Women can have it all, as long as they do it all

Several years ago now I remember sitting on the sofa at home, reveling in one of my sporadic indulgences in midday TV crap. Mona Lisa Smile had just been released in cinemas and Oprah Winfrey was interviewing the entire cast on her show – hideous film, but the panel discussion between the talkshow queen herself, Julia Roberts, Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal made for an entertaining hour and a half.

After much giggling and sharing of special film moments, the discussion turned to the audience, where women were encouraged to stand up and lay bare their humble aspirations for the scrutiny of the all-wise celebrity panel. One such young lady stood up and confessed to not wanting a career at all, but having a simple dream of becoming a mother and happy homemaker – clearly a prosaic goal by contemporary standards and especially so in the eyes of the starlets on stage. It’s not the 1950s anymore they argued, women have choices. Yes, replies the young lady, and I choose motherhood and housewifery (my words, clearly, but the affect was much the same). Then a particularly impassioned Kirsten Dunst declares but you can do BOTH! That’s the point of the film!

Thank you, Kirsten. Thank you for your emphatic opinion, no doubt based on your wealth of experience as a struggling career woman and mother. How you must understand the drudgery women around the world suffer and the complexities with which they have to contend on a daily basis. Of course we can have a flourishing career and ten million babies. That’s right, us women can have it all! How silly of us to be so myopic in our choices.

Sarcasm aside, what Kirsten unwittingly demonstrated in this rather naive appearance was the emergence of a new post-feminist (small ‘p’) dogma: women can have it all, as long as they do it all.

There is no doubt that women, at least in general terms, have come along way. We can vote, we can go to university, we can hold relatively high-powered jobs and husbands no longer hold the legal right to beat us. If we fall pregnant, we can ‘choose’ to have an abortion, or indeed we can ‘choose’ to raise a child solo without fear of complete social reprisal (although, let’s face it, single mothers are still heavily demonised for their supposed reliance on government hand-outs). There is no doubt that greater convergence between the sexes exists today than it did fifty years ago, yet gaping holes remain. According to the Fawcett Society, nearly 40 years on from establishing the Equal Pay Act, women working full-time within the UK still earn on average 15.5% less than men, 64% of low paid workers in the UK are women and woman’s average personal pension in the UK is only 62% of the average of her male counterpart.

The issue of ‘choice’ is somewhat of a moot point. Theoretically, we have a greater variety of options. Women are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, inventive, creative and to take their pick of a number of diverse career trajectories. In reality, the advent of so much choice has generated pressure to achieve more – meaningful career, loving partner, well-adjusted children, beautiful home. The 1950s framework thus persists (albeit in varied configurations), with a whole lot more expectation piled on top. If we don’t ‘choose’ to do it all, we’ve somehow failed in our attempts to be modern women.

Problems arise when we attempt to reconcile these expectations, particularly in terms of time. Establishing a career takes considerable investment, with inevitable periods of trial and error in figuring out what a meaningful career actually entails for the individual. Work these days is usually bitty, finite, lacking in continuity or security and often underpinned by considerable levels of volunteering or interning. One must therefore maintain as competitive an edge as possible, demonstrating that we are just as dedicated as our male rivals, and no of course we aren’t planning to have babies any time soon, leaving the organisation/company with the burden of retraining a replacement. Nope, nope, nope.

During this marathon, we must also find a partner (a tremendous feat in itself) and procreate before our eggs dry up and we officially cross into the terrain of women who ‘chose’ career over family. By this stage, we have permanently surrendered our autonomy (but of course we’re not allowed to admit that because the joyousness of motherhood is supposedly hardwired into our biology, just like cooking and washing) and then the real juggling begins.

For most of us, the cost of childcare is equivalent to having a second mortgage. Unless we love our work, servicing the cost of having a stranger raise our children while we toil away in a thankless job seems at odds with our logic and our intuition – and the current Tory agenda certainly encourages this thought by cutting funding to Surestart programmes and decreasing the availability of childcare subsidies. A tacit push for women to remove themselves from the male arena of work and back into the more feminine, homely roles of old is therefore very much in play.

It’s all so retro.

And yet, we are primed from birth to want more, to make our mark on the world and to settle for nothing less. If we do ‘choose’ to opt out of work and become stay-at-home mums, we’ve somehow done ourselves a disservice. These days, stay-at-home mums also need to start their own businesses or find other ways to be commercially and creatively ‘productive’ – an episode of Dragon’s Den certainly hammers this point home.

Had I been in the audience when Kirsten made her little declaration, I would have kindly pointed out to her that yes, theoretically, we can have it all. But let’s not get carried away with our own sense of wild optimism. ‘Having it all’ implies that we also get the choice to opt out of some of these insane expectations; that to compromise is not to fail and it is okay for us not to achieve everything we’ve ever wanted for ourselves in the very limited time we get to spend on this earth.

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