Politics & Media
Jun 25, 2012, 02:07AM

The Glass Ceiling Myth

Feminist extremism is hypocritical.

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In case you missed it, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in the current issue of The Atlantic is an unnecessarily lengthy rant about the failure of the feminist movement to produce more incredibly wealthy, successful academic women like herself. The piece opens with her attending a dinner with the Obamas and spends about a quarter of the 13,000 words listing her impressive professional and personal achievements, which include time at the U.S. State Department, delivering hundreds of speeches, and working as a Princeton professor. She recently left (part of) her career in order to sometimes stay home and raise her teenage sons (and what’s this? They’re rebellious?) before they leave home.  

Slaughter writes about telecommuting as a revolutionary option for busy women:  

“...in 2009, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, who shares the parenting of his two young daughters equally with his wife, made getting such access at home an immediate priority so that he could leave the office at a reasonable hour... I wonder how many women in similar positions would be afraid to ask, lest they be seen as insufficiently committed to their jobs.”

You know which women wouldn’t be afraid to ask for telecommuting access at home? Probably most of them. We don’t need a Facebook CEO to tell us it’s okay to leave work at 5:30 and have dinner with our children. Making a statement that implies women are “afraid” to do things goes against the very spirit of the feminism Slaughter claims to cherish. Feminism can never be successful as long as there are women writing about women being afraid of things.

 Slaughter is impressed that:

 “Louise Richardson, now the vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, combined an assistant professorship in government at Harvard with mothering three young children. She organized her time so ruthlessly that she always keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.”

No busy soccer mom has ever thought to hit 2:22 on a microwave because it’s faster than hitting 2:00, right? Oh, wait: I do that all the time! Even without being a Harvard chancellor. And I don’t even consider it ruthless time organization. It’s more plain old convenience meets laziness for me, and I’m guessing the professor in Scotland and I aren’t the only people, regardless of occupation or gender, who practice this sneaky microwave time-saver.

Slaughter tells readers that Elizabeth Warren, who’s running for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, has figured out she can get her writing done when her kids are still asleep and then “learned to do everything else with a baby on (her) hip.” 

A bulletin for Slaughter: you don’t have to run for national office to figure out how to get things done with a baby on your hip. Women (and men) all over the world in a variety of income classes are getting shit done with babies on their hips every day. 

Slaughter actually dictates a specific schedule she thinks women should adhere to so that they can achieve her high level of life success:

"It is reasonable to assume that she will build her credentials and establish herself, at least in her first career, between 22 and 35; she will have children, if she wants them, sometime between 25 and 45; she'll want maximum flexibility and control over her time in the 10 years that her children are 8 to 18; and she should plan to take positions of maximum authority and demands on her time after her children are out of the house."

Plan to take positions of maximum authority? Really? 

This irritates me-- and not only because it is condescending of her to suggest life schedules for women that are not even reflective of her own experience. I’m about a decade younger than Slaughter, I have four kids, and I work at home as a professional writer/editor. I have worked outside the home rarely over my last 18 years as a mother, but I’ve been able to maintain a career, if not a HIGHLY! SUCCESSFUL! one like Slaughter. I don’t really want to get into a mommy wars smackdown here because it’s been done to death. But no woman should judge another woman’s choices. Period. As in: 

Let’s make a deal, Anne-Marie. I will not sit here and judge you for whining about having missed the first decade and a half of raising your children because you were a career-obsessed workaholic, and I do not expect you to judge me for the fact that I don’t make much money because I choose to attend some field trips or try to be on the front porch sometimes when the bus comes. Believe me, I’m no great mom and I’m no great journalist. But I do embrace a level of realistic expectations in my life that will create the least amount of guilt and disappointment and the maximum number of happy moments. 

This whole thing is the Hillary Clinton cookie debate again. I think it would be fab if Clinton became the first woman President because she worked like a dog her whole life, but I don’t want to be judged by her for liking the smell of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies once in awhile. Are my contributions to society (as a chief elected official in my small town, as a Girl Scout leader, as a blogger) less important because I didn’t follow the nose-to-grindstone path obsessed with shattering the ridiculously overrated imaginary glass ceiling?

In terms of Internet reactions, there’s basically a mushroom cloud full of rants (just like this one!) about The Atlantic piece, pro and con. I choose to ignore any such reaction pieces written by men because seriously, if you have a penis I have little interest in what you have to say about issues affecting those of us with vaginas. Take your Mr. Mom whiny bullshit elsewhere. 

One cool reaction piece by Kelsey Wallace at Bitch magazine intelligently states:

“The very notion of having "it all" sounds so ludicrous to me that I can't help but put it in quotes.” 

In addition to pointing out an overemphasis on the having of it all being overfocused on the having of the babies, Wallace also asks "Why aren't we asking whether or not men can "have it all"?

I'm also in agreement with the piece over at Forbes, where Maha Atal reminds everyone: 

"Feminism is about equality. Repeat that until it sinks in. 

Feminism means giving women equal opportuniyy and fair pay at work. It means a world where taking time off to be a parent is considered equally legitimate for men and women. It means, fundamentally, a world in which men and women have equal access to the full spectrum of human experience."

In fact, in all the articles I’ve read in response to Slaughter’s piece, I haven’t seen one where a woman agrees that the concept of “having it all” should be entertained in any conversation. I think Rebecca Traister at Salon says it best: 

“The Atlantic’s cover story, depicting a toddler in a briefcase clutched by a headless woman in dark hose (whom I can only assume is Diane Keaton from 1987’s “Baby Boom”) puts me in mind of a modest proposal: Working women should eat their babies, thus simultaneously solving the problem of childcare and what to make for dinner.

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…

It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall…the “have it all” formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it’s feminism… that’s to blame.”

One main point Traister makes, with which I completely agree, is that Slaughter’s article isn’t all bad—it’s just been packaged badly by The Atlantic, whose editors apparently took a cue from Time magazine when the latter ran a half-baked breastfeeding article and sold tons of issues of their ever-thinning print version by depicting a woman breastfeeding a four-year-old on the cover.

Are print magazines really so desperate to sell copies that they take whatever article they have lying around that’s been written by a woman, slap a controversial photo and headline on it, and throw it on the newsstand, hoping just to help cover the cost of all that ink and paper? Of course.

Look, though the word has developed a partially negative connotation due to certain whiny, dyke-y rageaholics, I consider myself a feminist. I grew up with the “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never let you forget you’re a man” commercials that informed me in no uncertain terms that my goal in life was to get a career (not a job) while also cooking a fantastic meal for my sexy man followed by, Diane-Keaton style, throwing motherhood into the mix. One of my life's role models was my cool lesbian aunt, who, in between smoking pot and playing Grateful Dead on her guitar, thankfully took a big part in my upbringing, even buying me a subscription to Ms. magazine at age 12 in case I started believing that my mother’s full time housewifery was my life’s only option. So I hear you, hanger-wavers. I’m on your team politically, and we agree on most things.

But what annoys me about extremism in the feminist movement is its hypocrisy. The bra-burners of the 70s didn’t ask much—just that my generation not choose motherhood because the 1950s were hell and you need to have a career and not babies! And then, if you want babies, you can put them in daycare (which should be more affordable) and feed them formula (because day care centers and men can’t breastfeed when you’re at work!). The hypocrisy lies in insisting that women have choices, and then becoming irrationally angry when we don’t make the choices we’ve been instructed to make. I feel like our generation needs to write a big apology to the old-school “feminists.” 

Dear Feminists: We failed. We’re sorry. Please stop acting like Republicans and telling us what to do with our vaginas. Please stop judging us for not having the careers you said we were supposed to have and just LEAVE US THE FUCK ALONE! Sincerely, Modern Women

Boomer feminists are forever whining about today’s hipster moms who choose near-zombie-apocalypse-prep level homesteading. You know what? These crunchy organic moms knitting baby sweaters from backyard alpacas and canning fresh veggies from the garden, homeschooling, or raising goats and turning their milk into cheese? Let them rock it out! They don’t want to be a high level politician or a corporate attorney? Good for them! Sorry, feminists! Women don’t all define success in the same way.

Do I think women should be equal? For the love of Jezebel, of course I do. But I do not think women make less than men because men are out there causing women to suffer financially. I think that as a gender, we as women are going to get what we settle for in terms of salary. Nobody is holding us back from anything. We are going to make our own damn choices about career and work and motherhood and staying at home or working our asses off or going back and forth between those two things (the actual reality of why our salaries are lower is perhaps that we are choosing this winding path). Every time I see feminists writing about women’s inequality, I feel like they’re setting it back a notch themselves. You know when we’re going to be equal? When we decide to be equal.

Maybe it’s simply time for women to assume equality.

Fuck “having it all.”

As women, I believe we are happy when on a good day, we have some of whatever “it” is, but it’s exactly what we want.

Mary McCarthy (@marymac on Twitter) blogs at pajamasandcoffee.com.


  • I agree that the Atlantic's concern trolling is repugnant. (They seem to do it on this issue every couple months.) And yes, choosing to spend more time with your family rather than having a career is totally a feminist choice, whereas having it all is an idiotic myth used to shame people. However...I don't think it's right that feminists should never talk about what women fear, or that feminists shouldn't talk about the glass ceiling, or that feminists should assume equality. And I don't believe it's true that women will be equal when they decide to be equal, just like I don't believe that poor people will stop being poor when they decide to stop being poor. Hierarchy, discrimination, and oppression are real things; they don't go away just because you decide they should. Without that insight, you end up just blaming the victim for being victimized. Women still aren't equal. One of the ways that they aren't equal is that they're still significantly disproportionately responsible for children and child-rearing, which means that they often have fewer career opportunities and less advancement. There's also just plain old sexism out there still, and that also affects the opportunities women have (it's not hard to find, even on the internets). Feminism is certainly about affirming women's choices...but it also surely has to be about pointing out inequality when it exists, and talking about ways to deal with it and make things right. As just one example...state-funded daycare options would go some way towards making it easier for women (and men too) to deal with the demands of careers and child care.

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  • Excellent points well made, Noah. I don't mean to blame the victim... I do mean to say I don't think women should be considered victims anymore. Yes, there is inequality and sexism, but I believe in empowered women versus damsels in distress. Maybe it's optimistic to think that we as women are as 'equal' as we make up our minds to be- but it's an optimism I wish I saw expressed more frequently in the feminist agenda, especially versus bashing women for their choices in career and motherhood.

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  • Great article Mary (could do without the having a penis makes your opinion moot, crap but assume you are joking) The problem you address on the "having it all" mantra is further exemplified by Noah's rant. He and many in the world define equality in sexist terms. When Noah or militant feminists suggest that women suffer from inequality because they are "dispropotionately responsible for children and child-rearing" they fall into the misogynistic trap of suggesting that child-rearing is an inferior occupation to office work. Sure, they don't get paid as much in dollars but are paid in intimacy, experience, and self-worth which can not be easily achieved from a salaried job. Although Noah has a point that inequality should not be ignored, I think the more important question relates to life-experience and fullfilment equality, not just the tinted lens of money. I agree, fuck having it all, just get what you can. Afterall, why should women be forced to have it all when men are held to a lower and different standard.

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  • Texan, if raising kids was actually valued as much as other kinds of work, that'd be great. If women's decision to be the primary caregiver were always a choice and never the default result of men abandoning their kids or just assuming that it's not their job to raise kids, that'd be great too. Pretending that world already exists really doesn't do anything to cause it to exist, though. Quite the opposite. Mary, I can definitely see that. It's just a tricky line; focus too much on victimization and it starts to look like women are just naturally helpless victims so why bother with them; focus too much on empowerment, and you end up arguing that there isn't really any inequality and saying there is makes you the real sexist. At least we can all agree that this Atlantic article is idiotic though.

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  • The whole "raising kids is a burden" concept is relativly recent and is the result of the sufferage movement among other things. When women started to demand equality with men, they accidently adopted the value system of men. One will never acheive equality if you use only one side's value system. Even in current matriarchal societies, child rearing is seen as a calling, not burden. Noah, your views are destroying equality. But just ignore all that, it is O.K. because everyone else is doing it. By your thinking, we'd still have slavery.

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  • I mean, do you have kids, Texan? They're great, and I love mine very much...but he's expensive, and takes up a lot of time and energy. I actually agree that feminism should ideally mean valuing child care. That's why I wish that the feminist movement currently was more focused on state child care rather than on abortion. Most of your comment appears to be utter nonsense. What "current matriarchal" societies are you talking about? There's only weak evidence that there's ever been matriarchal societies, and certainly there aren't any around now. And I never said it was okay because it's the way it is. I said that pretending inequities don't exist in the current system because you have ideological objections to the current system is silly. I want women to be treated equally by the system we have...and I also think that we should work towards a system where "equality" means not just that women have more access to jobs, but in which men have more or a role in child-rearing, and in which, in general, child-rearing is seen as valuable. None of that is particularly radical. If you think it's equivalent to supporting slavery, I'd suggest that your preconceptions about what you think I'm saying are interfering with your ability to actually process what I'm talking about.

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  • Now, boys. Don't make me turn this car around. ;)

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  • I have twins and consider them to be the best thing I have ever done. Yes they can be work but the best things in life are rarely easy. I'm also a licensed pre-school teacher (may have expired by now but you get the point)Never, once, have I considered raising them to be a burden and don't understand why so many, such as yourself, do. I envy the gifts bestowed upon women vis-a-vis child rearing. Since they were one, I have my children come to my office at least once a week and outside of business, have not traveled without them and have no desire to do so. My slavery comparison is that you view children as a burden like whites viewed blacks as a burden and men viewed women. Burden is often defined as something emotionally difficult to bear; or a load. Not what I would call a positive statement regarding blacks, women or children. Your comment about how the world currently exists and is not worth challenging those views was one of the many arguements used to surpress both the woman's vote and civil rights in general. It is just plain lazy! Furthermore, you neglect the fact that men and women will never be "equal" Their brains develop differently, their biology gives the sexes different skills. Therefore, your thoughts on equality go against human form and function. As for matriarchal societies, go read a book or google. Your ignorance on the subject is too much a burden for me to bear. Perhaps your ignorance derives from your misogynistic views towards what constitutes equality and a matriarchal society.

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  • I've read about matriarchal societies. Haven't seen any evidence that they existed; it's mostly very dicey anthropological speculation. There have certainly been matrilineal societies, but that's not the same thing. Anne Allison talks about some ways in which late capitalist Japan is matriarchal — though even she isn't suggesting that it's in fact ruled by women. Because of course it isn't. The slavery comparison still seems really confused. Whites saying blacks were a burden was pretty clearly in bad faith; they made them do all their work for them. That was the whole point of slavery. If anyone was a burden, it was the white people — just as today (if less spectacularly) the financial overclass is a burden on the rest of us. I never said that the status quo shouldn't be challeneged. I said that in a capitalist society, you can generally tell who is valued by looking at who gets paid what. The two statements are really not the same thing. If you can't see the difference between them, I'm not really sure what to tell you. The argument about biological differences between men and women is a very tricky one, not least because it's almost impossible to separate such things from social factors. It's also the case that individual variation between people is far greater than the difference between genders. You might read Julia Serano's Whipping Girl. Serano is a trans woman, who is also a biologist. She definitely believes that hormones affect mood and perception, but she doesn't believe that that makes men and women unequal...at least not for any legal purpose. Serano also argues that femininity, not just women, is/are discriminated against in our society. There are a lot of implications to that; I'm sure she'd agree with you that childrearing and children are denigrated, for example, though I think she would link that specifically to misogyny. For her the solution to that is more and better feminism, not a denigration of feminism. I tend to agree with her about that; I think that in general the most eloquent voices on behalf of children over the last century or so have been feminist ones. (It's feminists who made the case against child rape, for example.) I don't even know that we disagree all that much, Texan. Like I said, you seem to want to disagree with what you think I'm saying rather than what I've actually said. In any case, nice talking with you as always. Take care.

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