Maxed Out

tags: feminism



Ruth Rosen is the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2006). She is a professor emerita of history at UC Davis and a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Societal Change at UC Berkeley.

One of the most persistent myths about the modern women’s movement is that activists believed we could “have it all.” On the contrary, we knew it was impossible. That is why we demanded universal child care for parents, paid parental leave for men and women, government-subsidized day care, on-site care for children, equal care of children and the home by men, and part-time jobs, health care and flexible work schedules for parents. These reforms were common in most European countries. In the United States, they challenged our deeply held belief in individual solutions.

So from where did the myth come that a woman could “have it all” without “doing it all”? Helen Gurley Brown’s popular 1982 book, “Having It All,” certainly popularized the idea that women could, in fact, have everything—a career, children, a husband and great sex. Even before her book appeared, however, magazines had begun offering advice to the new working mothers just entering the labor market. They prescribed how women should dress for success, assert their authority, flaunt their skills, reach for the glass ceiling, give their children “quality time” and end the day with the sexual passion of a woman who did none of the above. In short, women gained the impossible “goal” of becoming the perfect working mom. They could have it all, if they did it all.

This madness has hardly gone unnoticed. During the last 40 years, dozens of books have described and analyzed the impossibility of “having it all.” Some of these books advise women to “lean in” and reach for the glass ceiling. Few address the sticky floor that keeps most women in low-paid, marginal jobs. At least once a decade, The New York Times Magazine features an article about women who have opted out of their careers....



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