reaction to “having it all” shows need to vet our women leaders

So apparently I’m a cynic. I pointed out that Anne-Marie Slaughter is way too überly-educated to belatedly realize that the structure of the US economy prevents women from “having it all” and therefore needs to be changed. Ah well. No journalist minds being called a cynic. And as Nora Ephron advised, I certainly don’t prefer being nice over being frank. Slaughter’s sincerity or whether she meant well never factored into my reaction, nor should it. In fact, I don’t much care about her feelings; I care about her work-life politics. I prefer to know why they took so long to surface in a policymaker of all people. Gleaning that bright red unmentionable from Slaughter and similarly influential women is more instructive than the kajillionth complaint that work-life is less balance, more gauntlet.

Instead of joining the pity party, it should be pointed out regularly and often that the work-life conversation among women in 2012 is largely the same as it was in the mid-1990s. At least 15 years ago, says noted work-life researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett, paid parenting leave was on the Democratic agenda. Not so this election year nor the one prior. Apparently commiseration, not policy, is what many American women–with the liberal media’s encouragement–do best. But passing misery like some white women’s grandmothers passed Tupperware is not my story. I come from a different tradition and mine compels me to caution that the conversation surrounding Slaughter’s article moves American women backwards. Advancing the conversation away from a 20-year-therapy session to organizing and advocating for changes in policy will require us to be more selective about who and what feminism is. Right now though, it seems anyone who has a vagina and talks at the same time gets a pass.

Walking for the 5th year in the annual breast cancer walkathon? Feminist. Wearing the pink ribbon? Feminist. Running meetings from your corner office? Feminist. Holding down a job, babies, and a husband? Feminist. Asserting yourself in front of a man? Feminist. Asking for a raise? Feminist. First woman to [fill in the blank]? Feminist. These individual acts have all been recast as feminist victories and they are–from the perspective of an early 20th century suffragette or a sun-up to sun-down sharecropper. But from the perspective of a woman born in the 1970s, ain’t nothing special happening. This is what women do.

Call me out in comments if I’m wrong but American women embrace an all-inclusive and therefore low standard of what counts as feminism in 2012. More than thirty years after white women entered the workforce en masse and after centuries of non-white women’s labor participation, accomplished career women should no longer be celebrated as collective victories for all women. Consciousness raising and talk therapy mattered in the 1970s but they don’t carry the same weight now that 50-60 percent of all higher education degrees go to women.

Mainstream and women’s media have taught me since I was a kid, to hoist women leaders on my shoulders like a QB after a winning game. But after taking advantage of all the education on offer–thanks to feminists and other egalitarians of yore–my expectations are higher. Shouldn’t those accomplished women also demonstrate their records on paid parenting leave, flex time, affordable childcare, higher salaries for care work, alternative forms of work, equal pay, etc? That’s more than a fair exchange for basking in the admiring glow of millions of women.

And while I’m a fan of Rebecca Traister’s rebuttal to the Slaughter article, our standpoints differ on what feminism is in practice.

Here is what is wrong, what has always been wrong, with equating feminist success with “having it all”: It’s a misrepresentation of a revolutionary social movement. The notion that female achievement should be measured by women’s ability to “have it all” recasts a righteous struggle for greater political, economic, social, sexual and political parity as a piggy and acquisitive project.

Mainstream American feminism is a piggy and acquisitive project. But such is the fate of nearly all social justice movements, which struggle against but eventually capitulate to the dominant ethos of their respective societies. In the United States, that’s individualism and capitalism so “I gets mine” isn’t just the American cri de coeur; it’s feminism’s too. The sooner we accept that fact the better we’ll become at vetting the women we hoist on our shoulders as leaders.

Curious to know what others think. When I write about women I see all that’s possible given how far we’ve already come. It’s hard to tolerate 20 years of the same conversation–especially when more productive ones are being had.

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