Ann Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and former director of foreign policy for the State Department, published an article in The Atlantic this past summer which she provocatively titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  She wrote that she had been telling women that they didn’t have to compromise their goals for both career success and a fulfilling family life, but realized this wasn’t really the case.  She left her State Department job after two years and returned to Princeton because she concluded that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”  Thinking about what she had told her students through the years, she concluded “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

Ann Marie Slaughter

Slaughter thinks that the problem is not with women themselves but with the nature of society.  In her view, women need to recognize more clearly these societal structures that have halted progress towards the feminist ideal of fulfillment in every area of life.  She is optimistic in the long run about women achieving the feminist vision, but thinks that society needs to change first.  She puts it as follows:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter lists several “half truths” commonly believed by and shared among women that interfere with forthright discussion of the structural problems that women face.  These half truths are that women can have it all if they are just committed enough, they can have it all if they choose the right mate, and they can have it all if they sequence family and career events properly.  Slaughter thinks that, instead of focusing on these myths, women should work for systemic changes that would make combining family and career more feasible; most of these have to do with changing workplace norms.

Slaughter isn’t the only successful woman mulling about these issues.  The October 1 & 8 issue of Newsweek contains an article by Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, titled “American Women Have It Wrong.”  Despite the tremendous progress women have made in the workplace, she notes, women are still under-represented in the higher echelons of most professions.  The headwinds women face aren’t, in her view, due to government policy or overt discrimination directed against women.  “Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations.”  Like Slaughter, Spar has a variety of prescriptions aimed at making the path to the top easier for women.

What interested me about the articles is that both Slaughter and Spar question the feasibility or wisdom of women’s pursuit of “it all,” at least in the current milieu.  Spar puts it as follows: “The only way that American women will ever fully solve the ‘women’s problem’ is by recognizing the quest for perfection for what it is: a myth. No woman can have it all, and by using all as the standard of success, we are only condemning ourselves and our daughters to failure.”  Or, if not failure, using such a yardstick condemns them to misery.  Spar cites the case of a young former student who seemed to be doing everything well.  The young woman saw herself differently, though.   “’Each time someone commented on how I’m always in a good mood or smiling, I felt more and more like a phony,’ she confessed. ‘If only they knew that, behind closed doors, I cried and crumbled under unrealistic expectations set not by peers or professors, but by me.’”

Slaughter, too, came to the realization that working at a high-status, high pressure job while at the same time participating in her family was not so much impossible as unsatisfying.  She considered various ways to make the combination work, but finally decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do:  “I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”  Slaughter thinks that as a nation we should focus more on happiness than on achievement: “Last I checked, [Thomas Jefferson] did not declare American independence in the name of life, liberty, and professional success. Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and let us start at home.”

So, perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Can women have it all?” but “Is it good for them to try to have it all?”  Even better, let’s ask “Is it good for anyone to try to have it all?”  Women in our society still have more obstacles to achieving their goals than do men—a situation that we need to address more than we have thus far—but life is always lived within limits, and striving to do everything perfectly comes dangerously close to denying that we have such limits.  Kierkegaard said that nearly all of us are in despair because we want to be a self but can’t accept the self we are.  One form that such despair takes is the “despair of possibility”—a lack of recognition that our capacities are limited and what we can do pales in comparison to what we would like to do.  I’ve not had to juggle the multiple demands that many women try to keep aloft (except for a few years after I was divorced).  Nonetheless, my experience is of having repeatedly tried to take on more and more commitments and interests, until I realize once again that I can’t do everything and whatever satisfactions my accomplishments bring me are outweighed by the stress of trying to keep it all going.  Then, for a while anyway, I go back to being the self that is a good fit for me rather than the self I would like to be, and am relieved.  Why strive for having it all when that striving in and of itself takes away our peace and contentment?