In her recent First Things article, Elizabeth Corey makes a bold critique of contemporary feminism. She argues that we contemporary women, as inheritors of feminism, have been told that we can “have it all,” that we ought to pursue excellence in the same manner as men—that is, in our education and in our careers. But, we have discovered, these pursuits come at a high cost.
“Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” the 2012 Atlantic article by tenured Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, illustrates this cost. Even though Slaughter was director of policy planning at the State Department, her dream job, she found herself more concerned with the day-to-day issues of her son’s life than with her high-profile government work. Her achievement of professional excellence, she realized, came at the cost of her family relationships.
Are women willing to sacrifice family and relationships to pursue and achieve such excellence? Is such a sacrifice worth it? And can we women really have it all?
For Corey, there is simply “no happy harmony” for women. Women cannot have it all, and they will never reconcile the pursuit of personal excellence in a profession and family life. She argues that the virtues required for pursuing excellence are antithetical to the virtues required for family life. Excellence in the development of one’s talents and career requires a focus solely on oneself, a “self-culture.” Family life requires an opposite disposition, a sacrificial gift of self that cannot be reconciled with what is necessary for personal achievement. There is no possible balance between these two radically different “orientations of the self,” Corey concludes.
Corey’s article assumes that there is simply no way for a woman to participate in the workplace, in the public sphere, in the pursuit of any excellence while also engaging the kind of self-gift necessary for the flourishing of her family. Perhaps she is right. According to a recent Forbes poll, a majority of women, even among those with advanced degrees from top universities, would prefer to stay at home with their children.
But even the ones who stay at home don’t “have it all” either. The author of the prominent Harvard Homemaker blog writes of being harshly criticized by some readers for “wasting” her top-quality education on childrearing and homemaking. Educated women who choose to stay at home are often scorned for purportedly refusing to develop their talents or to contribute their gifts to the world.
Admittedly, Corey’s analysis resonates with the experience of many. Although she may be right in arguing that there is no perfect work/life balance for women, I am less certain of Corey’s premise that there exist two radically opposed and ultimately irreconcilable ways of being. Why does Corey assume that the pursuit of a woman’s excellences and talents is limited to the office or the university? She assumes that excellence requires a radical focus on self. But is it even possible for us to pursue excellence outside our relationships?
Corey fails to acknowledge that we actually achieve our excellences through relationships. Is not the very gift of oneself to another a means of achieving a kind of excellence? Perhaps there is a unique, distinctly feminine excellence to be discovered—one that witnesses to the great paradox that all human persons reach their highest excellence through self-gift.
Perhaps we have not adequately explored this idea of a feminine excellence because of accusations of being “gender essentialists.” To be a gender essentialist is considered by most academics to be a great insult. However, I see it as plain common sense: men and women are different. They are not the same. Why, then, should we treat their pursuit of excellence as identical? With respect to professional success, research shows that even though the proportion of women in the workforce has increased, women are still more likely than men to adjust their work schedules to fit the needs of their families.
But perhaps our consideration of authentic feminine excellence has been stifled by something else, the discussion of which is curiously missing in Corey’s article: contraception. With such ready access and widespread use of contraception, women are often tacitly, and sometimes quite explicitly, expected to delay childbearing or forgo it altogether in order to advance their education or their career.
Contraception disrupts the order of marriage, sex, and childrearing. As a result, women often feel tremendous pressure from employers, colleagues, doctors, neighbors, and sometimes even their own friends and family members regarding the number of children they ought to have and when they should have them. If a woman should venture to have more than the respectable one boy and one girl, she is often lectured about the various contraceptive measures she should take to prevent such an “irresponsible” thing from happening again.
It’s all too easy to accept the assumption that families extending beyond one or two children will somehow slow down our economic development, stunt our personal fulfillment, or stifle our personal talents. But the prevalence of this view really reveals that we are in need of some serious self-reflection.
Why do we view other human persons, especially our own children, as stumbling blocks to our own development, fulfillment, and flourishing? How can we expect to explore a truly creative and feminine excellence if we insist that women must pursue and attain excellence in a fashion identical to that of men?
An authentic feminine excellence must include, not preclude, a woman’s ability to bear children. The feminist ideology touting contraception as the key to women’s flourishing has perhaps stifled our creative, innovative exploration of the feminine pursuit of excellence. This false and distorted ideological assumption is the real tragedy, and it is constantly reinforced.
Many current political policies, for example, aim to support such an ideology, as Helen Alvaré has explained. And we export these ideological policies with well-funded vigor to the rest of the world. But perhaps we need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves why we have accepted it in the first place, especially since it has not given us the happiness it promised.
We ought to question the purported value of contraception and abortion, and we should speak more freely about the damage they have caused to women’s health, happiness, and flourishing. We need to challenge the assumption that children are a hindrance to personal development or career advancement. The sacrifices that both women and men must make to raise children are very real, but so are the sacrifices one makes to advance a career or pursue a talent. Why have we idolized careers and talents at the expense of children and human relationships?
As a college student and later a graduate student, I never once had a professor talk with me about how my choice of profession would impact me if I wanted to get married and have children. The assumption is always that if you should marry (or, even worse, get pregnant!), then your future career is over. However, some women are seeking creative solutions to these problems. For example, organizations such as Feminists for Life have established successful university programs and crafted legislation to help mothers who are pursuing higher education.
But of course, we can do much more to help families flourish. We can articulate and live out a vision of marriage that encourages husbands and wives to be attentive to their spouses’ physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and intellectual well-being. We can also nurture relationships within our community. Strong, tight-knit communities can not only help families with childcare, they can also give both mothers and fathers creative options for developing their talents.
I am hopeful that by reconsidering the legacy of the feminist movement, we might be better able to find creative solutions for women, while acknowledging the real sacrifices that must also be made by both women and men. Women might not be able to achieve “a happy harmony,” or to sustain the perfect balance between career and family, since we are indeed limited beings. However, we can happily flourish in the midst of real, concrete human relationships and in the midst of a variety of good and excellent human pursuits.