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Can Women Have it All?

I have come to the conclusion that if we stopped talking about whether or not we can have it all, we’d save ourselves several hours a day.  Those hours could be put towards useful endeavours.  And then, instead of constantly slamming our hands against the glass ceiling like mimes, we could enjoy those lives we’ve worked hard to build.

The latest “can women have it all” discussion centers on Wendy Davis, the Democrat running for governor of Texas.  You may remember Wendy Davis from her multi-hour filibuster over abortion restrictions.  The New York Times asks if Wendy Davis can have it all.  And lest you’re confused about whether they’re asking if she could be both a state senator AND governor, no, parenting comes up within the first few sentences.

The tone of the article wavers between neutral and negative, accusing her of “self-congratulation” when she points out her accomplishments. (“Seated behind the wheel of her black Tahoe hybrid S.U.V., Davis was wearing a fitted black dress and high heels and an omnipresent half-smile that could be interpreted as both drowsy and sly. She slowed whenever we came upon a structure or a street that bore her imprint, which seemed to happen every two or three minutes.”)  Though I’m not really sure what the reporter, Robert Draper, wanted Davis to do?  Not speak of her accomplishments?  So he could accuse her of being uncooperative and hiding something?

Draper dissects her campaign strategy, claiming that the story she’s presenting is one of “Supermom”:

Instead, the campaign had chosen as its lead narrative a heroic struggle of a different sort: that of a teenage, trailer-dwelling single mother, who, while raising two daughters, bootstrapped her way into Harvard Law School and soon, possibly, the governorship. On many levels, the story was politically exquisite. It connected the candidate and her devotion to issues like education in a personal rather than an ideological manner. It also sidestepped the divisive issue of abortion while framing her as the kind of hard-working mother to whom suburban women (a critical voting bloc) could relate.

And this is where he gleefully takes offense, pointing out the myriad ways this story is untrue.  Even though he equally admits that it is true.  She was a single mother.  She did work hard to get through Harvard Law, even though she had financial help in paying for her tuition.  She did fight tooth and nail — as most politicians do when they’re starting their career — to become a state senator.  She is a success story in the sense that she has existed from time to time in her life in difficult situations, and she is now poised to possibly become governor of an enormous state.

The reality is that Davis’s team needs to find an angle that appeals to voters.  It’s that simple.  That is the job of a campaign strategist, and in this case, her angle isn’t a terrible one even if Draper takes offense.  And frankly, Draper — as far as I know — is a writer, not a campaign manager.  It’s easy to play armchair strategist, never having to actually produce results.  And this is something pointless that we do as general citizens every election: we critique campaigns vs. critiquing the candidates.  Every citizen gets a chance to voice their opinion; but the only place our opinion counts is whether we think she (or any candidate) will do a good job in office.

So Mr. Draper, let the woman choose the angle she thinks will work for her.  Vote her or don’t vote for her: that’s your job as a citizen.  It isn’t to be her campaign manager.

But Draper’s article goes beyond Wendy Davis, and so much of his commentary is what women fight against on a daily basis.  Aren’t women always fighting between the humble brag (I kinda sorta did this amazing thing on my own) and the demur objection (it’s really not such a big deal).  We’re accused of being a stuck-up bitch if we own our accomplishments, and we’re accused of being a downright loser not up to task if we don’t own what we’ve done.  No one does anything on their own; we always have people behind the scenes making the moments in our life possible.  Yes, I write books, but I could never have the time to write books without Josh’s paycheck, the twins’ cooperation, my parent’s childcare help, the twins’ teachers, friends, family members, etc.

But where is line between ownership of our accomplishments and sharing those achievements with our personal support team?

Why aren’t men being held to task for not pointing out the hundreds of people who stand behind them who give them the space to do what they do?  Find me the one article that complains that a man takes credit for all he has done.  Truly, I’ll eat my words if you can find one.  Because I’ve offered up this New York Times article to you as one in which a woman is taken to task for stating her accomplishments.

Show me the article that calls into question the capabilities of a father for putting his education front and center.  Draper spends a lot of time reiterating that Davis lived in Massachusetts while her children remained in Texas with her husband. (Who he tells us many many many times was paying for her law school.)  His word choice shows his judgment.  I want someone to trot out an article that frets over the amount of time a father spends working instead of being at home with his children.

We’re a country that is obsessed with individualism.  We want to be the best, the only.  We respond to strength.  And yet we come down on a woman who is strong.  Who has ambition.  We love the gumption story UNTIL we get to the apex.  And then we want that woman to fall, and we want her to fall hard.  We try to knock anyone off their pedestal the moment they rise above the masses, and that is especially true when it comes to women.  Take a look at the adoration and backlash of every woman in Hollywood.

Is some of that backlash tied to our own frustration of perceiving the person receiving the accolades to have reached that accomplishment on their own whereas we need a small army just to get through our mundane lives?  Draper isn’t wrong that we need to spend less time perpetuating the myth that anyone builds their life entirely on their own and that anyone can do so if they just pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  But at the same time, what is the alternative: to demur and show weakness, which is disdained by both men and women in America?  We can’t change this story when it’s the one people seemingly want to hear so they can play their role in tearing it apart.

It seems like every time a woman shows a hint of ambition, she’s shot down.  And then women question why there aren’t more women in office.  Would you want to run, knowing this is what will greet you?

Instead of dissecting Wendy Davis as a woman, let’s dissect her as a candidate.  Can she do the job?  Does she represent your interests if you live in Texas?  If so, vote for her.  If not, please don’t.  But let’s not make this about her vagina.  Let’s not hold her to standards we don’t hold our male candidates.  Let’s not ask if she can have it all when as a society we’ve already answered that question with a resound “no.”

Wait, I’m sorry, it’s not that we can’t have it all.  Other countries are much better at allowing all people — men and women — to balance home and work.  If she lived somewhere else, she maybe could have it all.  But the American narrative is to not allow women to have it all and to slap their wrists when they try to reach for it.


1 Serenity { 03.09.14 at 8:27 am }

As I was reading your commentary, all I could think was the myriad personhood bills in many states which limit a woman’s right to choose. I don’t know WHY, but I feel like culture – or the media at least? – hate women, or hate the idea that women are successful. Or something. It’s incredibly subtle, but I have the sense that people – women included? – don’t really want women to FEEL successful.

And I wonder if even the mommy wars are an offshoot of this. When there are generations of women fighting for something (the right to vote and work a job, in my grandmother’s case, the right to equal pay and to choose, in my mother’s case)… even when there’s nothing to fight anymore? We keep fighting.

But there’s also a larger issue at play for me, too. I don’t know why, or how, but I have this sense that people are just, well. Angry. Men, women, kids, EVERYONE. I wonder if the prevalence of the internet – the ease in which we can anonymously sh*t on (and be sh*t on) people in the computer – is part of the reason.

Whatever it is, I often despair when I read ANY news story. We’re just all so angry. And I wish I knew what to do to counteract it.


2 KeAnne { 03.09.14 at 8:58 am }

Slow clap. Awesome post & I agree 100% . I got a compliment/ question yesterday about how I work full time and manage to have time for co-producing Listen to Your Mother & I felt uncomfortable because I don’t feel like I contribute as much because I do work. The uncomfortable truth is that I juggle a lot of balls and never feel like I’m doing it well.

3 a { 03.09.14 at 9:24 am }

This campaign to discredit Wendy Davis bothers me to no end. I don’t know much about her stances, bit I did appreciate her filibuster. It is so revolting to me that life experiences that men take for granted are so despicable when a woman does the same type of thing.

4 Nicoleandmaggie { 03.09.14 at 9:43 am }

I guess I should send her more money.

5 Justine { 03.09.14 at 12:24 pm }

Amen, sister. One of the things that came up in conversation the other night was that we don’t ask the same questions of men as we do of women. Why is appearance and parenthood always something we evaluate for women, especially public figures, when it isn’t even a consideration for men? There’s no good answer to that question for me.

The speaker we listened to (Judith Spar, president of Barnard) was arguing that women need to aspire to less perfection, to let some things go (e.g. a clean house or perfect child/parent relationships or a complete commitment to a job), because we simply can’t put more on our plates (the housework we do, apparently, equals about 33 hours a week for women, but only 3-7 hours a week for men) without taking something off. For me, it’s less about the commitments than it is about the way we measure ourselves … BOTH genders.

6 Mali { 03.10.14 at 12:18 am }

This is really depressing – I’ve just posted commenting that I’m not sure women have advanced in the last 20-30 years. Sigh.

I’m not sure that women can have it all, in the same way that I don’t think men can have it all either. The difference is that women are questioned and hounded and judged over their attempts to break out and try to have it all, and men are not. I find that infuriating. Reading the article, there is no way that would ever have been published if it had been about a man. Argh!

7 Hope { 03.10.14 at 6:01 am }

The question (“Can women have it all?”) is a judgment in itself. Of course not! No-one, female or male, can really have it ALL. We each have to set priorities and make some sacrifices, family or not, high-profile job or not.

When I hear that question asked of women (and you’re right, it’s not asked of men), what I hear is, “How arrogant and selfish! Who does she think she is?”

8 Ana { 03.10.14 at 11:58 am }

Agree 100%. And also agree with Hope—its not about having “it all”, obviously no one can have EVERYTHING. The question is specifically and universally targeted to women and implies that you can’t be a good mother and a good “name your career of choice”.
Also agree that “mommy wars” are media-manufactured drivel pitting women against each other instead of united against the very real threats to our freedom.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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