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Women can’t have it all – because the game is rigged

Work-life balance is a myth. It’s time for women to stop blaming themselves and start demanding change.

Can women have it all? That this is still a major ethical dilemma of mainstream feminism shows how far we’ve still got to go. Yes, even though they’ve taken the nudes out of Playboy. The answer is less important than the fact that the question is vapid. Here's a better one: when did the message that ‘girls can do anything’ get twisted into the edict: ‘girls must do everything?’

 Ann-Marie Slaughter’s new book ’Unfinished Business’ claims to solve the problem of ‘work-life balance’, extrapolating from Slaughter's much-discussed article in the Atlantic, where she revealed why she quit a prestigious washington career to spend more time with her two sons. The piece was titled 'Why women still can’t have it all.'  ‘’Having it all,’ to be clear, does not mean ‘time to write a book, the total destruction of capitalist patriarchy and my very own puppy,’ which is what I’d have if I had everything I wanted. No, the ‘it all’ that every girl is supposed to want has a very specific meaning: it means the ability to simultaneously meet the demands of marriage, children and a high-powered career. Slaughter fails to ask whether this is what all women do want, or should want - but even within such a narrow scope, her solutions are timid. 

The message of “Unfinished Business” is that in order to keep everyone happy, you must simply try harder. It’s difficult to please your boss, your husband and your kids at once, so you must think harder about how you’re going to do it without dissolving into a tangle of shredded nerves in a crumpled skirt-suit. All of this is just an updated version of what we have been told for centuries: women are supposed to work twice as hard as men, for half the reward, a saying I've always understood as a coded threat.

Somehow, modern women have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the right to work outside ‘the home’ is the only liberation that matters - never mind that working-class women and women of colour have always worked outside the home. Slaughter isn’t really talking to them, a fact that she acknowledges in three lines in the introduction, before going back to reframe the debate towards those women lucky enough enough to have a supportive partner, a lucrative career, and the option to pay other people to look after their kids sometimes. Note that nobody is asking whether the nanny can have it all, even if she wants it.

For those few women who might be able to have ‘it all’, the programme sounds utterly exhausting. As I toiled through the latter chapters of career advice, wondering exactly when this notional working mother is meant to sleep, I realised with horror that Slaughter is talking to me. Specifically to me, and to people like me- middle-class, largely white women in professional careers who are at the stage of thinking seriously about how we might to juggle work and children. We’re not supposed to ask if we want to do that, only how we’ll manage.

I’m twenty-nine years old. It is possible that my biological clock is ticking, but I don’t know, because I can’t hear it over the racket of propaganda from the media, the movies, friends and relatives, all of it exhorting me and every other woman of so-called ‘childbearing age’ to settle down and make babies before it’s too late.  

Actually, I’d love to have a child someday. But in this unequal world, my circumstances seem to be aligning so that what I would have to sacrifice in order to make that happen is more than I'm able, or willing to give. That’s not an admission of weakness. It’s a statement of priorities of the kind which women and girls are encouraged not to make in public. Instead, we are supposed to hoard up our guilt in private - whatever it is we eventually choose. If we put our careers first, we’re selfish. If we devote ourselves to children and care work, we’re lazy, or we’re spoiled. If we try to juggle both at once, we’re unable to give either our full attention.  The engine of capitalist patriarchy runs on the dirty fuel of women’s shame, so whatever we choose, the important thing is that we blame ourselves. That way, we don’t blame the system.

Little boys don’t get sold this nonsense They’re not encouraged to worry about how they’ll balance their roles as husbands and fathers with paid work. Family life, for men, is not supposed to involve a surrendering of the self, as it is for women. Young men do not worry about how they will achieve a 'work-life' balance, nor does the 'life' aspect of that equation translate to 'partnership and childcare.' Not for men. When commentators speak of women's 'work-life balance', they're not talking about how much time a woman will have, at the end of the day, to work on her memoirs, or travel the world. ‘Life', for women, is simply another word for work, a route-march through child-rearing and domestic labour which is assumed to be the ultimate destination of every woman’s passions. 'Life', for men, is meant to be bigger than that.

It’s not that I don’t respect the choice to devote yourself to raising children. On the contrary - I can't stand the overplayed phobia of maternity that has become fashionable amongst parts of the young left, the sneering at ‘mummy clothes’ and avoidance of ‘nappy valley’. The more of my friends and colleagues that have children, the more I respect the enormity of the project, the tremendous efforts and risks involved. Childcare is vital, demanding work, work that we urgently need to stop devaluing- and we can only do that when we start giving women and girls real alternatives.

More than anything, Slaughter’s book is a missed opportunity. The radical truth at the core of her story is that even a woman with all of her privilege - a lucrative, prestigious career, a loving, supportive husband and a boss who happened to be Hilary Clinton- even she could not make it work. She could not ‘have it all’.  The obvious conclusion ought to be that that the ‘work-life balance’ is a lie of leviathan proportions. Instead, Slaughter falls back to a type of magical thinking, at once tragic and predictable: we can achieve ‘work-life balance’ if we just work harder. 

There was, until quite recently, a powerful movement within women’s liberation to acknowledge enforced ’reproductive labour’ - childcare, housework and caring for husbands and elderly relatives - as a source of women’s oppression. There was a demand, in Judith Butler’s words, not just for equal work for equal pay, ‘but for equal work itself.’  It is not these words that spring to mind, however, so much as the mantra of Bartleby, the Scrivener, the stubborn clerk in Herman Melville's famous story of workplace dissent. Whenever he is asked to perform a routine task, Bartleby replies: 'I would prefer not to.'

At a time when womanhood is still presumed to involve endless, exhausting work, it strikes me that the young women of the 21st century need to rediscover our inner Bartleby. Every page of ‘Unfinished Business’ makes me think: I would prefer not to.  Spend eighteen years raddled with guilt and exhaustion, trying to fulfil all the expectations of paid work and motherhood at once? I would prefer not to. I’ve got things to do. I still haven’t finished season 5 of Battlestar Galactica! I still haven’t been rascally drunk in a Moscow gay bar! I’ve got books to read! Adventures to have! And sure, I could do some of that whilst balancing a baby on one knee and a briefcase on the other….but I would prefer not to. 

The truth about ‘work-life balance’ is that it doesn’t exist. It never has existed, and unless we radically rethink our attitude to work and care, it never will. There it is. That’s the truth nobody wants to acknowledge. You can’t ‘have it all,’ not even if you’re in the lucky minority who can afford to pay someone else to take care of your kids, so stop trying, and stop blaming yourself. There. Now we’ve got that sorted out, it’s time to think about other options.

This is still an unequal world. But women are freer than we’ve ever been to build independent lives, to refuse to be bullied or shamed into lives we did not choose.  We can’t ‘have it all’ when the system is broken. It’s time and beyond time for women to start asking what else we want- starting, perhaps, with a fairer deal.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear