The Duck of Minerva

“Having it all” and a (non-essentialist) feminist politics

23 June 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” has stirred up a fair amount of controversy in the last couple of days. Dozens of my Facebook friends have posted and reposted it, and it has prompted many of them to reflect on their personal experiences with womanhood, femininity, parenting, and/or motherhood. Several students have asked me about the article and my opinions on it, and it seems to be stirring up debate and discussion wherever read. To me, that’s the mark of a good article – that it inspires contemplation and argument. On top of that, Slaughter’s article seems heartfelt and honest, even though the author is aware of the risks and pitfalls of the strategy that she takes. While I don’t agree with everything in the article, there’s a lot of important stuff there, and I think it absolutely needed to be published.

Under a different title, minus the sex essentialism.

An important starting point and an important caveat: as a feminist, politically and academically, it is crucially important to me to recognize that gender inequity remains a fact of life in our society, and that said inequity manifests often in terms of the burdens of child care, the stereotypical assumptions that are made about the relationship between women and motherhood, the work habits and capacity of mothers, and other factors. Sex discrimination/sexism, pregnancy discrimination, heterosexism, and cissexism are very real – and, as Slaughter points out, are constantly present in (women’s) negotiating work/life balance issues. I see the right to reproduce as every bit as important as the right to reproductive control. Intellectually and politically, I believe a society where the joys and burdens of parenthood are enjoyable by all who would like them and not distributed sex-differentially is a crucial part of the feminist vision (and mine). And, like Slaughter, I realize that such a society is complicated, difficult, demanding, and at times almost impossible to imagine. In my view, motherhood is indisputably a key feminist issue, and it is important to realize both how much progress has been made and how far from sex-equal parenting (and sex-equal treatment of parents in the workplace) we really are.

That said, the idea that motherhood is a key feminist issue and the idea that motherhood is a key part of femininity are different, but conflated often, and not only in Slaughter’s article. Certainly, restructuring  society such that women can make the choice to be mothers and not both be expected to bear a disproportionate part of the personal and professional costs and suffer discrimination is crucially important to ending gender subordination. But so is restructuring society to deconstruct the assumed relationship between women and motherhood, where it isn’t assumed women have to have (and succeed at) motherhood to “have it all” …

My personal reaction to Slaughter’s article was different than that of many of my friends who are parents. Many of my friends are parents, and many of them are amazing parents who have sacrificed a significant amount to be there for their children. I respect that as a life choice immensely, and say that with the upmost seriousness. That said, it is a life choice I would never even consider making. I have never had any desire to be a parent, and know myself well enough to know that I never will. I do have a sense of what my life would look like if I “had it all” – but that sense does not include, and will never include, having children or being a good parent. I do experience the impacts of gendered, sexist, and heterosexist assumptions both in life generally and in terms of “work-life balance” (a term I also don’t like), but not in the area of parenting.

This puts me in an odd position vis a vis the traditional association of women and motherhood and the feminist defense of the rights of mothers, personally and professionally. That’s in part because I can’t identify with (and can’t imagine) the struggles many women go through to parent, and therefore have a lot of respect for it. But its in part because there’s this creepy feeling in my stomach every time someone equates “having it all” with parenting, or suggests that “women” need particular things related to parenting or parental leave or parental accommodations. Though I’m supportive of parenting, and especially of removing a disproportionate amount of the burden of parenting from women, statements like that imply that women (should and do) want to parent, and that there’s something wrong with (me as) a “woman” who does not want to parent, and who has different needs and desires.

Many would say that I’m just reading that implication into these statements, which sound but might not be sex essentialist, especially given that many of them are uttered by feminists, and many feminists make the choice to be parents and navigate complicated relationships at home and at work to do so. But I’ve heard the non-implied version of those statements behind closed doors so many times that I’m sure of the implication of the “public consumption” version. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me, in personal and professional contexts, that I will “change my mind,” that my “biological clock” will start “ticking,” that I should “meet a nice gentleman” (a tip I received on my tenure case, oddly enough), that “children are a part of being whole,” and that I “don’t have to sacrifice a family for my career” (by those who incorrectly assume that is what my choice is about). All of those assumptions – that all women want to have children, that it is a natural part of femininity, that children are essential to “having a family,” and that the choice not to have children is about a career (rather than about life, and all of the other things it is about to me) – are commonplace, even among scholars, and even among many feminist scholars.

Those assumptions are every bit as gendered as the assumptions that we traditionally critique as gender-subordinating, and they are linked. Until we disassociate “having it all” as a “woman” and motherhood, women will be expected to do a majority of care work and will be treated differently personally and professionally for it. Some women (and some men, and some people that are neither) can and should be mothers. But I’m not one of them – I don’t identify with parenthood and feel even more distant from the idea of motherhood. My existence personally lets me know that such people exist intellectually – that any association of women and motherhood isn’t fundamental, and that one can be a “woman” without any desire for or interest in “motherhood.”

Under a different title and with a different underlying assumptions, Slaughter’s article is crucially important. After all, as one of my Facebook friends (someone I knew well in high school) notes: “a new parent – it’s hard as hell to juggle a career and my daughter. The pursuit of gender equality should teach us, in my non-professional opinion, that women should be free to pursue a fulfilling life, whether or not children are included. But damn, Laura, there’s a stigma attached to having kids, too. Trust me.”And I’m not denying that – it is inscribed on the daily lives of most, if not all, mothers.

But its not unrelated to the assumption that “having it all” includes having children – in fact, they are one in the same – sexist assumptions about what women are and what women should be. Though they affect “women” who choose very different life paths, the discomfort that my friend feels struggling to juggle a career and child, the discomfort that I feel defending my lack of interest in parenting stem from the same assumption, and the discomfort that Anne-Marie Slaughter describes in making and defending the decision to spend more time with her family stem from the same fundamental problem: that the sense of what women are and should be is tied to a particular notion of motherhood. To the extent that Slaughter’s article, in assuming that “having it all” and parenting are fundamentally linked more generally than for her, entrenches that assumption, it is counterproductive to its own goal of making visible and quelling gender subordination. Were it able to get past that assumption, it would be a crucial part of a non-essentialist feminist politics.

PS – thanks to my fellow Ducks for allowing my return after a year’s sabbatical from blogging …