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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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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