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Have it all if you want, or not

Most women don't have the luxury of choice

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Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote a provocative piece in the Atlantic titled Why Women Still Can't Have It All. It inspired a lot of discussion among women. Some were upset that she would put a damper on the ambitions of so many young women. Others praised her for telling it like it is.

My friend, the late Nora Ephron, gave the commencement speech in 1996 at Wellesley, her alma mater. In her speech, which was replayed many times on the Internet after her death, she said, "This is the season when a clutch of successful women -- who have it all -- give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can't have it all. Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all... It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications." And she added: "You can always change your mind. I know. I've had four careers and three husbands."

Nora wasn't kidding about the mess and the complications. This is why the whole question of having it all is irrelevant. I don't even know what it means. In the nearly 45 years that we were friends, through all of the mess and complications of both of our lives, Nora and I never had a conversation about whether we could have it all. We did the best we could. It became clear that throughout much of that time we were both trying to "do" it all but we rarely "had" it all. There's a big difference.

You can't put career, husband and children all first. You have to choose. Before I had my son, Quinn, I would alternate between putting my marriage first and my career first. After Quinn was born with a hole in his heart and had surgery at age three months, then developed many medical problems and learning disabilities, my choices were obvious. Quinn came first, then my husband, whose support I desperately needed, and then my so-called career, which languished for 16 years. Most women don't have to face choices quite so dramatic. This is what worked for me.

I think where this whole argument went off the rails is when women began to judge each other for their different choices. Slaughter talked about how she used to feel smug about being able to have it all and looked down on other women who couldn't seem to make it work. Then she said she was criticized by other women when she quit her State Department job and moved back to her family in Princeton because she had supposedly let one side down by choosing her family first.

During the height of the feminist movement, when Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were duking it out over the importance of marriage and a family, Gloria made a now-famous statement that "Awoman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." A lot of young women were completely traumatized by the whole notion that there must be something wrong with them if they wanted families and children and, God forbid, wanted some time to stay home when they had kids.

I'm happy to see now that so many younger women are confronting their choices with a much more realistic view of life. Many are taking time off from work to stay home with their children. Many are working flexible hours. Some are in high-powered jobs and have nannies and babysitters. I look around the newsroom and see some of the smartest people are women. All are making different choices. Some will go to the top, some will decide not to. Some will wait and do it later. Fine.

Slaughter's solution to the problem of having it all is totally unrealistic, certainly any time soon. She says to close the leadership gap we should "elect a woman president and 50 women senators to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders."

Great idea. Only problem is it doesn't solve our immediate problem, because that will take time.

Slaughter points out, rightly, that she is writing for a certain demographic. We are talking here about women who have the luxury of making choices. Most women in America don't. They have to work.

The role of religion in the world has an impact on all women, regardless of income. There is hardly any religion that does not treat women as second-class citizens and, consequently, that has to have an effect on the thinking of both sexes. When religions accept us as equals it will make a huge difference in the way women view themselves and the worlds around them.

As Nora said at the end of her Wellesley speech, "Did I say it was hard? Yes, but let me say it again so that none of you can ever say the words, 'Nobody said it was so hard.' But it's also incredibly interesting. You are so lucky to have that life as an option."

So it's time to stop whining and moaning about how we can't have it all or boasting that we can. I once knew a shrink whose mantra was "You get what you want." The point is that we can have the lives we want.


Sally Quinn is editor-in-chief of the Washington Post's On Faith online religion discussion and a Post columnist.


-- The Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 A15

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