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Susan Celia Greenfield

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We Shouldn't Have It All

Posted: 07/27/2012 5:46 pm

The revelation that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's newly-appointed CEO, is pregnant has ignited yet another discussion about whether or not this high profile future mother will manage to "have it all." If Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent Atlantic Monthly cover story "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" is any indication, Mayer's success is unlikely.

As a middle-aged feminist, I can't stand to read another word about this "problem." In a society with such gross social and economic inequities, why are we still talking about whether or not this or that privileged woman can "have it all?" Why is "having it all" still a feminist goal?

Slaughter is perfectly aware that she is speaking about an elite group of women. But she believes we will not "create a society that genuinely works for all women" until advantaged women first "wield power in sufficient numbers." I agree that America would be a better country if we could close the gender "leadership gap." Would I like to see a woman in the White House and fifty senators in congress and gender parity among the "ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders"? Absolutely.

But the words "having it all" are offensive. They were once a feminist rallying cry. They should now be rejected. By any ethical standard, "having it all" is a self-interested and shallow value. For today's feminists, the words suggest an inexcusable indifference to women who have little or nothing. Nobody has it all without somebody else having less.

I see my own privileges as symptomatic of the devastating inequities feminism ignores at its peril. I am one of those Ivy League educated, co-op owning Manhattan mothers who either has or does not have it all, depending on how you rank my flexible hours as a college professor, my husband's inflexible job and higher salary, my primary responsibility for food preparation, housework and childcare, my husband's willingness to help, my successful high school and college-aged children and their fabulous former nannies.

When my children were young and I was trying to get tenure, my husband's job was so demanding I couldn't be sure he would ever come home again, much less make us dinner. Enter the "fabulous nannies." The first woman I employed -- I'll call her Marcia -- was West Indian. My daughter called her Mommy Marcia and called me Mommy Susan -- in that order. When Marcia got a better job in the public school system, I hired Wendy, also from the West Indies. Unlike his biological parents, Wendy had infinite patience for my high-maintenance son. I also had a weekly cleaning woman, Yvonne. She, too, was West Indian.

Thanks to these three women, I got tenure and finished my book on representations of mothers in early English women's novels. The book includes several chapters on West Indian slavery and the upper-class white mothers who profited from it. The women who helped me all descended from that history. That is why I could afford them. The irony did not escape me. It also did not change anything. About ten years ago, Yvonne died of ovarian cancer in Kings County Hospital. She never had health insurance.

My children are grown now. My daughter goes to an elite college. My son is in a private high school. With more time on my hands, I have been able to volunteer for an organization that helps homeless and formerly homeless individuals write their life stories as part of a life skills program.

In the three years I've been involved in this work, I have heard countless women's stories -- and the majority involve poverty, racism, child abuse and domestic violence. At one recent session, I heard a West Indian woman describe how her "white-looking" grandfather turned his black daughter into a concubine. Another night, an African-American woman reported that the courts had just given her abuser sole custody of their child. Another woman lost custody of all but her youngest child, whom she was desperately trying to win back. The only woman who had never lost custody was living with her child in a shelter the child hates. This woman is also from the West Indies. Her previous work experience? Housekeeper and nanny.

"We could have had it all," Adele sings in her smash hit about a failed romance. Now Adele, like the new CEO for Yahoo, is happily partnered and pregnant. Before we lose ourselves in yet another discussion about a high profile woman's bid for motherhood, I suggest that feminists think hard about the implications of her words. "We could have had it all" refers to a past that could have been but never was. It is a mythical possibility that was irrevocably missed.

For feminists, this kind of failure may be a gift. Maybe "having it all" never was a noble goal. Maybe it's time to start singing louder about all of us.

 
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