Why Some Women Still Can’t Have It All

Some moms stay home, some are CEOs, but class and politics make either option impossible for many.


(The Root) — Before women had it all, they did it all. My mother — married when my sister and I were young; later single — held together a household with two children by doing urban farming and canning, window glazing, carpentry, painting and electricity. She brought home the bacon, fried it up in a pan and taught me how to assemble furniture and edge the wall-and-ceiling line when changing the colors of my bedroom. She came from a family that included a long line of Virginia builders and farmers, people who expected to work to make money, work at raising children and also make house and home literally by their own hands.

I bring this up not as a counterpoint but as an inflection point to the rekindled debate over whether women can have it all. An Atlantic-magazine article gone viral — written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department administration official and now a professor at Princeton — is being framed as a salvo in a debate between two groups of privileged women. The women in the first class (Slaughter included) are taking a step back from high-powered jobs to parent more effectively.

The second (let’s call them the School of Sheryl — i.e., devotees of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sandberg, who leaves the office every day at 5:30 p.m.) publicly urge us to power though all gender barriers. Sandberg, as she began to go public with her exhortations about women’s leadership, hired a researcher to back up her facts. But did she spend time thinking about the race, class and political implications of her words?

My mother’s life would have been immeasurably easier if our federal and local political systems supported working mothers the way some other Western nations do. I remember her worrying about the quality and cost of day care after my parents separated and she returned to full-time work. She had a graduate degree in communications, but as a black single mother in Baltimore, she needed cash on the table, and the work she took often did not reflect her full credentials.

What would another type of world for working mothers look like? In her recent book, The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation, author Sharon Lerner outlines just how behind the curve the United States is in providing for children, working families and mothers. Sixty percent of American women who work full time would prefer to work part time. Benefits, of course, rarely accrue to part-time workers here (and sometimes not to full-time ones).

Parents in Sweden (male or female) can get partial financial benefits for up to 16 months after the birth of a child and be guaranteed their job upon return. A third of Swedish women work part time. And perhaps most important, parents of children under the age of 8 can work a three-quarter schedule and still have benefits. U.S. women have few federal protections or benefits after childbirth, and certainly not a federal option to work part time with benefits.