THE BLOG

Careful, 'Having It All' Women, Your Privilege Is Showing

02/27/2013 05:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

Twenty years ago, I graduated from law school and told a Latina friend I planned to work on helping women break the glass ceiling. "That's fine for you, but it doesn't motivate my community," she responded. "While your people are breaking ceilings, it's my people of color who are caring for your kids, so your discussion doesn't empower us. We want to be breaking ceilings too."

Of course, women of color -- my friend, a highly successful legislative staffer, among them -- were breaking ceilings then too, but her point was made. Message received. Nothing concentrates the mind quite like being reminded when your privilege is showing. When we talk about feminism -- equality without apology for ALL -- we can't be talking about for all white women or all highly educated women but all women, regardless of color, class, creed, sexual orientation or identity.

Now, 20 years later, we do have more women of color and out LGBT leaders graduating from college equipped to become ceiling breakers in all corridors of power. But if we exclude them from the debates about power in business or politics, our conversation is incomplete and as such not fully authentic.

Case in point: The latest news of the Yahoo! telework ban (which I believe will be modified to incorporate the reality of productive parents) and whether it is fair for Yahoo's CEO to have a nursery in her own office but require other vastly less-paid working parents to come without kids to theirs.

The debate centered around privileged white women -- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google CEO Marissa Mayer and former State Department staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter -- discussing whether motherhood means "having it all" is all over the news. I'm all for these women leaders having their discussion, but this debate excluded the vast majority of American moms of all colors, classes, creeds, sexual orientations and identities. They don't include Medicaid moms and military moms and night shift moms and stay-at-home moms working towards "having enough" to give kids a happy childhood and a better future.

No wonder people rolled their eyes, thought "this is not MY life," and moved on. But I stayed focused, because the same people who decide corporate policy often have the money and access to influence public policy. What happens at Yahoo! today might manifest in tax policy tomorrow. So I saw the news with alarm -- quiet alarm, so as not to wake my dozing child whose afternoon nap I would miss if my clients refused flex-time and required me to be present in their offices 9-5.

I thought about that "having it all" attainable only by 1% of the 1% while watching Congress debate the Violence Against Women Act, where the fundamental difference between Republicans and Democrats came down to "who is a victim?" The same women of color, lesbians and immigrants excluded from the "having it all" discussion were also left out of the House Republican bill's enumerated "victims" of violence.

I don't see that as a coincidence. Once we marginalize people out of leadership, it becomes easier to marginalize them out of all power discussions.

We have the seeds of a solution. As the PBS documentary MAKERS about the feminist movement honoring ceiling breakers (including some women of color) candidly acknowledged, 1970s feminists missed the opportunity to empower lesbians and women of color. This is changing in current feminist movement politics, and that's a good thing.

Indeed, the House Democrats' all-inclusive Violence Against Women Act is being pushed by Gwen Moore, an African-American Congresswoman from Wisconsin who rose from modest roots to national leadership. What a difference it makes to have women in leadership who look -- and live -- like America. As my mother, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, often says of her majority-minority caucus, "we don't just want women and minorities to have a seat at the table - we want them to have a seat at the head of the table."

In order to get to that leadership table in Congress or the C suite, women cannot be marginalized, either directly by work policies that exclude their employment or by "having it all" media debates so rarified that they exclude their participation.

Here is a modest proposal: Expand this conversation to working moms and dads who are not coming from places of privilege. Attach policies to these aspirations -- decent wages, quality child care, healthcare, paid sick days, fair pay and yes, telework -- what Joan Blades of MomsRising.org calls the custom-fit workplace -- to give more Americans the opportunity to become ceiling breakers. And for heaven's sake, the next time you want to discuss "having it all," remember: Your privilege is showing and it neither empowers others nor inspires progress.