We don’t want “it all:” we just want your slice.

Per the last post (and many of your thoughtful comments), I’ve been thinking about that expression, “having it all” which has been evoked as a proxy for feminist goals for at least thirty years.  (Some intrepid M.A. student in a History or American Studies department should do a history of this expression, “having it all,” and its application to the women’s movement.  There:  that’s my mentoring for the day, and it’s only just 8:30 a.m. MDT!  On to the laundry and the library, now.)

What an ugly expression, meant to portray feminists as greedy consumers rather than social justice advocates.  And yet, many feminists have accepted or embraced “having it all” as the terms of the debate!  Never do we hear debates about whether heterosexual men can “have it all.”  It’s just assumed that “it all” belongs to men, and that if women get more, 1) men will necessarily have less, and 2) the laws of nature will have been subverted.

Of course, it’s easy for me to write about this because in fact I have “it all,” or at least as much of it as I ever wanted, which is pretty much what men partnered with women take for granted.  I don’t feel greedy–just happy for my good fortune.

17 thoughts on “We don’t want “it all:” we just want your slice.

  1. I was going to say something about this in the comments last night but just sort of choked on what to say that wouldn’t either sound obtuse or obvious or both. I think this phrase is cosmically-twinned with that other relatively vapid “Age of Aquarius” utterance about “Do[ing] your own Thing,” although with a somewhat opposite valence. In that, existentially, you can hardly NOT do your own thing, but the existence of the term itself has made it impossible to know whether or not you ever actually got it done. The _NYT_ predictably front-paged this story today, and after you got past the formulaic series of lead paragraphs and onto page 14, had some interesting stuff and some not interesting stuff. Some people here pointed out that the article itself (as opposed to the cover art and rhetoric) was nuanced and interesting in a variety of ways. But if that hypothetical American Studies student wanted to do a second project at the doctoral level, a comparison of the broad cultural impact of magazine cover content with that of article content might reveal some interesting things. Especially on the consumer demographic that might be called “harried parents rushing through airports.” Good post, and I hope you got home in good order yesterday.


  2. Feminists may have used it for the last umpteen years, but our simplistic society has made having it all synonymous with winning and not having it all synonymous with losing. That picture is wrong in n-dimensions. The poor have less opportunities than the non-poor but they are still called losers if they don’t run a hedge fund. The sick are obviously guilty. (In our health care system being sick means suffering tons of indignities.) It gets more complex when all is define is non material way. If you want to be happy, you are a loser. If you live off a small income and enjoy the nature around you, you are a loser. If your goals change, you are a loser.


  3. Actually, I think the problem is precisely that those who have traditionally had “it all” — men — relied on, but did not want to acknowledge, the disproportionate, not-fully-reciprocated, support of women. The dean of my graduate school famously said that students should be giving 120% of their time to their studies (this in response to some to-him-unreasonable request for help with work-family life balance). After a bit of cogitating on what we knew of his personal history, we realized that he had, indeed, been able to do just that, because he’d been married during his grad school days, and his wife had taken care of a lot of the pesky details of daily life, and provided typing/editing/research services as well. That this meant that she had only 80% of her time to devote to things that benefited her (alone, or as well) doesn’t seem to have bothered him at all. At least they were still married, so she was presumably benefiting in some ways from his success. As we well know, such stories do not always end thus.


  4. Rebecca Traister is right with ya, Historiann, in an essay published yesterday on Slate Salon::

    “No, my proposal is this: We should immediately strike the phrase “have it all” from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again.

    “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.”


  5. I never understood why anyone would want it “all.” Why is that automatically a good thing, or even a uniform goal? I just want what I want, and don’t want anyone to deny it to me on unfair grounds. Having it “all” sounds like a burden to me, not a benefit.


  6. The chair of the Philosophy department here at Provincial State U often seeks, in meetings with our Dean, to distinguish between attributes of a process (it is transparent, it is inclusive, doughnuts are served, for example) and intended outcomes of a process (programatic investments are made, a vote is cast, for example). This is one of his several endearing qualities.

    If the feminist project is successful, women get autonomy: bodily, socially, and politically. All else (a lactation room at work, for example) is an attribute of that state.


  7. Ladyprof: thanks for that. It was the Salon article of hers I linked to yesterday, actually. I should have credited her critique of it too, but I just threw up that post without reviewing what others have written.

    And Nik: that’s exactly the line I was thinking of, but I thought “slice” was more in line with my plea for modesty about “having.” here. (Fratguy says that line all the time, about your half.)


  8. I actually think “having it all” speaks to a deeper cultural current that affects not just women; the phrase has always reminded me of a peculiarly American obsession with limitless possibility. Think of the army marketing campaign: “Be all that you can be!” Or the sign at GWBush’s ranch, at least as featured in the campaign video in the first election [sic]: “The sky’s the limit.”

    The problem is that it’s a myth: all of us have to make choices, and choices exclude. We may be born with numerous potentials, but they are not all fulfillable, given the limitations of time (not to mention opportunity, talent, money, etc), nor are they all harmonious. (E.g., one cannot be a professional gymnast and professional football player at the same time–the demands of each sport conflict).

    I’m not sure why this would be more of an issue for Americans, but it seems to me that my friends from other parts of the world are much more realistic. Perhaps our capitalist/consumer culture encourages the idea of limitlessness in general, and limitless growth in particular?


  9. I’d like to see the phrase canned, too. Everyone has it “all” if “all” is “life” and some of the hardest-working, most admirable people I know make hardly any money while they change lives in profound ways while others who’re conventionally successful alienate scores and ruin personal lives unthinkingly. Pardon me, but I’d rather live the first life than the second.

    That said, I’m still mostly in sync with Slaughter’s point about how it remains particularly difficult for women to succeed at the highest levels due to the clash between the personal and the professional. I know that I’ve only been able to be as (moderately, nowhere NEAR superstar) successful as I am due to the relentless hard work and unswerving support of my underemployed spouse who’s answered the call time and again for keeping our kids on an even keel. Special needs doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    Again, we seem to come back to a world where people are all too happy to judge others and loudly weigh in on how they’re doing it wrong. The old saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand them? That ought to get a lot more play now that we’ve eliminated “having it all”, right?


  10. I was going to say more or less what VL said – that the real problem with the idea of having it all is the illusion that you don’t /shouldn’t have to make any choices. And everyone makes choices – about profession, work, family, etc. I’ve known very few people whose lives have progressed in a way where they never had to make complicated trade-offs. They might not be unhappy about the outcome, but they couldn’t “have it all”.


  11. Is this even society’s definition of “having it all” for a man?

    I think career + family = minimal expectations for straight American men. (Some don’t manage both, but the point is that they experiences themselves as not having lived up to expectations, if they’re reflective, or not having been given what they rightfully deserve, if they’re not.)

    “Having it all” for straight men, in our current cultural script is more like career, family, various trophy possessions (such as cars), and at least one sexual partner that other straight men envy. That whole list is never explicitly acknowledged, but the script gets followed pretty clearly. One of the appeals of *Mad Men* is how it manages to disown that masculine version of “having at all” as something hopelessly outdated while allowing people to enjoy the male characters’ all-too-up-to-date version of “success.”


  12. I’m pretty sure the appeal of Mad Men is that it allows the viewer to revel in the good old days of gross misogyny and racism and boozeing and harrassing hotte chickes at work, while pretending to be ironic and critical and edgy.


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