Drew Barrymore poses with her daughter Olive (who is dressed as a lobster). Photo: OWN
Without a doubt, one of the most intellectually bereft concerns of modern society has been the question of whether or not women can have it all. Posed repetitively and endlessly, in mawkish op eds and hand wringing television segments, it involves middle-class and mostly white women (a demographic in which I sit firmly) attempting to tease out the threads of an entirely useless concept with the regularity of a studiously high fibre diet.
As a query, 'having it all — can even we?' is perpetuated as the most pressing and central concern of feminists today. So vital is it to the Woman Question that I was surprised it didn't come up on Q and A's special lady fest earlier this week (although that may be because the panellists were forced to address the age old quandary of whether or not the sinister motivations of feminism have resulted in men no longer being able to open doors for women — binders and lobbies, full of women just trying to get out!)
Drew Barrymore, a woman of strength and vitality who overcame childhood trauma to succeed in a culture with far fewer happy endings for girls with tales similar to hers, weighed in on the topic earlier this month in an interview for People.
Drew Barrymore. Photo: Frederick M. Brown
“It sucks when you've worked really hard for certain things and you have to give them up because you know that you're going to miss out on your child's upbringing, or you realise that your relationship has suffered," she told People magazine at a conference on Thursday. For her, that has meant giving up directing projects in favour of spending more time with her baby.
Barrymore gave birth to her first child six months ago, which in tabloid terms means she's officially 'made it'. Never mind the fact that she crawled her way out of drug addiction to become a respected actor, producer and director. Never mind that she's parlayed her considerable clout into other business pursuits, or that she has a vested interest in combating the devastating effects of poverty .
It's abundantly clear that women — particularly the middle class, pretty white ones — aren't considered to have ascended to the status of accomplished human being until they shuck off that amateur mantle of 'woman' and become mothers. And it's here in this meaningless vacuum where the principal pursuits of feminism have become warped, degraded and made reprehensible in their navel-gazing glory.
A hierarchy of oppression needn't discount the validity of less threatening concerns. But the pernicious fixation on whether or not women can maintain professional careers rather than simply jobs (because the woman working out of necessity and not career ambition lacks that privilege of choice which has become the bugbear of women with greater means) while also wringing every last drop of the supposed joy that comes from rearing children is almost startling in its circular self indulgence and privilege. The question of whether or not women can 'have it all' steadfastly ignores the fact that many women can't and don't even have anything, let alone enough capital to begin staking their claim on the rest of the pie. To therefore witness the endless debate of this ridiculous question, as if it's the final frontier in the pursuit for women's liberation, is an exercise in mind-numbing stupidity and one that I'd argue actually reinforces regressive and limited stereotypes of women.
I'm not even really sure what 'having it all' is supposed to look like. Is it being enabled to have a meaningful, satisfying career and a family to go home to at the end of the day? Because that seems to take a rather limited and stultifying view of the complexities of human existence. For a supposedly feminist preoccupation, it ignores the diverse interests and realities of large proportions of women and those for whom children and/or career were either undesirable or an impossibility. According to this definition, as a child-free, unmarried woman in her early 30s, I would appear to fall rather short of having much of anything at all. But as someone rapidly coming to terms with the idea that the children I've been taught to want may not actually form part of my desires at all, I feel so much closer to having the kind of life I want without them — having 'it all' on my terms — than I surely would with them.
Similarly, I know many women of means, age and opportunity who are also child-free (I'm a feminist, after all — my phone book is filled with the numbers of witches and sorceresses) and have not suffered for it. For them, the question of 'having it all' never included the fundamental pursuit of work/life/family balance that is assumed to be innate to our gender. I also know single mothers for whom the idea of balancing career and family is less an aim than a pipedream. And speaking of single mothers, there are more women still who would view the concept of 'career' as a middle-class luxury — who are caught now in the grips of poverty due to a lack of options and a lack of government support. For these women, the daily concerns of their autonomy and dignity have rather less to do with whether or not they can continue to work as CEOs, senior account executives or small-business owners and rather more to do with whether or not they can put food on the table.
Cast your mind further to women in the developing world. The ones for whom 'choice' when it comes to family extends to which child gets to wear clothes or go to school (usually the boys), and who are denied the opportunities to control their fertility and therefore family sizes because of a lack of institutional support, medical options or funding. Or the women who travel from the Philippines to work as domestic labourers for the wealthy families who more often than not pay them a pittance, are denied labour rights and who may see the children, parents and extended families they're working tirelessly to support only once a year. Spending any more than a few seconds trifling over whether or not an uneven distribution of housework prevents women from achieving true liberation seems like an insult.
Gendered oppression shouldn't be a system of competitive comparison — being able to identify greater atrocities committed against women in certain sectors of the community or the wider world shouldn't negate other instances of oppression, even if they're less immediately threatening. And there's absolutely no doubt that women everywhere, from Karachi to Kew, are expected to shoulder the burden of the domestic load. But positioning this argument of 'having it all' as the last bastion of equality neglects to understand exactly how few women in the world have close to anything at all.
Under our current model of supposedly post-feminist society, can women have it all? No. Why not? Because a) we're not living in a post-feminist society and the systems of patriarchal oppression that have historically exploited women as resources are still very much in operation across much of the world; and b) the matter of women's liberation is still thought to be a concern for them alone, with the demands that any efforts to secure it be done not just independently of men but with the absence of impact on them entirely. The question therefore isn't 'can women have it all?' but 'how are women systemically denied equality and who's benefiting?' Gender inequality wasn't created by women and their unreasonable ambitions. It's vital that we shift the focus of women's oppression back to its beneficiaries rather than perpetuate the kinds of meaningless conversations that imagine these things are perplexing problems for women alone to solve.
Capitalism and poverty are two of the greatest contributors to the oppression of women in the world today. Focusing precious time and energy on examining whether or not a small proportion of those women are enabled to participate freely in the system that expressly shackles the rest of them seems to me to be entirely missing the point.