Women Can’t “Have It All” Even in Fiction

To recap, for those who have either forgotten or somehow missed it a month-and-a-half ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, argued in a piece in The Atlantic that women can’t “have it all,” after finding it difficult to “juggl[e] high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys.” I don’t mean to cover the same ground as the many, many responses the article prompted, but work-family balance is an ongoing issue and discussions related to it will always be pertinent, hence this post.

Slaughter didn’t leave the workforce entirely, or even full-time employment, to better address her family’s needs.  Instead, she felt she had to return to her high-profile, well-paying job at Princeton because the demands of high-level government work in a city far away from her family were too great.  So, she couldn’t have a particular job and be the type of parent she wanted to be.  As she readily admits, “having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had.” She is writing for her own demographic, “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place,” and so her experiences have only limited relevance to what women from other socioeconomic backgrounds experience.  The reality, though, is that women of all backgrounds, whether privileged or less so, face barriers to their ability to “have it all,” and the less privilege you have, the higher the barriers.

In my opinion, Slaughter does have it all, even if she couldn’t do one particularly demanding job without feeling like she was sacrificing her familial duties.  She has choices, a satisfying career at Princeton, and a home life to which she is able to devote time and energy.  Some dreams are so demanding that they require sacrifice.  I’m not sure anyone—whether female or male—could balance work and family effectively in the type of high-profile, high-stress, time-intensive job Slaughter had.  No one, male or female, has held one of the top positions in government and felt like they had adequate time for their personal life; as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Only nut cases want to be president.”  I think the same is true of other high-level government positions.

All jobs, including upper-level management and government jobs, should have friendlier work-family policies.  It is problematic that women who hold these high profile jobs are childless or have nannies provide the majority of childcare (just as men who have those jobs rarely see their children), and even more problematic is the fact that women are sorely underrepresented in those jobs in the first place because of societal assumptions about the types of jobs women “should” have.  Even women who would happily forego a family life often can’t ascend to those demanding jobs because employers assume they’ll get pregnant and devote their time to raising children, and those who do take time to have children are penalized for leaving the workforce even for brief periods.  It’s the glass ceiling and the maternal wall.

To me, “having it all” for women means being able to pursue dreams on an equal basis as men without running into limitations stemming from structural realities rooted in sexism, racism, or any other “ism” that could or should be illegal under anti-discrimination law.***  For both sexes to “have it all,” women and men must not internalize the gender-based stereotypical assumptions inherent in our society that view women as caretakers, mothers, and wives and not as employees or leaders.   With these stereotypes pervading our society, most women can’t have it all, and that is even more so the case for women of color, as racism also remains alive and well in our country.

Work-family balance is a major theme of women’s fiction novels, and I can’t remember the last time I came across a female character who “had it all” without being, as Slaughter says, “rich, superhuman, or self-employed.”  They’re either wives and mothers or career-women.  If they are both, then they usually compromise their career to find love and happiness.  They make the choices they do because it’s supposedly the “natural” thing to do, just like women in real life do.  It would be unrealistic for these fictional women to “have it all.”

Two fictional examples I’ve come across recently are Dr. Jennifer Hamilton, a cardiologist in her late-30s in Dianne Venetta’s novel, Jennifer’s Garden, and Annie, a twenty-something stay-at-home mom turned gestational surrogate in Jennifer Weiner’s Then Came You.  Dr. Hamilton seems to believe she can “have it all,” and her mother tells her “If anyone can juggle career and family, I know it will be you.”  However, “if” doesn’t sound very optimistic, even though Dr. Hamilton’s mother believes the medical profession has improved tremendously since she entered into it, when she (Hamilton’s mother) had to sacrifice her family life for her career.  In reality, as I note in my review of Venetta’s novel, there is a penalty female physicians often face for having the capacity to reproduce, whether they choose to have children or not, and few ever have the opportunity to make it to the very highest positions in the profession.

In Then Came You, Jennifer Weiner also touches on the theme of work-family balance and stereotypical gender roles through Annie, a woman from a less privileged background, whose dreams were limited by what women were expected to do.  Recalling why she never thought about college, she thinks:

I hadn’t been a great student, and, by the time high school was over, I’d been so in love that the only thing I’d wanted to be was Frank’s wife.  That was what the women I knew did—they got married and got jobs you didn’t need a degree to have, and they worked in between children, or when their husbands couldn’t, or didn’t (page 73).

Being a wife and mother; that’s what women are raised to be, and if they want to choose a different path for themselves, they are often kicked off the professional ladder before they are able to make choices for themselves.  Jennifer Hamilton and Annie both remind me of women I know, women I went to school with, and the women I speak to on a daily basis about Title VII or other anti-discrimination laws, women who are going about their lives and make decisions based on expectations they have internalized or expectations imposed on them by outsiders, including their husbands, employers, parents, and society at large.

For women to have it all, including the option to assume a job so demanding that they might have to make sacrifices in other areas of their lives, we have to break the ceilings and walls that limit women’s options.

***There are many unfair employment practices and other actions that are not illegal.  For example, in many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, it is legal for employers to refuse to accommodate pregnant women (if they need a chair or help lifting heavy objects at their job) if the employer does not already accommodate non-pregnant employees with non-work-related injuries (temporary conditions).  Hopefully, Congress will pass legislation (The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act) that will require employers to accommodate pregnant women as long as the requested accommodation does not present an undue hardship for the employer.


  1. I was surprised to read your last clip about PA law and in fiction it is hard to find women ‘having it all’. You would think writing it would make it so, but I guess the struggle makes good reading. I am a wife, but not a mother, so that means I am missing a big part or a typical woman’s life, and I know it is a struggle to balance family and work. There is little time for much else.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Unfortunately, even women who do not have children sometimes find themselves facing barriers in the workplace simply because employers assume that these women will have children someday. Also, women, whether they have children or not, often carry a disproportionate share of caretaking of adults (such as their aging parents), further adding to problems associated with balancing work and family responsibilities.

  2. Bravo, you’ve put forward the challenges and frustrations so well. In Canada we have legislated protection for pregnant women, but structural and cultural barriers (e.g. “old- boys club mentality without even realizing it, sexual harassment) remain. And regardless of ability and advantages, we can’t do it all, at least not all at the same time. Thanks for this post.

    1. Thanks! There is definitely a difference between having the laws in place and actually having them work (which requires legal enforcement and a change in cultural attitudes). In the US, we technically have some protections for pregnant women through Title VII, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, but it only applies to employers with 15 or more employees and it has a lot of holes in it depending on how each jurisdiction enforces it (such as the example of pregnancy accommodations that I included in my post). Some states and local governments have similar anti-discrimination laws that are sometimes better, but many places don’t. The part that amazes me is that many women think they have more rights than they really do, and it’s only when they are fired for needing a chair at work because they’re pregnant that they learn the hard truth about our laws. If women realized how limited their rights really were, maybe our elected officials would feel more pressure to pass better legislation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s