A few months ago, I saw a play in which a famous feminist pundit and a housewife with kids each experiment with the lives they'd left un-chosen, only to find themselves better suited to their original paths. I enjoyed the piece's exploration of women's roles, but something kept nagging at me throughout until finally I had the thought: "I am neither of these women. Where do I fit into society?"
I had hit upon a reality that I have since found remains largely (and mysteriously) un-discussed: In this supposedly post-feminist 21st century, a false binary has been constructed for middle class women: If you are well-paid, well-known and high-powered in your field -- ideally one of 'the professions,' entrepreneurial fields or politics -- you are applauded for your choices and forgiven for not having children (and perhaps even for not marrying). If you have children (and likely are also married), you are applauded for your choices and forgiven for not having fulfilled (or for having left behind) what might have been your earning potential (or are at least forgiven for not having justified your undoubtedly expensive and time-consuming 21st century secondary and even post-secondary education). To wit: In order to receive societal respect: Make money, or make babies.
What, then, of the rest of us, who toil in obscurity for the sake of our passions or for the good of others and who do not have children due to circumstance or choice? We are fabulous aunties, trusted confidants and passionate givers and seekers, for sure, yet we are confronted almost daily with both overt and subtle messages from families, friends, the media and society at large to the tune of "Why don't you get married?" and "Why don't you have any kids?" as well as "Why don't you get a higher-paying job?" and "Why don't you use your education to your financial advantage?".
Wouldn't it be nice if passionate and giving single women were considered intrinsically valuable to our culture rather than chastised for their lack of contribution to the GDP or the census?
Here, the pernicious intersection of sexism and capitalism rears its ugly head:
Sexism includes attitudes or behaviors based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles. Historically, the traditional/stereotypical roles of women have been that of wife and mother.
Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and is characterized by profit motivation. In an intensely pressurized capitalist system, accolades and respect therefore go to those procuring the largest amount of profit from whatever business in which they engage.
As a result of American feminism, which by its location necessarily originated within the context of capitalism, another role for women became acceptable beginning in the 1960s and 1970s: High-powered Career Woman. Thus, while feminism made important strides for women's rights, the movement did not fully liberate women; rather, it bought them more fully into the capitalist agenda. (Read: If women could join the good old boys club, they'd be respected in America just like the good old boys.)
The archetypes for women have therefore become either a homemaker with children (as evidenced by almost every family sitcom from "Father Knows Best" to "Modern Family") or a high-powered career woman (usually depicted in dramas about law, medicine and politics). Occasionally the media will portray a woman who successfully does both ("Murphy Brown," "Bones," "The Good Wife"), but very rarely do we see a woman who, given the choice, is content and respected in her decision to pursue a less-well-paid and less-high-powered career -- in the arts as a writer, filmmaker, performer, musician or artist or in the service professions as a teacher, social worker, psychologist, public defender or non-profit administrator -- while also postponing or eschewing marriage and children. (Mary Tyler Moore, Carrie Bradshaw and Liz Lemon are the notable exceptions with the caveat that each of these characters did achieve a degree of noteworthy success within their chosen fields, two of them eventually got married, and one of them became baby-crazed in the final season.)
In reality, plenty of independent or 'indie' women exist today who are characterized by a progressive spirit, a single lifestyle and a detachment from the profit sector.
So, instead of asking the question, "Can a woman have it all?" we should be asking, "Is there something left to the 'it' when we remove power/money and spouse/babies from the equation?" Put another way: "Does a woman have intrinsic worth when she has neither become hugely successful in a lucrative field nor birthed/reared children? Does she offer value to society when she works toward the goals of her passions or conscience and lives an independent life?"
The answer should be that a woman's contribution to society should be valued no matter her earning or birthing potential. After all, Wonder Woman was a beloved and valued heroine in her fight for justice, love, peace, and equality... long before she married Steve Trevor and opened a mod boutique.