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To have it all and to have not

Posted by BJ Roche  July 1, 2012 11:24 AM

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At UMass Amherst in the early 1970's, a smart and funny economist named Jane Humphries taught a class called Women and the Economy, and for a bunch of 20-year-olds raised on Young Miss and Seventeen magazine, it was the beginning to a lifelong discussion.

The nub of it was this: Could women ever really have true economic equality under a capitalist system, or did we needed to come up with something new for everyone to move forward? And what would that system look like?

That question was always a subset of the feminist movement, but then came the 1980's, and sisterhood wasn't so powerful anymore, even though more women than ever were entering the workplace. We ended up with rampant consumerism, competitive parenting and the kind of careerism that had women wearing floppy bow ties and subjected to Don Draperesque ads like this one:

I thought of that ad, and the very expression "having it all" (which I hadn't heard in a long, long time), when I saw the recent cover of The Atlantic magazine, with its big story by former State Dept. official Anne-Marie Slaughter about how even high-achieving women with terrific husbands and a good support system have a hard time raising a family while getting to and staying at "the top." Hadn't anyone told her that "having it all" thing was bunk?

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Not only is the term retro, it's grammatically cumbersome, leading to heinous sentences like the following, from an AP story on the controversy.

Is having it all in reasonable balance doable while more mothers in the U.S. wait out reforms that would make their lives better? Things like flexible hours, working from home or working part-time while raising kids and keeping careers on track? Is having it all worth having until then?

Huh?

And, about that cover. It's an incomplete picture. They're only babies for a short time (as someone at work has, no doubt, told you). In no time at all, they become 22-year-olds with $40,000 in school loans and a video poker addiction and they won't move out of your basement. And where's the 92-year-old mother-in-law with dementia running around in her bathrobe?

Slaughter's story--like the way each of us manage work and family-- is rambling, complicated and personal, a mix of economic class, race, luck, personal choice, beliefs, ambition and work. Each of these variables can make for easy fodder, and the exchanges can feel like a cat fight across the web, and on the Atlantic site itself.

If Slaughter was working 80-hour weeks before, she's doubling down now to respond to the responses.

Media companies are finding they can get back in the game encourage a national shoutfest dialogue by running stories by women about their personal choices and then letting readers get judgy on them. The Atlantic got record web traffic and media coverage on this piece. (When was the last time you read The Atlantic?) Time magazine got its big bump when it published this cover story, giving the younger generation a turn to bash one another about their child-rearing practices, including breastfeeding into toddlerhood.

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Talk about judgy: My 19-year-old, former foster daughter, the mother of two, thinks these breastfeeding moms are crazy; she and her friends think it's gross to flout their "girls" in public. And she's not talking about her babies. She asks a perfectly logical question: "If breastfeeding is so good for babies, why did they give me a big can of powdered formula when I left the hospital?")

We also used to say that "the personal is the political." But after reading, now, what must be tens of thousands of words on this topic in the past few days, I'm not sure this is always true. Slaughter's piece, along with the work diaries of other women in the blog posts and articles demonstrate an insane level of busy-ness that can sound like brag-plaining. The personal becomes a distraction, and it makes it easy to dismiss the larger discussion about women, family and work--and the ability for women to break through to the leadership levels of companies and government.

So, back to Jane Humphries' question: What kind of a system do we need? Certainly one that makes the job of caregiving--from birth to grave, a bit easier, and that values that job. Anything we do in those arenas--which are largely female--will help. UMass economist Nancy Folbre writes a lot about this topic.

Lots of good ideas have been around for awhile--can we talk about them again? For our daughters, let's get universal pre-school back on the public agenda. It's a two-fer: proven to be valuable longterm for all children (and society), while also professionalizing, and better compensating, early childhood educators and caretakers, who are mostly women.

At the other end of the lifecycle, let's get some help for all the women who are caring for their elderly parents. Another twofer.

Job-sharing was one of those 1980's trends that disappeared, largely because of the cost of health benefits. Can we take another look at that?

Let's make public schools colleges better and more affordable so people don't need to work five jobs to get their kids through.

The response to Slaughter's piece suggests there's enough momentum to launch our own Tea Party. We should probably stop comparing to-do lists and find ourself a working woman's version of Grover Norquist, a go-to talking head who holds politicians feet to the fire on the issues that matter to us.

Anybody got the time to take that on?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

BJ Roche is a writer and teacher who lives in Western Massachusetts. She’s a senior lecturer in the Journalism Program at UMass Amherst, where she teaches writing, new media and More »

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