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

If I had to invent a way to undermine feminism, I'd set up a ridiculous standard of personal attainment

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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 absolute 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? "I am writing for my demographic – highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place," she says. It's the most important sentence in the piece.

The right to equal work for equal pay, in Judith Butler's words, is secondary to the right to equal work itself – and that goal, for most women, is a long way off. In fact, whilst we're busy wondering whether anyone born with a vagina can really "have it all", women and girls are still doing most of the world's domestic work, largely for free, whilst the average man's share of cooking, cleaning and chores has barely changed since the 1980s. Usually, it's poorer women being paid to do the domestic work, the "women's work", that those in high-salaried, full-time careers no longer have time for – and nobody asks whether it's possible for a nanny or a cleaner to "have it all".

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.

If women believe we can and should "have it all", that means that it's our fault if we still don't feel free, our fault for not working harder, not managing our time poorly, not choosing the "right" partner (Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's top tip for Barnard graduates). Interestingly, these are precisely the arguments that any armchair neo-liberal uses when they're trying persuade you that "freedom" means working till you drop and questioning nothing. Mothers, more than anyone else, have been sold a false idea of freedom, one that tells them that if they don't feel very liberated by back-breaking work, whether they're high-heeling their way up the corporate ladder or hoovering the office at night, they only have themselves to blame.

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. Most of my friends are in similar situations, but what we do have is the freedom to ask questions. Questions like: are we actually allowed not to want a husband? Questions like: am I still a valid person if I don't ever make £50,000 a year? Questions like: is planning not to get married or have children, planning to pour your energies into selfish creative work or travel, still an option? Will it ever be an option? Will there ever be a time when personal freedom for women means the same as it does for men?

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. There was a time, not so long ago, when feminism had more imagination. Within living memory there were serious campaigns for universal free childcare, for wages for housework, and for a welfare state that could allow everyone, not just women, to balance work and family life. 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.

Twitter: @PennyRed

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