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 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.

Feminism is about liberation and equality, not just career success. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.