Newsflash: We don’t. We never did. And we never will “have it all.” Because it’s impossible — for anyone. Male or female.
Having it all is no less a fantasy — and no less self-defeating a comparison — than a Barbie doll’s measurements or the perpetually fresh-faced “24-hour woman” in the iconic Enjoli perfume ads or the modern-day “supermom” who flits effortlessly between her corner office and her kitchen.
Yet despite efforts to banish “the worst words that ever happened to women,” as Sheryl Sandberg describes them, the phrase continues to be bandied about in the headlines.
This week, I was particularly dismayed to see it splayed across the cover of “The New York Times” magazine, which asked of the Texas state senator and gubernatorial candidate: “Can Wendy Davis Have It All?”
In choosing these words, writer Robert Draper not only sidesteps the more newsworthy and significant question of whether the Democratic candidate can win the gubernatorial race (a notable accomplishment in one of the nation’s reddest states), but he also discounts all of Davis’s extraordinary achievements to date — not to mention the relationship she has built with her grown daughters, who call her “a remarkable mother… a rock and a role model.”
Can you imagine a publication asking the same question of a male candidate?
Yet somehow this trope that has been loaded with meaning over the years, raising the bar with every iteration, has become the Holy Grail of feminine achievement, an acceptable ideal against which women (but never men) are measured — and, inevitably, fall short.
Even the woman who’s been widely credited with coining the phrase could not have imagined it would grow to encompass so much. In Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 bestseller of the same name, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan (a magazine whose recent cover lines include “75 Sex Moves Men Crave” and “Lean Thighs Without Lunges!”) described having it all as having “love, success, sex and money.” There was no mention of kids at all. (She never had any.)
In fact, in a People magazine profile of her after the book came out, David Zanuck, a partner at her husband’s company, observed that he and Helen “don’t have a lot outside of their careers.” By today’s definition, even Brown — who enjoyed a nearly 50-year-marriage and 32-year tenure at the helm of one of the country’s most popular and successful women’s magazines — would fall short of “having it all.”
That is one of the most pernicious aspects of the phrase: It shifts the focus away from the goals and successes of the feminist movement to our own failures to live up to an ideal that has nothing to do with being either a feminist or a success. “And that was exactly what feminists had not wanted,” writes historian Ruth Rosen, author of “The World Split Open: How The Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.” “The original women’s movement sought an economic and social revolution that would create equality at home and at the workplace.”
That won’t happen if we’re too busy beating ourselves up for failing to “have it all.”
The irony — and the particularly galling aspect — of attaching that phrase to Wendy Davis is that she embodies precisely what our feminist foremothers were working toward when they took to the streets: the ability for all women, no matter where they started, to realize their full potential professionally and personally.
Davis’s rise from poverty is well-documented. The daughter of a struggling single mom, she became a mom herself at 19, working two jobs while attending community college. With the help of scholarships and loans, she transferred to Texas Christian University where she graduated at the top of her class. She went on to graduate with honors from Harvard Law, with support from her then husband who cared for her daughters (one with him in addition to her first) while she completed school, flying back at regular intervals to see her family.
After working for a law firm, she won a seat on the City Council in Fort Worth that she kept for nine years until she ran for, and won, a state senate seat. What propelled her to national fame, and led to her run for governor, was her dramatic 11-hour filibuster last year of a bill that would severely restrict women’s abortion rights. (The bill was later passed in special session.)
Not only has Davis used her platform to fight for women’s rights, she is a beneficiary of what the women’s movement fought for: equal employment and educational opportunities; marriage partners who will support our ambitions and take on a fair share of childcare and housework so we can realize them; the ability to raise a family and pursue a successful career (or not).
It’s easy to quibble over the details of Davis’s story — how much her now ex-husband contributed to her law school tuition, how often she visited her kids while she was in school — but it’s hard to argue that she has not already achieved the kind of success our grandmothers could only dream of.
To ask whether she can “have it all” is not only irrelevant, it misses the point entirely. The question is not whether she — or any woman — can have it all. The question is why we’re still asking that.
Jennifer Barrett is the Editor-in-Chief of DailyWorth. Follow her on Twitter @JBarrettNYC