The question no man ever gets asked


Anne Summers


Once, if a newspaper or magazine wanted to sell extra copies, it would put a banner headline "What Do Women Want?" on the front page. These days, the attention-grabber is "Can Women Have It All?"

We've come a long way, baby.

If once we were vapid creatures who, in the view of Sigmund Freud, could not decide what we wanted, now we are voracious careerists who want the lot. That the question is even posed is, of course, gratuitous and demeaning, since the "all" refers to having a job and a family. If you are a bloke, you can have it "all" without anyone raising an eyebrow - or even asking how you manage to "do it all".

This was a source of particular irritation to Nicola Roxon who resigned as attorney-general earlier this month and who is leaving the Parliament at the next election because she wants to be at home for her young daughter. She often mentioned in media interviews that it really riled her that she was constantly asked how she managed to combine being a cabinet minister with being a wife and mother, whereas her male colleagues who were husbands and fathers were never asked the same question.


It is not just frustrating but, in fact, scandalous that the myriad assumptions and, let's face it, prejudices that lie behind this question have not really altered in more than half a century. If we didn't still think, deep down, that women's primary function is to breed and raise children, the question of "all" simply would not arise.

If we truly accepted the proposition that women and men are equal, and equally entitled to enjoy having a family and having a job, we wouldn't be wasting our time having this conversation.

Instead, we'd perhaps be telling our kids about the bad old days before the harmonisation of work, family and school. We'd be rolling our eyes at the memory of school holidays that were so out of sync with parental holidays, at the way school finished hours before the end of the office day, leaving parents at their wits end with how to cope.

Craziest of all, how childcare had been seemingly designed by a sadist who expected mothers - yes, you wouldn't believe it but it was the mums who had to do it back then - to drop kids off on their way to work and then hightail it back through peak-hour traffic to pick them before the centre closed. As for what it all cost, well, women would tell their incredulous offspring, I practically worked for nothing by the time I paid childcare fees.

The kids were also amazed to hear that a society that was supposed to be managed by economic rationalists had been unable to figure out that enabling women to get into the full-time workforce in the same proportions as men would increase gross domestic product by 13 per cent (and this was after all the services needed to support women's employment - childcare and so on - had been purchased).

There'd be other horror stories but by now the kids would be bored witless at hearing accounts of the olden days when society was so, well, stupid. They take utterly for granted that both women and men "can have it all" because that's the natural state of affairs, and society is organised around ensuring that it all works smoothly and equitably.

Some societies are well on their way to doing this. They tend to be in Europe. Perhaps surprisingly, countries such as France that we might have viewed as rather conservative when it came to gender matters, have worked out a way for women to combine having both fertility and workforce participation rates that far outstrip ours. As far as I know, there is no talk of "having it all" in France. They just get on with it.

In Australia we are censorious towards women who don't conform to our (impossible) ideals. We prefer women with children to stay home (they can worry later about losing their skills and their confidence and their super), or if they insist on combining motherhood with having a job, we expect them to be totally stressed out all the time. That'll teach you, we seem to be saying.

Then there's the women who have had the temerity to have successful careers and neglected to have children. Our two leading female politicians, Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop, are both alternately castigated and pitied for being in this category. Not for not "having it all" but for choosing a different path. And seeming pretty damned satisfied with their choices, too.

Most tragic of all is the fact we are still having this conversation, a full 50 years since the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a landmark book that chronicled the dissatisfaction of those highly educated, middle-class women who were fulfilling what was then considered to be their female destiny as full-time wives and mothers. There was no question whatsoever of "having it all" - and it was driving them crazy.

Friedan's book helped give rise to the modern women's movement which laid out a few markers for giving women some choices about their lives and equal rights to pursue where their dreams took them.

Back then, all the talk was about how to break down the barriers that had kept women out of the workforce and all the other places they wanted to be. It was about redesigning our lives so women could be everywhere ("A woman's place is in the House. And the Senate" was an early slogan) and do everything. No one thought for a minute that it would not be possible, once the legal barriers were removed.

And it was - for a decade or so. It wasn't until the 1980s that the backlash began and women were suddenly being told not just that they couldn't "have it all" but that, actually, they didn't want it. Suddenly it was too hard, too stressful. The long march backwards had begun.