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On A New Women's Movement: Going Beyond 'Having It All'

…The starting point for most discussions of women’s issues is the observation that women earn less money than men, with income equality as the implicit touchstone for the desirability of policies, personal or public. But defining one’s well-being in terms of one’s income is not self-evidently correct. In fact, it is extremely problematic to argue that one’s income is an accurate measure of one’s wealth, even on strictly economic grounds.

The overall claim is even more problematic if we include, as we ought, the question What is the good life, the life well-lived? This is the philosophical question that has engaged the attention and efforts of the deepest and most thoughtful of us, since time immemorial. Indeed, it is only in the late twentieth century, when people have become so obsessed with money, that anyone would even consider the question of well-being in terms of one’s success in earning and accumulating money.

And so, I want to move in a different direction, offering a new perspective on the questions raised in conventional feminist discussions. How should we behave within the labor force, and what should our goals there be? How should we interact with our husbands, indeed, what kinds of husbands should we seek? I will address one of the strategies that feminists have suggested to women of my generation and show why I think the strategy is flawed. Then I will present two alternative strategies.

The Myth of Having it All

Consider the slogan that was for many of my generation both a personal goal and a political rallying-cry: Having it all. When stated as a goal, the idea of “having it all” is frankly impossible. For this goal assumes that women do not have to face constraints, that there are no choices that exclude other choices. In economic jargon, this objective assumes that women do not have budget constraints and face no opportunity costs.

But plainly, women, like men, must make choices. No one gets to “have it all.” The attempt to live according to this objective has made frazzled wrecks out of a lot of us. We scurry from home to work to the day care center and back home, wondering why there is never enough time to do everything, why we are always exhausted, why we are always snapping at someone, and why our lives lack contentment and serenity.

The fact is that we are frazzled because we are not facing the reality of our own finiteness. We refuse to accept the fact that the meaningful choice of anything involves the exclusion of other options. We have adopted an ideology that requires us to be perpetually overcommitted. And a person who is overcommitted is a person who is refusing to face reality.

Now you might say, “But men get to have it all. Why don’t they have to choose between family and career?” And we arouse ourselves into a self-righteous anger as we pose these rhetorical questions.

And this leads us to the fact that “having it all” was, for many of us, a political agenda as well as a personal goal. For as we have convinced ourselves that we should not have to face choices, that we should be able to have everything we want, we look around for someone to blame when the inevitable reality sets in. And we usually blame a man, or men generally. If only my husband would do more around the house, if only the government would subsidize child care, if only men were not prejudiced against me, then I could have it all.

But the fact is that men do have to face choices also. A man who chooses to dedicate himself to his career may be married and may father children as well. But if he spends eighty hours a week at work, he has a family only in the most perfunctory sense. If you believe that he loses nothing by making his job the most important priority in his life, you are very much mistaken. The thought that it might cost nothing could only be valid in a world in which the only objectives are money, status, and power. That conclusion would be unthinkable in a sane, humane, world.

It is perfectly obvious that such a job is a choice that excludes other choices. No one can build a lasting, loving relationship with another person in the time left over from an eighty hour a week job. Instead, we can only use the other person under such conditions. And as Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) wrote in Love and Responsibility, it is a serious wrong to use another person. Despite this simple counsel from common sense morality, we might nevertheless convince ourselves that we are entitled to have a relationship, even when we are unwilling to devote any time to learn about, care for, and give to, the other person.

If we enter into our married life with this thought, we will create a disaster for ourselves. For we will seek out partners who, for some reason or other, will allow us to use them. Perhaps they do not have enough definition to their characters to protest against being used. Perhaps we choose someone as ambitious as ourselves, so that they do not object to being used. In short, we will tend to choose someone who will not bother us too much, so that we can devote ourselves to what are plainly our highest priorities, namely, our jobs.

And when the marriage dissolves, we have no right to be shocked. The marriage did not end; there was never a marriage there in the first place. The relationship dissolves when that truth can be evaded no longer.

The Aristotelian Vision

If Having it All does not help us to make sense out of our new experiences in the labor market, what might be more helpful? I offer Live a Balanced Life as a possibility. This slogan (inspired by Aristotle) has several virtues to recommend it. First of all, it captures what is probably the best intent of the Having it All slogan. Second, it is a slogan that can be applied to men as readily as to women. And finally, Living a Balanced Life is a goal that can actually be attained.

This approach calls attention to the fact that we are finite and that we must make choices. It invites us to make our choices thoughtfully. Moreover, our success at living a balanced life is something that only we can judge. It is, by its nature, an objective that focuses on the interior life, not simply on the visible externals.

Having it all, in practice, means having a career, a marriage and children, a set of simple demographics, readily observable by other people. All too often, women judge themselves and others by this “Super-Mom” criterion. Many women are suffering unnecessarily from these judgements.

But living a balanced life is not something that another person can observe. Oh, they can tell well enough if someone is way off the mark: the eighty hour a week lawyer, for instance, clearly fails any reasonable balance test. But, for the most part, this is an entirely interior judgement. And, in my opinion, that is a good thing. For ultimately, it is none of anybody else’s business anyway.

Had we followed this strategy men and women together would have tried to steer a moderate course through life. We could view the different tendencies among men and women as opportunities for us to moderate each other’s excesses. Men can encourage the women in their lives to be more aggressive with respect to the outside world when that seems to be appropriate or necessary for her best interests. Women can remind the men in their lives that winning is not everything; that the life of the home and the heart is precious and to be cherished; that they need to admit their mistakes and their weaknesses from time to time, in the interest of maintaining friendships and intimacy.

The Aristotelian vision of the ideal marriage is friendship. The modern notion of spousal equality suggests that justice should be the guiding principle within the marriage. But Aristotle reminds us that a friendship consists of more than justice. A marriage, like a friendship, is more than a contract.

The Judeo-Christian Vision

Another alternative vision is Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. This, too, has much to recommend it. First of all, loving your neighbor as yourself requires a healthy self-esteem, just to get started. At the same time, we are invited to moderate the self-esteem required to love ourselves, because our attention is immediately directed to the fact that we are not the only persons in the universe. It is a self-esteem that is directed outside ourselves. It is a self-esteem that is not self-centered.

Like Living a Balanced Life, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself is a program that can be applied as readily to men as to women. What kind of world would we be living in, what kind of marriages would we have, if our husbands loved us as they loved themselves? What kind of world could we create, what kind of families could we build, if we loved our husbands as we loved ourselves?

There is, I think, some asymmetry in these rhetorical questions. The thought experiment, What if my husband loved me as he loved himself? leads in a different direction than the thought experiment, What if I loved my husband as I love myself? And this in turn might be interpreted as continuing evidence of the deep cultural chasm between men and women. But we could just as well allow this thought to lead us to a quite different conclusion.

We could view marriage as an institution for the mutual growth and education of the partners. In this vision, the relationship between a husband and wife should lead each of them to greater maturity, depth, and perfection. In this view of marriage, the differences between men and women do not signify the inferiority of one person to the other. Rather, the differences illustrate the incompleteness of each person in comparison with the Perfection of God. No one gets to gloat over their spouse’s failings, because both people have failings of their own. And the job of personal growth is full-time, which really leaves no time for focusing on the weaknesses of anyone else. We especially ought to avoid being judgmental toward our partner, who is in a position to be of great help to us in our own journey.

I might add here that the principle of indissoluble marriage is most important in this context. For often, our wish to mask our own faults is quite powerful, as is our capacity for self-deception. When our partners point us toward areas of potential growth, we often resist, knowing what they have to say. And so it can happen that we are most likely to run from the relationship at the exact moment when our partner can be of the deepest and most lasting help to us.

Missed Opportunities

If we had chosen Live a Balanced Life as our slogan, the whole feminist movement could have had a distinctly Aristotelian ring to it. If we had chosen Love Your Neighbor as Yourself as our approach, the feminist movement could have drawn upon the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In either of these approaches, we would have been drawing upon the best and deepest and most thoughtful aspects of our traditions.

Instead, we chose Having it All and equality of income as our goals. And in so doing, we embraced a shallow materialism and a mindless egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, much of modern feminism is distinctly hostile not only to traditional gender roles, but to all of Western civilization.

In short, the women’s movement has missed some opportunities. We could have humanized the work place. Instead, we bureaucratized the home. We have increasingly demanded that our husbands be like ourselves, sometimes creating elaborate, implicit–or even explicit–score cards to ensure that they do so. We demand child care, so that we can leave the home and compete with men at work. We have abandoned the best that is in us, so that we can emulate the worst that is in men. When we harden our hearts to place a six week old baby into the care of strangers, who will moderate us?

Conclusion

This indictment of the women’s movement as ordinarily understood may sound disheartening. But in fact, I think the opportunity for a different kind of women’s movement still exists. For the alternative visions that I suggest are still within our reach. These visions lie within our power to choose. We can address the universal issues of work and marriage in different ways. Instead of increasing women’s financial security as a means of coping with the instability of marriage, we could work on improving our marriages.

But this different kind of women’s movement requires a very different mindset. We need to face some of the basic realities of the human condition: our finiteness and our imperfection. We need to let go of the illusion that we can and should change everything and everyone around us. For this distracts us from our primary task of changing ourselves in all the many ways that we can be changed for the better. And we need to trust that if we change our corner of the world, we really are doing our part to create a better world. Ultimately, these are the truly rational choices for us.