Laurie Penny: Women 'having it all' is a myth of middle class

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ladies and gentleman, but particularly ladies: I'd like you to do me a favour. I'd like us all to stop pretending that the topic of the month – "Can women really juggle a high-powered career and childcare at the same time?" – is a very important question.

The reason we need to stop is that right now, in the midst of an enormous social, moral and financial backlash against women's independence, figures have emerged showing that middle-aged women are by far the hardest hit by the rise in unemployment – the first fired, the last hired and losing their jobs at a rate several times that of any other demographic group. So much for "having it all".

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a high-achieving academic and Washington professional, just wrote an article in The Atlantic on "the myth of work-life balance", breaking the solemn news that even women like her still can't "have it all".

What I want to know is, when did we get so unambitious? When did feminism narrow its horizons so that the maximum we're prepared to fight for is the rights of a minority of women to be admitted into a sexist labour market whilst managing the school run on the side?

Without wishing to sound like a conspiracy theorist, if I had to invent a way to undermine feminism as a socially useful movement, here's what I'd do. I'd set up a ridiculous standard of personal and professional attainment, one that would be unachievable for the vast majority of women who weren't independently wealthy, white and upper-middle class and I'd call it "having it all". After I'd set up this impossible standard, I'd be sure to make women feel like failures for not attaining it.

For many younger women who watched our mothers struggle to "have it all", the question of whether or not we should do the same has been mercifully sidelined. Personally, with the economy the way it is, I don't have the time, money and stability to take care of a puppy, the thing I most want in the world, never mind a boyfriend, or a baby.

What is radical about Slaughter's article is its acknowledgement that the "have it all" ideal has always been a fiction, even for seeming super women. As our ambitions have narrowed, the gulf of disappointment between women's expectations and the reality of working life has become deeper and more painful.

Right now, in Britain alone, female unemployment is at its highest level since records began. Those who still have jobs are facing wage freezes, pension freezes and cuts to child benefit that can mean the difference between being able to afford childcare and having to give up work.

If the most that modern feminism can achieve is personal liberation for a handful of privileged women within a labour market designed by and for rich men, we may as well all go back to the kitchen – but if women's rights are going to mean anything in a post-hope, post-austerity world, we're going to have to start asking for much, much more.