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We cannot have it all because we no longer have dreams

This has been the week of backlash against feminism. In fairness, it is always backlash week against feminism but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece at The Atlantic, Why women still can’t have it all, has revived some of those sentiments. Feminism has failed us, she implies. We were promised a balance between career and private life. We were told that if you worked hard and juggled between your work, your children, your spouse and your social life, you too, could be successful. If your spouse embraces this model of cooperation and takes on their fair share of housework and child rearing then you could also reach the highest echelons of power and, in the words of existential philosopher Mr. Spock, live long and prosper. All it took, we were told, was commitment and creativity.

All of this is, of course, pure unadulterated bullshit.

Ms. Slaughter delivers a long moment of rhetorical deceit. Of course we cannot have it all because we were never supposed to have it all in the first place. The fact that not even once does she question the inherent systems of inequality created by capitalism and corporate dictate is the first alarming sign in her long piece that fails to contextualize her own position in relation to well, pretty much everyone else. Ms. Slaughter laments that she couldn’t manage the pressure of her work, her teenage son’s puberty and her other family and social obligations. Nobody could possibly do that. And right there is the first form of exclusion which is not just about her status as “woman” but as active participant in this model that is set up specifically to leave some out and create scarcity. Unless you belong to the very top (and she did, but obviously not high enough to merit full inclusion and success), you are always going to be purposefully left out so that you can continue fighting in the supposed “race to the top” by further alienating and participating in the creation of further exclusion to prevent others from taking your job. Such is the system in which she failed: set up so that, in order to succeed, you need to make sure others fail.

I do feel for Ms. Slaughter. I am not being trite. I do feel for those women who did everything they thought was “the right thing” and still did not manage to succeed. In a lot of ways, I even admire her (as I admire Hillary Clinton). Obviously these are exceptional women who deserve praise not only for their hard work but also for their finely honed intellectual and political skills. However, I cannot pretend that their success would, in some ways, improve my chances of success or the chances of other millions of young girls and women. Moreover, in a sense, their success implies further suffering and possible death for women the world over. By being active participants in State administrations specifically created to further the gap between the haves and the have nots, their success is directly proportional to the oppression of other women. And right there is where Ms. Slaughter lost me in her piece. She failed to account for that, even as a footnote, as an aside, as a mere figure of speech in passing. Not only did she personally fail because the system is rigged so that we all fail, but she did not take into account how she contributed to make it worse for million others, domestically and overseas.

We are women, hence, we are part of the underclass. However, and this is where I get meta Marxist (yes, there has to be such a thing as meta Marxism and if there isn’t we should invent it), there are underclasses within the underclass. Women of Color, trans* women (and of course, trans* WoC), migrant women, women living in some parts of the so called Global South, women who do not conform with stereotypical notions of gender identification, lesbian and queer women, lesbian and queer WoC, women with disabilities and of course WoC with disabilities, trans* women with disabilities, trans* WoC with disabilities etc etc. I could go on and on with this list. The hierarchies even within this underclass that are enforced, fostered and promoted within our current modes of sociopolitical organization. This is the reality for this category that Ms. Slaughter calls “woman”. However, it is not “woman” as she defines it, but a very specific subset of women that are allowed to even have a go at success. Only some women are allowed to try.

We cannot escape participation in any of this (unless, of course, one so chooses to live completely outside the system which is something very few people have the privilege of opting into). Which is to say, I do not point fingers at people who do whatever it takes to lead a life of comfort. I understand this and, moreover, by virtue of living in Europe, I cannot escape this set up either. I consume, I produce, therefore I participate. However, I do have to bring up my disillusion with most of mainstream feminism. I do have to denounce this hegemonic feminist discourse that promotes success without questioning the very context in which said success is supposed to take place. I do have to protest the increasing promotion of corporate participation as a measure of “feminist achievement” and women’s prosperity. Because for as long as we do not question at whose expense we are succeeding, we are going to continue creating a deeper gap between those women who are allowed to succeed and those who never stood a chance to begin with. We are not meant to have it all in our current set up. Moreover, we are supposed to always aspire to more. This is a model based on some nonsensical idea of permanent growth and the exploitation of more and more resources and people to uphold it. The perversity of it all is that we hardly have the chance to even consider alternatives. Who has the luxury of time for debate or political/ social organization when it is necessary to work two jobs, take care of children, family, social life and some scarce leisure time in order to barely survive? We cannot have it all, in part, because we are forced to participate in the illusion that we can have it all. And a growing portion of feminism has taken to the sidelines, in this role of reactive respondent to the news cycle, barely fighting so that what we have so far achieved cannot be taken away.

The truth is, we no longer seem to have dreams. We have abandoned the creative potential of political reverie to embrace the siren call of “breaking the glass ceiling”. Mainstream feminism (and by this, I mean, the feminist discourse that has the most presence and power across media, be it corporate or independent) has become a tool to enforce the current system of inequalities. We no longer present an alternative. We want full participation in what already is. And again, I say bullshit to that. I want my feminism to be a feminism of daydreaming. I want my feminism to believe in the transformative power of imagining the impossible. I want my feminism to stop chasing this faux equality that puts us on the race to be better managers of exclusion and, instead, gives us the possibility of re-thinking a future where we no longer have underclasses within the underclass. I do not want any more of this reactive feminism that is devoted to creating opportunities for the few that are allowed in detriment of the millions whose only role is to cheer other women’s success in the name of sisterhood. I want a feminism of utopias and imagination.

Then, maybe, we will be able to have it all. Even though probably, “all” would be something entirely different than how it is defined today.


  1. This is why I am devoted to you, Tiger Beatdown. Thank you.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  2. Brigid wrote:

    This is the best response to Slaughter’s piece I have seen yet. Thanks for bringing creativity and transformation back into the discussion.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  3. Maehem wrote:

    Fantastic piece.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  4. Julie wrote:

    Yes, yes, yes! I feel like cheering this. There is so much here that articulates what I feel when mainstream feminist pieces deride women like me, who have decided that trying to fight my way up some corporate ladder is not what I want to aspire to.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  5. Lindsay wrote:

    This article sums up everything I believe about feminism and capitalism. Beautifully written and definitely thought provoking.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  6. Shinoib wrote:

    I agree with this.

    The other thing I thought when I read this piece was “If everybody has to work 60 hour weeks, why don’t they hire some more fucking people and go home on time?”

    But that would violate the assumption that working 60 hour weeks is what you do when you REALLY CARE.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  7. tiernafeminista wrote:

    Spectacular as usual, Ms. Dzodan. Thank you so much.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Wench wrote:

    YES. There’s no questioning of the rest of the status quo, no questioning of class divides, no questioning of the system, no questioning of what success is and should mean. Do we have to live in the system as it is? Yes, for the moment. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I am so glad to see more people saying this.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Alice wrote:

    Mind blown. What a challenging and brilliant piece.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  10. aisha1908 wrote:

    it always warms my heart to see the championing of voices/dreams/goals of non-cisgender non-abled non-hetero non-white women. thank you for your fantastic piece.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  11. Other Becky wrote:

    My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  12. Kristin wrote:

    It’s always frustrated me that these conversations about feminism and “having it all” assume that working in the private corporate sector is the be all and end all of working motherhood. I know many working moms and none of them that I can think of work in that world. I know social workers and teachers, nurses and professors, therapists and entrepeneurs but the discourse around “working moms” always focuses on middle class white women in the corporate world.
    Thanks for this piece, my feminist moms group will love it.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  13. laura wrote:

    Beautiful. I saw so many of my (female) friends posting that Atlantic article on Facebook and Twitter and it just made me mad, but I didn’t quite know how to phrase a coherent response. So thank you for this.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Doone wrote:

    Tiger Beatdown not only delivers the best beatdowns, but the best bring-ups. Your success at describing the root issues that underly Anne-Maries article is beautiful. Your writing is fantastic and your message is moving.

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink
  15. “I want my feminism to stop chasing this faux equality that puts us on the race to be better managers of exclusion and, instead, gives us the possibility of re-thinking a future where we no longer have underclasses within the underclass.” *cheer*

    So much these days seems to be aimed not at achieving genuine equity but at making the privileged feel virtuous because they’ve ‘made progress’ or created a faux solution. I don’t wear fake fur: I don’t like the idea of wearing real fur, so I don’t wear faux fur either. Likewise I don’t want a faux solution to discrimination, I want actual equality. For example, when I apply to be a volunteer in an well-known local festival, I shouldn’t be forced to disclose my disability or lie in order to apply online. Just one teeny-tiny very recent example.

    I’ve been out of sociological circles in recent years after getting the shit kicked out of me (part of my experience of disability discrimination), so I may be out of date, but you’re one of the few people outside of disability culture who’s acknowledged that there are underclasses within underclasses. I felt like cheering. If you’re vision impaired you’re ranked below physical disability and intellectual disability (according to the disability advocacy training I had in 2007, run by disabled people) and if you can ‘pass’ as normal, then you’re out in the cold, just like a half-caste, rejected by both ancestral peoples.

    Slightly off-topic, but it’s a fact that if you’re a disabled woman you’re more likely to be unemployed than an equally disabled man.

    (you may not be outside disability culture: I haven’t read everything here yet.)

    Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  16. Caroline wrote:

    I think you misunderstood the purpose of her article and the audience to which she was writing.

    Thursday, June 28, 2012 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  17. Tess wrote:

    “Only some women are allowed to try.”. Thank you for this piece!

    Friday, June 29, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  18. MikeV wrote:

    @Caroline: I think Flavia understood that the article was addressed to privileged women with advanced degrees from prestigious universities. The point is that their success involves stepping on the millions of women beneath them.

    So either Slaughter’s piece was deliberately self-serving to a disgusting degree, incredibly condescending to all women outside her category, and possibly just plain fucking evil (“come on ladies, one day we’ll be able to order remote bombings on Third World peoples, too!”)…or it just comes from the typical ignorance that a highly privileged position so often affords.

    Friday, June 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  19. Uh-ti-uh wrote:

    So glad to read an article by you, Flavia. I’ve been missing your wisdom! Thanks for another great post!

    Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink
  20. GallingGalla wrote:

    You nailed it, Ms. Dzodan.

    As long as (western) feminism is of the “I deserve to get my piece of the pie and step on everybody who’s not like me” variety, I will continue to have a very difficult time identifying as a feminist. I’m so sick of mainstream feminism, with its near exclusive focus on the concerns of white middle-class cis able-bodied women and its demands for “sisterhood” from those of us* they step on.

    If radical feminism hadn’t been hijacked by transphobes who twisted it into something unrecognizable, I’d say that’s the way to go, but. When I mention radical feminism, most people get visions of a “wombyn” wielding a labrys at “men” (that is, trans women) and forget that “radical” means wanting to rip out oppressive systems by the roots instead of trying to gain top-rung admission to those oppressive systems.

    *I’m a white, middle-class, US-ian, physically and mentally disabled trans woman.

    Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  21. Carla wrote:

    I can’t help but read this and think that working class women that I know don’t care about any -ism that doesn’t bring jobs, flex-time, affordable child care, alone time, etc. While I understand the appeal for feminism to reach beyond the universe as constructed by Capitalism, this feminism of dreams will never make inroads into the lives of working class and poor women. Quite frankly, many of them want Slaughter’s privilege or they want it for their children. Feminism needs to deliver tangibles, not dreams–otherwise, what’s it good for?

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  22. THANK YOU. After having read that piece I became intensely depressed, having forgotten for a moment that Slaughter’s version of success isn’t how I define it at all. I was having a very “what’s the point of it all” moment until someone directed me here.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  23. nono wrote:

    Nice piece.
    BTW, did anyone else feel for that poor teenager whose Mum is indirectly yet publicly the-world-over accusing of ruining her career for failing to be wise? Of course, it is very futile compared to the main focus of AMS op-ed but I think it reveals a certain narcissistic attitude.

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  24. Robert wrote:

    This reminded me of something that happened early in my experience as a parent. When my husband and I adopted our first child, my supervisor (cis,white,mother) congratulated me quite warmly and wished me the best.
    The first time I had to take time off from work for a parent/teacher conference, she was QUITE distressed and disappointed, and counseled me that I should not expect the ‘luxury’ of being present in my child’s life.

    I managed to maintain my composure, and assured her that my family was FAR more important to me than my job. She never brought it up again.

    I realized much later that she had been thinking, ‘well, he’s married, his spouse can go. A man’s place is at work.’

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  25. Chelsea wrote:

    This is such a well-written response to a piece that I could hardly articulate a response for. Great work!

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  26. N wrote:

    Carla, you’re right, but what about bread AND roses?

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  27. N wrote:

    Sorry, shouldn’t have hit submit yet…

    Meant to add that roses / imagination may not be an inherent solution to the problem of getting bread, but solving that problem also means that imagination is desperately needed.

    Meaning also that feminists of all classes need to imagine and then work on how to break down the systems that keep everyone from getting bread. And work on how to get more bread to people in the meantime…

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Permalink
  28. Emily Goyins wrote:

    Thanks for this powerful post. I’m an upper-middle-class white girl trying to understand intersectionality, and the language here is complex.

    Can this be summed up (simplified) as: “mainstream” feminism is racist? Because Ms. Slaughter et al are ignoring the injustices we (white women) ourselves perpetuate? Trying to “have what old white men have,” as a goal in itself?

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  29. Emily Goyins wrote:

    …and I didn’t mention or think about heteronormativity. I’m straight, and I think about straight people first. I assume straightness unless told otherwise. Privilege.

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  30. Cavoyo wrote:

    @Carla Capital requires labor in order for it to be valuable. If every laborer became a boss, there would be no one left to boss around, and being a boss would have no value. Your “tangibles” are the real dream since they are based on a fallacy of composition.

    It’s understandable that poor women want to live like Slaughter. Poverty is not fun, and moving up within capitalism seems easier than abolishing it. But as long as they continue to try and succeed within capitalism they will only perpetuate its oppression, if not on themselves then on others.

    Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Permalink