Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter of the Vagenda Magazine

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Feminism didn't lie to women about "having it all"

As Germaine Greer said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover".

A 'Henry' vacuum cleaner
Feminism is about liberation and equality, not just career success. Photograph: Getty Images

A recent essay in the Atlantic magazine by former US State Department official and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled 'Why women still can't have it all', has got the world talking (again) about what it means to be a true 'twenty first century woman'. The article, which claims feminism sold women an unrealistic expectation that they could juggle having children and a high-powered career, has put more than a few noses out of joint and caused widespread discussion of the issue in the States.

Slaughter suggests that the career ladder shouldn't be seen as a straight upward climb. Instead, women should be prepared to build inevitable career sacrifices into their lives if they choose to have families. Turning down a promotion to spend more time working out the kinks in the life of your wayward teenage son, as Slaughter did, could be just as rewarding as skyrocketing your career and missing every bedtime along the way; the cutthroat capitalist culture of competitively clocking in the hours (a phrase made deceptively delightful by its alliterative qualities) is the reason that the glass ceiling holds strong. Social attitudes need to change to reflect the reality of women in the workplace and as a meaningful caregiver, Slaughter continues - and women must realise that the feminist dreams of their forebears may actually have been little more than well-spun lies.

This article is depressing and uplifting in equal measure. On the one hand, it's encouraging to hear Slaughter speak of her own choices unashamedly:
she made compromises in her career (despite being an incredibly successful member of the US government policy team) in order to enjoy the formative years of her children. She took a sabbatical to go to Shanghai with her husband so that they could grow closer as a family and learn Mandarin. She insists that when she does interviews, her two children are mentioned amongst her academic and business achievements, as further evidence of her hard work and dedication rather than mitigating factors.

On the other hand, however, Slaughter does us a disservice with her use of the word 'feminism'. Her entire argument is based upon the idea that women in practice 'feel' like they want to be with their children more than men - a suggestion that she herself predicts will cause a backlash in the media. The idea that feminists were kidding themselves while ignoring their inevitable biological fate to feel inextricably tied to their children doesn't sit entirely comfortably with us. The 'lies' that they sold - as Slaughter would have it, the idea that 'women can have it all' - were actually based on the fundamental assertion that women and men are equal, and 'having it all' should be as possible for women as it is for men.

Slaughter has a lot of sage advice for ways in which we can progress culturally to make this a reality, but her entire article is heavily underscored with the idea that everything will be harder for women because we are more naturally inclined toward family life. Not only that, but it defines 'having it all' in the narrowest sense possible: a truly flag-waving, apple-pie-eating American definition of a life fulfilled, even while she suggests that we move away from placing the onus on careers as definitive of self-worth.

'Having it all' sounds terribly spoilt, doesn't it? For Slaughter, it means 'having a (high-powered) career and a family life, but when magazines and newspapers talk of women 'having it all', there's often an inbuilt assumption that this 'all' that we are supposed to possess is something that men already have, and that we need to achieve parity with them. A happy world in which we all 'have it all' may sound Utopian, because it is, but it is also a rather modern idea, built around capitalistic notions of self-gratification. Considering the fact that one of the top regrets posited by dying men is that they worked too hard and didn't spend enough time with their families, it's somewhat simplistic to assume that they are the lucky proprietors of this 'all', and that, in the interests of fairness, we must have it too. We're not sure if we even want it - it sounds tiring.

The 'feminism' that Slaughter attacks is a straw woman. Feminism was never really about slotting seamlessly into a male-dominated capitalist system, it was a revolutionary social movement. Germaine Greer once said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover". Quite. Slaughter writes about feminism as though it were a product that she bought and consumed, which then failed to live up to her expectations. Now she wants to take it back to the she shop because she didn't get to spend enough time with her children. We're not buying it.

Of course, Slaughter acknowledges that her argument is only relevant to women at the very highest echelons of the American power structure. So, not single mothers or low paid wage-slaves, but highly educated and ambitious women with certain expectations. In other words, it doesn't apply to most of us, here or in the States. Slaughter speaks of video-conferencing technology; of schools with hours that reflect office life; of paternity leave as enshrined as its female counterpart so that both partners take parenting seriously and mutually from the outset. But you can't work remotely from a supermarket checkout, and Slaughter's notion that changes to working patterns will 'trickle down' to the proles has a patronising whiff about it. Come! We will lead the poor into the Elysian Fields of equality!

The ruthlessly capitalist system in place in the US has more flaws in it than Slaughter cares to see. Of course, as is often with these things, her argument is entirely coloured by her own experiences. Which is why the debate is highly charged: almost every woman involved will have made her own choices and her own compromises and it's only natural to defend that.

This weekend, we asked a mother of nine children about 'having it all', and she said: "If they'd offered it to me on a plate I would have been too knackered to take it". Having children is exhausting, and the unfair division of domestic labour, aka 'the final feminist frontier', is barely touched upon in Slaughter's article. Perhaps what we need is some kind of conference that combines legislative reform with napping, because at the moment, the only women involved in the debate are the ones who aren't covered in baby sick. Because unlike Slaughter's argument, feminism is for everyone.