are. Yet our choices do not negate that our lives can have a balance. One of the faculty members fascinatingly described it as being similar to a seesaw; something or someone is always winning (in my case, some days I do this-salsa meme- more, other days I do that- grad student meme- more). But this doesn't have to be a problem. I don't think I want it all, but I do want and love what I have, even if I, we, women, and men, constantly have to make decisions about how to treat our options, and how to treat what we have. That said, maybe i'm too optimistic about my options. Yet that said- shouldn't we all at least try to be?

Contribute a Story!

Have an idea for Iris? Send it to us!