The Future of Feminism And Why Women Still “Can’t Have It All”

This article was modified for a feature in Diablo Magazine. Given the current (and yet ongoing) discussion regarding women’s choices and the future of feminism, I thought I’d post the full article here.

Feminism tee-shirtIt had been a busy week for Katrina Alcorn of Oakland. She’d worked late to meet a client’s deadline, she’d missed putting her three children to bed one night too many, and now she was racing off to Target to buy diapers. Afterwards, she’d go home to her husband and together they would clean the house, do the laundry, get dinner ready, put the kids to sleep, and then they would each spend the rest of the evening responding to work emails before falling into bed, exhausted. Suddenly, Katrina realized it was all too much. She pulled the car over to the side of the road, called her husband and said, “I just can’t do it anymore. I have to quit.”

By any measure, Katrina was on the fast track. After graduating from college with a degree in English, she went on to a graduate degree in journalism at U.C. Berkeley. She became a journalist working for newspapers and magazines, and even produced a PBS documentary. Eventually, she transitioned to a career in high-tech running a division of a web consulting company. Her future was bright, until it wasn’t anymore. She is just one of millions of successful, ambitious women who, once they had children, “opted-out.”

“The 21st century workplace doesn’t support families and certainly doesn’t support working mothers,” says Katrina who, in her spare time, founded the influential Working Moms Break blog ( “To be successful, there’s an unspoken expectation that you put in nights and weekends. If you are a parent with young kids or have other caregiving responsibilities, it’s just too much. You become stretched to the limit.”

Failed Promise?

Women, or more specifically mothers, and their careers have, yet again, been making headlines. The most famous (and perhaps the richest) working mother, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, has been cajoling her peers to “lean in” and “put your foot on the pedal.” She, like so many others, is frustrated more women are have not made it to the coveted tops of their respective professions.

U.C. Berkeley professor, Mary Ann Mason, is certainly frustrated. She was the first woman to be appointed Graduate Dean at the prestigious university and has long been an advocate for the advancement of women. She published a book with her daughter, Eve Mason Eckman called, Mothers on the Fast Track: How A New Generation Can Balance Family and Careers. They write, “We hoped that once a critical mass of women entered the fast track, the power of balance between men and women would inevitably be achieved in boardrooms, courtrooms, and university classrooms. “ It hasn’t.

Despite years of opportunity, women still lag behind men in the vast majority of industries. You’ve probably seen the statistics: although we make up 47% of the workforce, we are only one third of all doctors and lawyers, and are less than a quarter of all tenured professors. Only 15% of senior management are women in the United States, lower than Thailand (45%) Russia (36%) or even Botswana (32%).  Out of a total of 541 elected Congressmen, only seventeen are women and today there are only twelve Fortune 500 CEOs, down from fifteen last year. Sigh…

The lack of women in high level roles begs the question, what happened to women’s empowerment? Or, dare we say it, to feminism?

When I was coming of age in the late 70’s and early 80’s, women’s futures seemed to glitter. The pill, introduced in 1960, meant that my generation was the first to be able to choose when to have children, or if we were going to have them at all. The hard work of the second-wave feminists meant that sex discrimination was being battled in the workplace and the classroom.

Between 1970 and 1978 major legislation changed what it meant to be a woman in our society. For the first time, we were assured equality in the classroom and on the sports field (Title IX), access to family planning (Title X), the ability to get our own credit without our husband’s approval (the Equal Credit Opportunity Act), and the security to know if we did get pregnant, we couldn’t be fired (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act). Add to that the legalization of birth control (1972) and the landmark Roe v. Wade case allowing abortions for unwanted pregnancy (1974), and you can well see why my generation of women thought we could do anything.

However, all the good will and good work seems to have stalled for us as we have entered what Mary Ann Mason has dubbed the “make-or-break years.” That’s the decade or so between our thirties and forties when our careers solidify and we are busy laying the foundation for the next phase when we can finally begin reaping the fruits of our efforts.

Why are so many women bailing out just when we are about to peak? The obvious answer seems to be…babies.

The Big “Choice”

Moraga resident Sydney Chaney-Thomas, who left a career in financial services marketing after her second child was born and who now consults part-time, says, “Second-wave feminism forgot about mothering. Sure they did an amazing job focusing on the macro issues, but our generation got stuck hammering out the details. Who takes the kids to the dentist? Who stays home when they are sick? We were told we could have it all, but how?”

For us, feminism meant choice. Not just reproductive choice, but individual choice to build the life we wanted. We believed, as Sydney says, we could have it all. But just what did having it all mean? In the watered down version (watered mostly by advertising that told us “you’ve come a long way, baby” and other equally offensive messages), it meant marrying the adoring husband, having his bright-eyed children, all while managing a successful career (and, of course, looking beautiful to boot).

After drinking the Kool-Aid of “choice,” many of us graduated from college, some like Katrina Alcorn even went on to graduate school, and then we launched into our careers with great enthusiasm. We paid our dues, worked our way up, and then we hit our thirties and our babies arrived. Suddenly, having it all wasn’t so easy anymore.

But it isn’t just mothering that was the challenge, it was the kind of mothering that has weighed us down. “Motherhood has become a 24/7 job, which makes it hard to have a demanding career and be the kind of mother you might want to be,” says Mary Ann Mason.

Beyond the daily challenges of juggling work and caregiving, the professionalization of motherhood has raised the stakes. It isn’t enough to love and care for our little angels, now we have to ensure they are “reaching their full potential.” Sally must play soccer, dance ballet, sing in the choir, and help out at the church’s fund-a-need drive. And don’t forget the Kumon math and Chinese language lessons she has to take to stay competitive (does the phrase Tiger Mama ring a bell?).

Shuttling our children from one activity to the next has became a full-time job. And if that isn’t enough, the PTA needs our help on the fall fundraiser and, by the way, state funding’s been cut for aides so don’t forget to volunteer in the classroom at least one day a week. With all of the these pressing demands, how could we possibly work outside the home?

Soon, working mothers became pitted against stay-at-home mothers and the stakes were high. The media and mothers themselves asked, if you are working outside the home, what does that mean for Sally’s well-being?  Lafayette resident Tricia Napper began to ask herself that question. She was on the fast track and loved it. While on maternity leave in her early thirties, she was promoted to partner at her consulting firm, Price Waterhouse Coopers. She continued to work full-time until the birth of her son three years later. Her employer did everything it could to accommodate her. She negotiated a reduced work week and a flexible schedule, but she had a nagging feeling she wasn’t there for her kids.

One day, her daughter got in trouble for acting up in school. Turns out, her daughter hadn’t been invited over to play at many of the other girls houses; she was misbehaving because she felt excluded. Tricia learned that most of the play dates were spontaneously arranged right at pick up. Since Tricia wasn’t there, her daughter wasn’t included. “That parent-teacher conference was a pivotal moment for me,” says Tricia. “I realized there was this whole sub-culture with its own language, customs and expectations – one that was 180 degrees from my work environment. The stay-at-home moms weren’t intentionally punishing my daughter for my choices, but sometimes it felt that way.”

What’s a good mother to do? Eventually, Tricia quit her job and now focuses full-time on her children. When she isn’t with them, she volunteers with organizations that support her passion for women’s health and reproductive freedom and child abuse prevention. These days, her daughter doesn’t lack for play-dates, but Tricia makes sure they include the children of full-time working moms too. While she doesn’t regret her decision, Tricia wonders, “what does it mean for women’s empowerment if mothers don’t have a mutual understanding and respect for each other’s choices.”

Changing The Game

While we women were fighting amongst ourselves, the very nature of the workplace changed. A generation ago, one breadwinner was enough to support a family, now two are required to maintain a comparable lifestyle. The hours expected of us have also skyrocketed.  Two parent families are spending 16% more time at work or five hundred more hours a year than in 1979 just to keep up. Now, choice isn’t really a choice anymore and, as Katrina Alcorn says, we are stretched to the limit.

Women who have had the luxury to “opt-out” may well be the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to the workplace. We aren’t all leaving to rush to motherhood, many of us are leaving because our job satisfaction is so low. We are looking for balance, and envisioning a new definition of success. And, because we have children, we can use them as a convenient excuse.

That was certainly true in my case. After getting my M.B.A. and taking a job in brand management at Nestle Corporation, I dutifully worked my way up the corporate ladder.

Like Tricia Napper, I was promoted during my maternity leave. Nestle offered me a four-day work week, but it soon became clear I was being sidelined onto an unforeseen “mommy track.” I left to go to an advertising agency and eventually was promoted to vice president. However, I hated my job. The long work day, the hour commute, the never ending client demands, the office politics, and the general sense that what I was doing was of no social value, finally drove me to quit. Sure I wanted to spend time with my kids, but what I really wanted was more balance and a more rewarding job.

I am a rarity in that I was lucky enough to have a husband whose job is stable and provides health insurance. This has allowed me to work my way into a rewarding career as a free-lance writer. Sure there is no job security and yes, I am paid a pittance compared to what I was making before, but I am in control of my schedule, who I work with, and what I want to write about. And when my kids come home from school, I get to be the kind of mother I want to be, present. I may not be at the top of the corporate world, but I have something much more valuable, control of my time.

Second-wave feminists like Mary Ann Mason might consider third-wave feminist like me “off track.” She worries women who don’t “lean in” will become marginalized in a “second tier” career, one that doesn’t offer job security or the accolades reserved for women on the fast track. I would argue, the old fashioned pinstripe suit definition of success doesn’t fit mine. And in this I am not alone. Women, and men, are redefining what success means.

Balancing family life and work is no longer just a woman’s issue. A longitudinal study on the attitudes and behaviors of Generation X (those born between the ages of 1960 and 1985) by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan reveals that both parents are highly engaged in their children. Of those with children in school, 83% reported helping with homework, most were spending five or more hours a week doing so. They also reported being engaged in the classroom and on the weekends with their children. These hours are in addition to the increased demands of the workplace.     According to the report, 40% of us work more than fifty hours per week. Lindsey Turentine, Editor-in-Chief at CNET and mother of two school-aged children, says “Modern life means that time is the most important commodity.” But, time is the one thing we don’t have.

Changing technology and the new focus on results oriented workplaces are giving working parents more flexibility than ever. Full-time, regular telecommuting grew by 61% between 2005 and 2009 and now accounts for nearly three million workers. These statistics do not include those who work part-time or are self-employed work. The new emphasis on going green is giving even greater attention to work-at-home options by reducing the need to commute and thereby preventing the addition of further green-house gasses into the environment.

However, it is not enough, and certainly not fast enough. Our children are here now, which is why so many of us who can are changing the game. Take Whitney Moss of Berkeley, for example. She was raised by a single mother who worked hard to provide for Whitney and taught her the importance of financial independence. So, when Whitney decided to leave her full-time marketing job to spend more time with her two children, she started her own company working as an online publisher.

She and I met for coffee during her “work” day between drop off and after-school pick up. Her hugely successful website, Rookie Moms, draws over 200,000 visitors a month. She also has a local site, called 510families, that brings in 25,000 visitors and is focused exclusively on the East Bay. She earns her income from paid advertisements. True, she isn’t making as much as she was when she worked full-time, but she wouldn’t trade the two for anything. “I feel like I have my cake and can eat it too,” she says.

Some women are making choices to live with less. Oakland resident Phuong Ly, who works full-time from home as a senior fellow for the Institute of Justice and Journalism, in addition to other projects, while her daughter is in day care. Phuong says, “we have one car that needs three hub caps and a house in desperate need of a face lift, but I wouldn’t change a thing.” She knows she could get a higher paying job working in an office, but the freedom to be available to her child and is more important than the material goods money might by.

Others are creating work that is aligned with our deepest values. Lisa Truong of Berkeley wanted more time with her children and decided to quit her job at the Tides Foundation to be home. But she missed work and felt a nagging desire “to be of service.”  In 2009, she founded a non-profit called Help A Mother Out providing basic needs such as diapers to low income mothers. For the first time this year, she’s taking a salary. She says she works hard, but it is on her agenda. “I have never been more fulfilled. It feels really good to be paid to do something you love.”

The game is changing for men too. Blake Haley of Lafeyette was on the vanguard when he chose to stay at home with his kids over a decade ago. His wife, Christine Deakin’s career was taking off and he didn’t love his job. She was making more money and they both agreed one parent should be focused on their children. Having him stay home seemed logical. He says, “I never looked at our decisions as a contribution to any kind of movement. It has always been about what is right for us.”

He wonders why fathers don’t “open their eyes and be more flexible to the idea of being a stay-at-home dad.” Estimates vary, but a study by the US Census Bureau in 2005 indicated as many as 25% of children under the age of fifteen have a father as the primary caregiver. Since the “Mancession,” more men are reputed to be staying home than ever before. Is it a trend? We won’t know for quite a while, but it is certainly less of an anomaly than it was a generation ago.

“Things are changing,” according to Diablo resident Taryn Sievers, Senior Vice President of Wealth Management for Morgan Stanley. She worked through both pregnancies and barely took maternity leave. The idea of “opting out” never even occurred to her.  When her daughter was younger, Taryn would steal a few hours volunteering at the school’s Halloween party or Valentine’s Day event. If a client called, she’d sneak out and hide in the hallway pretending to be in the office. Now she doesn’t hesitate to tell a client, “I’m watching my daughter’s swim meet. We can talk now or I can call you back.”

“For mothers, and fathers, now you can tell the truth of where you are. It makes you more real to everyone,” Taryn says. “Yes I am a mother and I have a career and I can do both. What better message to send to the next generation?”

The Future of Feminism 

Things may be changing, but they are changing mostly for those who are privileged. Each of the women I spoke to acknowledged they have the economic freedom to make their own way.  But for the vast majority of women in this country, choice is a luxury. Berkeley resident, Joan Blades says, “Most working mothers don’t have the privilege to make accommodations. They need their jobs just to get by.” She believes we need to work collectively to make change for all working parents, not just those who can afford it.

Lisa Truong agrees. She considers her work a form of feminist activism because she is working on behalf of mothers who can’t afford to choose another option. “As a third-wave feminist, I want to make sure all mothers have dignity. The fact that things like diapers can keep a woman from going to work or prevent her from feeling like a good mother means we have a lot of work to do.”

We, the generation of third wave feminists, are beginning to see it’s not motherhood per se, but rather the notion of individual choice that may well be at the root of the problem facing women, and families, today. Instead of collectively moving the bar forward, we turned inwards replacing the oppression of housewifery (Betty Friedan’s “the problem with no name”) with the myth of the perfect mother. We believed if we couldn’t muscle through, well, that was our own problem. And because we live in a country founded on individual liberty and boot strap success where there is little room for, or agreement on, systemic solutions, we turned against each other and forgot those who don’t have even the most basic of accommodations. But no more.

Joan Blades was so frustrated by what she calls “maternal discrimination,” she  founded MomsRising, an organization working hard to ensure the workplace is more family friendly. “The United States is one of only four industrialized nations that doesn’t have paid maternity leave,” says Joan. “The other three are Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and Lesotho. That’s simply unconscionable.”

Started in 2006, MomsRising now has over a million members. Together, they are working to ensure parental leave, paid sick days, and more flexible workplace solutions are made available to all. The organization has had numerous wins on the local and state level including helping pass a paid sick day ordinance for the city of Seattle and securing paid family leave for residents of New Jersey, only one of three states that offers this. At the national level, MomsRising is advocating for the passage of the Healthy Families Act, which would ensured paid sick days to employees across the country regardless of where they live.

Feminism of the future may well look like it did in the past, because it has to. Sure my generation has cloaked itself in the notion of individual choice, but Taryn Sievers says we are unique.  “Never before in the history of motherhood, have so many women been empowered to choose their path. However, this empowerment has been predicated on a robust economy. Since the early 80s, the economy has been expanding. That’s not true anymore,” she says. “We women need to plan accordingly.”

Part of that plan must include working together much like we saw in the early days of the second-wave feminist movement because now even if we wanted to quit during our “make or break” years, most of us can’t. Of the 21.7 million mothers who were employed in 2009, one third were the sole job holders in their family. The recent economic downturn means more mothers are working than ever before (only 38% worked in 1950, now over 70% do). Finally, we are waking up and saying “enough is enough.”

Joan Blades, and activists like her, are working with companies to help them understand family friendly policies are beneficial for the bottom line. According to her latest book, The Custom Fit Workplace, “Workers of all ages and ranks – even executives in Fortune 500 Companies – say they want more flexibility and would prefer it to a pay increase.”  “We are not anti-capitalism, we are pro-family,” Joan says.

A renewed passion for collective action may be the fourth wave of feminism, but as the second wave feminist well know, change takes time. While we are gearing up, my generation can help our own children understand the implications of their choices and the limitations of those choices that are available to them; something most of our mothers didn’t do. Whitney Moss says, “My mother prepared me for the work world, but she never discussed having children. I never knew how much I’d enjoy it.”

Mary Ann Mason agrees, “In all of this talk of choice, one of the things we have forgotten to talk about is the joy of motherhood.” She says. “We hear about this for stay-at-home mothers, but it is true for all mothers, and fathers too. Children bring a rich and wonderful fullness to life. We need to make sure younger women, and their partners, who are contemplating their options understand this or they may well forgo parenthood given the bleak realities of balancing career and family.”

“It is unfair to tell girls that they can do everything,” says Lindsey Turentine. “The reality is nobody can do everything. You have to tell your children, both boys and girls, you can do what you want, but you are going to have to make trade-offs.”  Once they understand the opportunities and constraints, she argues, it becomes an empowered choice.  And what’s more feminist than that?


8 responses to “The Future of Feminism And Why Women Still “Can’t Have It All”

  1. Pingback: BlogHer12Musings on Motherhood and Midlife

  2. Pingback: I Am An Emotional Creature | Lisen's "Blog" – An Angle of PrismWork

  3. Pingback: Old Feminism’s Lost Battle – New Feminism’s New Direction « All Things Reformed

  4. Hi Lisen, as I read this article I pondered upon the similarities of my own situation. Being a father of three, I know in the past that I haven’t been there for my kids and it makes me sad to think of the times I have missed in seeing them grow up in their earlier years. In addition, I understand now that I hadn’t given my wife the space to pursue the work that inspires and fulfills her. Now we work more closely in the true sense of partnership, changing when we need to to help our family grow as a whole. This means that we consider the kids and ourselves as parents in equal measure. It is now is time for men across the world to stand up and say – yes, the growth of my family as a whole is important to me and yes that means taking action to ensure our partners and our children are given the opportunities and support that we would expect for ourselves. The answer I believe can be found on the middle path, the one that lies between extremes.

    • Luke,
      The world will change when more men have your insight and understanding. And yes, I believe the middle path is the answer. Thanks for reading.

  5. Great post. I was really excited to read this for two reasons.. it is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, as I am also a working mom trying to juggle it all. Secondly I am an avid reader of Katrina’s blog and have found it comforting to read about other motherly issues, and to know that I am not the only one going through these things. There is also a great book out by Ananya S. Rajan titled, “Get Real! Fighting The Mythic Woman Finding Your Authentic Self” that I have found to be incredibly helpful. It opens women’s eyes to see how much they live by the Dos and Don’ts of society and family. very inspirational for all women and moms.

  6. Great article and ahead of the curve. p.s. there is a typo to the url of the May Diablo Magazine article, a doubled http://http// breaks the link.

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