Can Women Have it All?

“Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to
do everything,”


Last summer I chatted with a highly educated 40-something who had stayed home to raise her children. Her second-wave-feminist mother was appalled, asking, “Do you realize all the hard work we did so that you and your peers could have a career?”

“I thought you did all that hard work so we could have a choice,” the younger woman replied.

In Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (Sarah Chrichton Books, 2013), Barnard College president Dr. Debra Spar argues that feminism got pulled off track when women confused having choices with expecting to do it all. “Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything,” she writes.

As a result, women’s liberation proved less than liberating. A decade ago the Women’s Initiative at Duke University found women undergraduates to be stressed by an ideal of “effortless perfection.” Now Spar points out that other women, not just students, live under stress from internalizing unrealistic standards that were never expected of their grandmothers.

This goes far beyond balancing work and job. We expect ourselves to look beautiful in middle age and beyond, to excel as a parent and homemaker, to climb a career ladder to the pinnacle of success and to do it all without breaking a sweat. When we fall short of these ideals, we label ourselves failures. When we appear to succeed, we pass along the myth of perfection to the next generation of women.

No one can do it all, she writes: no woman, no man, no human. Liberation is about having choices, not excelling at everything. To feel shame for being less than wonder woman is to misinterpret what feminism was all about.

The next generation

Feminism is not to blame. Second-wave feminism in the 1970s was a social movement emphasizing sisterhood, civil rights and expanded access. It aimed to free women from narrow social expectations, not to create new ones while keeping the earlier expectations in full force. It was never about perfection.

Contrary to common belief, its goals have not yet been met. We still need good childcare, equal pay and workplace policies that support families. But many younger women today are too overwhelmed trying to keep their heads above water to work together for positive change.

Spar was born in the early 1960s. The women in TV sitcoms of that decade were full-time wives and mothers. In 1968, 62% of young women expected to become housewives by age 35.

By 1979 that figure had plummeted to 20%. TV role models were glamorous career women, powerful and sexy and smart. Perfume ads for Charlie and Enjoli promoted the myth of the dynamic woman who is always on the go: taking calls in the corner office, working out, delighting in her child and never letting her man forget he’s a man.

In her teens as the myth took hold, Spar says she and her cohort embraced the media myth that women could have it all. Having missed the gritty reality of their mothers’ feminism, they assumed the barriers had been conquered.

She and her peers believed they could saunter forth to glory in the boardroom and the bedroom, moving seamlessly between children and romance and career success. With all the barriers supposedly removed, there was nobody to blame for any unfulfilled dream but oneself.

The result was what Spar calls a privatization of feminism. What had started as a movement to make the world better was fractured into individual frustrations in the pursuit of unrealistic personal goals.

Instead of working together for better schools, helicopter moms hovered to make sure their kids got straight A’s. Instead of expanding women’s right to choose, career women and homemakers criticized each other’s choices. Women retreated from working together into micromanaging their own (and their children’s) lives.


Something has to give. Women who choose 60-hour-aweek jobs will not get to all their children’s soccer games or flute recitals, if they have children at all. Women who think it important to attend all the games and recitals may choose a less demanding job that has more flexible hours.

Rather than decry this as giving up, we can and should celebrate our wide array of choices. Satisficing, a term from economics, may sound like “sacrificing” but it’s really a blend of “satisfy” and “suffice.” If we can’t put together all the life elements we might dream of, we can still put together a life that satisfies and is enough.

As a young woman, Spar planned to be a diplomat and a spy. Realizing that being a spy might be incompatible with family life, she switched into academics and was a professor at Harvard Business School before becoming president at Barnard. She is in a long-term marriage to an architect, with whom she has three children.

What has she given up? Apart from her youthful dream of becoming a spy, she missed a great many of her children’s school events. Earlier, fortunately, she gave up the perfectionist physical self-image that underlay her struggle with anorexia. Today she may not have everything—but she has a great deal and she knows it.

Of course it is helpful to be an upper-middle-class white woman. She outsources a lot of her household responsibilities to cleaners and nannies, women with their own work/ life issues and fewer options. They too must make choices, like whether to live with their in-laws for help with childcare.

Feminism has important work yet to do in making workable options available to all women, regardless of race or class. Much could yet be achieved through collective efforts if women could abandon the goal of personal perfection in favor of wider significance.

You cannot have it all, but you can have a lot. You cannot do everything, but you can love what you do. Faced with an amazing buffet of options, you can fill your plate with the ones that taste best to you and be intentional about what you leave behind. You can take joy in your choices.


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, November). Moveable Type: Can women have it all? Women in Higher Education, 22(11), 26.


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