Are American Women Selfish?

Hey American women, you are a bunch of greedy little piggies. With all your “having it all” talk, you are no better than now-disgraced politician Anthony Weiner who just couldn’t balance his political ambitions with his need to Tweet photos of his penis. Or so says Delia Ephron in her essay “You Can’t Have It All, but You Can Have Cake,” in the New York Times Sunday Review.

Having it all seems to breed wanting more. And since we can’t have it all because it is statistically impossible, and since there is no such thing as more than all, the whole notion seems, I’m sorry to say, depressingly American. In many countries, having it all is learning to read. Having it all is getting to choose whom you love. Having it all is walking to school without worrying that you might get raped on the way.

She goes on to explain that part of the problem is that in America, the female version of “having it all” tends to be managing, simultaneously, a marriage, children and a career. She encourages women to define “it all” for themselves — and it should be “the magical time when what you want and what you have match up.” It is, “not particularly American, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, different for everyone, but you know it when you have it.”

Well Delia, I think your definition of “it all,” with its highly individualistic approach to well-being and lack of concern for those who live outside the bakery-lined pre-war streets of the West Village is, to quote you, I’m sorry to say, depressingly American. (And we all know that there is nothing worse than being called American — ew! — among a certain type of New York intellectual.)

As many who write about lady things on blogs have already pointed out, the phrase “having it all” is totally problematic and suggests that the person in pursuit of it has an unhealthy, yes, Weiner-esque obtuseness. You know, the sort that just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that choices mean giving one thing up for another. Still, as I have written about before, while the term might be problematic, it still highlights a very urgent need for women, and men, who choose to have kids and a career to receive more support from their workplaces, government and spouses.

And as for her very handy pointing out of the fact that “having it all” elsewhere means learning to read, or not getting raped on the way to school, well I just can’t follow the logic. Sure, there are women out there that have it worse. But because others have it worse, we shouldn’t aspire to make our society better? Gender equality varies tremendously around the world, and just because there is more injustice in one place doesn’t mean that we stop fighting it everywhere else, especially at home. Progress isn’t a zero sum game.

Being reminded that “it all,” or life satisfaction, is subjective is important, as we all struggle to figure out what really matters to us and where we want to put our energy. But by overemphasizing the individual subjectivity, we lose sight of the fact that in order to actually have life satisfaction we need to be thinking more about our shared concerns and needs and how they can be met through collective action. Because it isn’t as simple as, as Ephron playfully suggests, buying a cake, and eating it too.

Elissa Strauss, a lead blogger for the Sisterhood, has also written about gender and culture for places like the New York Times, Jezebel and Salon. Follow her on Twitter @elissaavery.

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