The last 100 years have seen a multitude of changes all over the world for women and girls. Although we still face several forms of discrimination and oppression on a global scale, it is undeniable the strides that feminism has wrought for women. From the right to vote, to equal employment opportunities, to the right to your own body, the world of today is far fairer for us than it was for our mothers – let alone our grandmothers.
All at once women have the opportunities to be mothers, wives, girlfriends, friends, politicians, artists, scientists, thinkers and believers without giving up any fundamental parts of themselves. The women of today have never had such a chance to ‘have it all’, as the phrase goes. However, I question what it exactly means to ‘have it all’ and if that is something women should even aim for to begin with.
The Downside To “Having it All”
The inherent problem with the idea of ‘having it all’ is that it puts undue pressure on women to actually ‘have it all’. Not simply do women feel the pressure to tick off a career, motherhood and an eclectic list of other achievements, but these achievements must be perfected a 100%, gold star-style score. For women, the pressures of ‘having it all’ does not simply stop when you tick off enough items from an invisible life checklist. It becomes a series of goals, challenges and personal bugbears that men are never forced to adhere to. When was the last time a man was asked can he ‘have it all’? Asked, that is, if he can be a dutiful father, hold down a prosperous career and still have time to play five-a-side football at the weekend? These type of questions hang in the air for women continuously – poised as a ticking time bomb on their self-worth.
Is “Having it all” putting too much stress on women?
In many ways, the problem is the naming of the thing itself. For, the women of 2019 are expected, and socially encouraged, to take on the emotional, physical and economic labour of being a care giver, a homemaker, a careerwoman and upkeeping an active social calendar all in order to ‘have it all’. This creates issue for those women who, for one reason or another, feel like they cannot equally balance the demands of such a complex lifestyle. These women come to question themselves, their integrity and abilities. They wonder why they cannot have it all, inevitably they feel like a failure and ask themselves ‘what is wrong with me?’. This leaves them tired, stressed, self-doubting and deeply, deeply unhappy.
The notion of female happiness and self-satisfaction has been an area of discussion for well over 50 years. It was in 1963 that Betty Friedan released The Feminine Mystique, a work that has been credited with sparking the second-wave feminist movement. In this work Friedan described what she called ‘the problem that has no name’ – the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s. This unhappiness in women – specifically housewives – stemmed from their dissatisfaction and lack of fulfilment they felt from being solely wives and mothers. Friedan famously declaring: ‘We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home’. In the years since The Feminine Mystique was released women have become more than the trapped wives and mothers of the 1950s. However, recent studies have shown that regardless of the strides women have gained in terms of equality and opportunity they are not necessarily happier for it.
A 2009 study by Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers entitled ‘The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness’ found that whilst, objectively, the lives of women have improved over the last 35 years they are, subjectively, less happy today than they were in the 1970s. Stevenson and Wolfers point out that women’s movement into the paid labour force was not accompanied by a move away from household and domestic labour. In this way, women have also continued to maintain the emotional responsibility of the home and family, rather than these responsibilities being shared equally between men and women. This means that women are now working a ‘second shift’ within the household alongside taking part in paid labour.
Due to these factors the notion of ‘having it all’ is, I believe, an unrealistic and egalitarian pipe dream that women are conditioned to believe is the new norm. It is both physically and socially impossible for women to have it all when the responsibilities of domestic labour are not equally balanced. Whilst women may find satisfaction at work, and in their public lives, the inequality that is still held in the private sphere of the home creates the extra pressures and stresses of the ‘second shift’.
I believe that through the conditioning forces of the media, particularly Instagram, the notion of ‘having it all’ has become the default ideal of existence for the women of today. In this, it becomes another tool of patriarchal oppression. I say this because by creating an idealised version of life where women are both workers and domestic servants women continue to be tied to the household sphere. To explain it in a clearer way: the emancipation of women into the workforce in the mid-twentieth century saw the role of woman, wife and mother change irrevocably. Rather than women leaving the home altogether and completely reconstructing what the home meant for society, the idea of ‘having it all’ was created. This meant that women were actively encouraged to still have an obligation to their homes in a way male workers had never been expected to.
I believe that we, as a community of women, need to reorientate our understanding of what it means to ‘have it all’. Specifically, that it is a patriarchal fantasy and a means of controlling women’s existence. We need to understand that the pressures to perform at 100% in every area of our lives is an unhealthy and impossible task – one that society has specifically aimed at women. We need to reteach ourselves to focus on what we are personally achieving, in our own time, and not compare ourselves to others. That is far more empowering, enlightening and worthwhile than burning out in a blaze of misery.
By SOPHIE PERRY