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The Impossibility of Having It All

Opinion | October 22, 2012

Women today don’t have to marry at 15. They aren’t expected to churn butter while nursing eight children, and they certainly aren’t considered the village spinster if they are still single at 30. Without a doubt, the condition of women has changed since Anne Bradstreet married her husband at the tender age of 16. Women can vote and run for office; write without the guise of a pseudonym; marry without having children; and even stay single or cultivate a loving relationship with other women. Yet Anne-Marie Slaughter still detects that something is off, and she extrapolates her findings in the July/August Atlantic cover piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” To state it simply, Slaughter finds that it’s still hard to be a woman. We can’t “have it all,” she decrees, because women are faced with the impossible choice between developing a solid career and developing a wholesome family. Slaughter laments this, and shouts to the suited businessmen of the world to adopt more female-friendly policies to mediate the problem. Women of America met Slaughter’s article with resounding applause. This woman gets it, working moms joyously proclaimed. Finally, they shouted, somebody understands my plight!

This issue, though, was not in a vacuum before Slaughter “brought it to light”—far from it. Anne Bradstreet was America’s first poet and she may, too, have been the first American woman who recognized that we can’t “have it all.” Bradstreet carried on the strict, pious life typical to Puritan women in the 17th century. However, Bradstreet wrote poetry, and this caused scandal. In the late 1600s, women were supposed to care for children (and their husbands), tend to the home, and praise God. Bradstreet’s poetry, then, was contrary to Puritan culture, and her lines address this. She could not, as a woman, have what she wanted: her family and her poetry. She was the original woman who “couldn’t have it all,” and for this reason she may well agree with many of Slaughter’s gripes. The two deviate in their goals: Bradstreet couldn’t have it all, yes; but she did not want “it all,” either. Bradstreet simply wanted respect and equality while Slaughter pushes for more—and then some. Slaughter’s cry is entitled and waxes whiny. Anne Bradstreet just wanted “some,” and we’d all be better off to want the same.

Certainly, the act of wanting basic equality between men and women is not irritating. Women fought gracefully and tirelessly for the rights to vote and to work. All too often throughout American history, women have felt as though they have been vying for a spot in a man’s world. It is around this sentiment that Bradstreet’s and Slaughter’s frustration centers. This feeling is especially poignant when a woman wishes to balance a career with her family life. Men have historically been able to do so easily, while women feel greater tension. Instead of making concessions and sacrifices to diminish this impossibility, Slaughter notices that women are made to feel they need to “rise up the corporate ladders as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” Likewise, in her piece “Prologue,” Bradstreet addresses those who say her “hand a needle better fits”—namely, Puritan men. These men, she continues, cast despite “on female wits.” Puritan men staunchly believed in a woman’s position in the home; they couldn’t conceive of a woman crafting beautiful poems or otherwise performing extra-domestic activities. These lines of prose and poetry constitute what I will, from here on out, refer to as the Superwoman Myth, as initially conceived by John Woodbridge.

To combat the inevitable criticism of Bradstreet’s work by Puritan men, her brother-in-law John Woodbridge wrote a preface to her volume. Here, he ascertains that the poems are “the work of a woman, honored and esteemed where she lives, for her gracious demeanor… her pious conversion… and discrete managing of her family occasions.” Further, he emphasizes that “these poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments.” In these few lines, Woodbridge ominously outlines the Superwoman. Because Puritans pigeonholed women into the home, Bradstreet couldn’t possibly have written poetry unless she took great pains to do so. Woodbridge perpetuates the idea of the woman doing it all and being it all in order to “have it all.” Woodbridge’s depiction of Bradstreet’s piety, sleeplessness, and family management foreshadow many of Slaughter’s women: the late 30-something fighting desperately with biology to conceive a child; the female professor keying 1:11 into her microwave instead of 1:00 to save precious seconds in the morning; and the city lawyers lying to their bosses in order to take children to doctor’s appointments. Unfortunately, Woodbridge’s championship of the female high-efficiency robot has grown with America, and men and women alike continue to support this illusion.

Bradstreet herself expresses these Puritan gender ideals in some of her poems. Of course, Bradstreet is not trying to demand more of women or put insurmountable pressure on them; rather, she is merely reflecting the values of her culture and her religion. When Bradstreet writes that her father is “most truly honored” and “worthy,” she is not intentionally insinuating that men are superior. She continues, in “To Her Father with Some Verses,” to say that she owes her father a “bond” that “remains in force unto this day.” While these lines suggest that women are indebted to their men for their superiority and wealth, Bradstreet does not consciously try to subjugate women. Clearly, in “The Prologue,” Bradstreet demonstrates her desire for more gender equality. Regardless, she is a product of her time, and though she may wish to be able to write freely and publish poetry as a woman, she still holds certain values as normative, including the reciprocal, subordinate relationship between men and women.

So, it turns out, Slaughter and Bradstreet and all the women in between could not have Slaughter’s vaguely powerful “all.” Bradstreet led a wholesome domestic life but did not feel fulfilled professionally. Slaughter suffers the inverse fate. In order to combat this, she believes in policy changes that favor working mothers and wives. Companies could synch their work day hours with typical school hours. Better yet, she suggests, the government could decree that the Senate be composed equally of 50 men and 50 women. Far-fetched as some of these solutions may be, they could promote ease of work-life balance for both men and women. The difference between Slaughter’s central argument and Bradstreet’s does not lie in these proposed solutions. I think Anne Bradstreet would fully condone women sitting on Ipswich’s town council and working day jobs while their children studied. Anne Bradstreet, though, wouldn’t use these measures as a means to procure wild success in every facet imaginable. Superhuman achievement was never her prerogative. She would support female involvement because it would bring fairness to her society. Slaughter writes her long-winded piece in an effort to propose ways in which women can have all they want, as though women are entitled to “it all,” and men already have it. She doesn’t just want equal pay and fair working conditions; she wants to have one-hundred percent of her family life, one-hundred percent of her social life, and one-hundred percent of her professional life. Unfortunately for Slaughter and similarly ambitious women, nobody can have three-hundred percent of anything. We only have 100 percent of our lives—sometimes not even that—and part of being an adult is making choices and sacrifices to divvy up that 100 percent.

In one of her saddest lines in “The Prologue,” Bradstreet writes, “Men can do best, and women know it well. / Preeminence in all and each is yours; / Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours.” Bradstreet was willing to let men have “preeminence” in exchange for just “some small acknowledgement” of women’s abilities and talents. She didn’t want to worry about making partner in a prestigious law firm while aching through her third trimester. Bradstreet, a woman true to her faith, recognized that “all” is unattainable on this earth—and she learned this lesson particularly difficultly in 1666, when her home burned to ashes. She says goodbye, in “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666,” to her house, with “Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity,” and, later, “Farewell, my pelf, farewell my store./ The world no longer let me love,/My hope and treasure lies above.” At one point, it seemed that Bradstreet may have had “all” that the late 1600s in colonial America could offer a woman: a wealthy; loving husband; children; and a beautiful home. In a moment, she lost it. All, she notes, is “vanity,” or futile, and the kingdom of Heaven is the only thing of true value.

It is difficult to say what social conditions lead Slaughter and so many others today to feel entitled to the trifling “all” and lament its absence. Perhaps American society’s ever-increasing expectations of women and Superwomen have led us to crave the impossible. Maybe our secularized society blinds people from seeing that “all” lies in the non-physical realm. America is, of course, known as the land of “bigger, better, faster”; and maybe these warped, materialistic values sway women into thinking that they need to have much in order to be content. Slaughter makes an interesting point when speaking about uneducated, underprivileged women, saying that they “are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have.” If people from all walks of life felt this way and lived each day with gratitude, we could start to cut each other some slack here and there, for men and for women. Nobody needs to be pressured to be “super” anything, and nobody should be concerned that they don’t “have it all.” Anne Bradstreet, so many hundreds of years ago, had it right. She set the tonal standard for feminism: assertive, yet humble. If we, men and women and all others, lived by Bradstreet’s example, would it really matter whether mothers choose to frost the soccer team’s cupcakes or dial in on that late conference call? If we all felt at peace, then probably not.