Undead sexist cliches: Women can’t have it all (#SFWApro)

Back in the 1970s, there was a tentative optimism that women could “have it all.” Meaning a happy marriage, kids and a healthy career instead of having to choose between work or family. Men got to have it all because they could count on wives handling housework and kids so they could work late at the office. So with a little tinkering to make society more egalitarian and renegotiating classical gender roles, women could have the same deal. Get businesses to hire on the basis of merit, not gender. Encourage husbands to help out more at home. Make daycare more wildly available.

Of course it hasn’t worked out like that. Women still deal with most childcare and household tasks (plus a lot of them in my generation and Generation X are helping out with aging parents). Sexism is still deep-rooted in the workplace. The backlash to modern feminism’s initial gains has blocked family friendly policies; as witness one South Dakota Republican who says if a business discriminates against pregnant women, the solution is for the woman to quit. Many feminists have discussed whether having it all even a sensible goal, given the realities a lot of women face (as Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses in The Atlantic). Is it something they can do on their own or do we have to concentrate on remaking society first?

But for this post, my focus is on the antifeminist side, the people who think women cannot have it all and shouldn’t have it all. Except maybe themselves.

For example, William Bennett (the pompous pundit who waxes nostalgic over the Donner party’s cannibalism) made a complete non sequitur during one interview back in the 1990s, telling the interviewer that women can’t have it all and we should start teaching them that in schools. I have a strong suspicion that if the teaching ran to “you can’t have it all because you live in a patriarchal, sexist society where men don’t want to give up their privilege” he would not be happy.

That women just can’t have it all and nothing about this is changeable is a given for a lot of antifeminists who prefer the current gender hierarchy. That includes lots of female antifeminists such as Suzanne Venker, who’s argued that women would be happier if they let the man work while they stay home. Of course Venker has a full-time career, but she’s cool with that (much as she thinks women who go to college for a career are making a mistake, but she did it to find a husband, so that’s different).

Some antifeminists point out that men can’t have it all either, which is true. But I can’t imagine anyone saying we should teach guys in schools that they might not amount to a hill of beans: they’re supposed to climb as high as their talent will allow.  Another cliche argument is that women don’t really want it all: they choose to stay home, not compete, not work a 50 or 60 hour week. A Roy F. Baumeister (probably the same Roy F. Baumeister who believes evolution makes men superior) makes this argument in a letter to the Economist: most of the people who work more than 48 hours a week are men, that’s why they succeed! Which is not accurate: networking (which Baumeister handwaves away) is often easier for men with male bosses and it makes a difference.

And as multiple feminists have pointed out, “choice” isn’t decided in a void, without considering the obstacles resulting from each choice. Women who might choose to work the same amount of hours may be conscious they won’t be paid as much, won’t get the plum assignments, won’t get the respect for putting in extra hours (but will be dumped on if they don’t show that extra commitment). If they choose not to shoot any higher, that’s not something innate, it’s an acknowledgement the glass ceiling exists and it’s too hard to crack. That’s not to say some women don’t genuinely prefer to stay home or prefer a low-level career, but not every choice is exactly genuine.

As countless feminists have also pointed out, competence in a woman, let alone the kind of confident competence Elizabeth Warren shows, unsettles lots of people. Warren knows she’s capable and doesn’t downplay it; that’s confidence if you’re a man, arrogance in a woman (Hilary Clinton got the same criticism for years — sure, she outperformed Trump in the debate but wasn’t she over-prepared? It’s more acceptable if women present themselves as a hot mess who can’t have it all: 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon, who has an amazing career but a personal life in perpetual freefall, for example.

Women should be able to have it all — whatever that means for a given woman — as much as any man of comparable ability. But we’re a long way from that point yet.

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