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How the implausible quest to ‘have it all’ may set women up for disappointment

October 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What if an unintended consequence of the feminist movement was to make women feel inadequate? Barnard College president Debora Spar argues the expectation that women can "have it all" actually sets them up for failure. Jeffrey Brown talks to Spar about her new book, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A big question to think about: Are American women living up to their own expectations?

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Women of my generation got feminism wrong, seeing it as a route to personal perfection and a promise of all that we were now expected to be. Because we could do anything, we felt as if we had to do everything.”

So writes Debora Spar in her new book, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Spar is the president of Barnard College in New York and former professor at the Harvard Business School.

And welcome to you.

DEBORA SPAR, “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that quote I just read. What did you and others get wrong about feminism?

DEBORA SPAR: I think women of my generation who were born right after the height of the feminist movement somehow thought that, because the feminists had fought to give women these wonderful opportunities and possibilities, that we could just kind of go out there and be whatever we wanted to be, nuclear scientists, heads of corporations, and still have the babies and the wonderful marriages and the clothes and the money.

And I think we somehow forgot that it — or we lost sight of the fact that it was going to be much harder than we imagined it would be.

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe yourself as someone who really wasn’t even particularly interested in feminism, per se, didn’t study it, didn’t even think about it as a young person, even into adulthood.

DEBORA SPAR: Right.

And I think maybe part of that is just me. But I think I wasn’t totally atypical for women my age, because feminism happened when I was sort of 8 and 10 and 12.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a movement.

DEBORA SPAR: It happened as a movement.

And if you’re a kid watching that, you don’t get caught up in the struggle. It just becomes your reality. And so, rather than being politically involved, I got feminism filtered through the media, which was much more of this sort of myth of women having it all, rather than actually understanding kind of the nitty-gritty that was going to be involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you use that expression having it all, right? That’s the one. So is the argument now that women can’t have it all and shouldn’t even try?

DEBORA SPAR: I think the argument is that having it all is a bad phrase. No one has it all. No woman has it all. No man has it all. And if women…

JEFFREY BROWN: We have made a mistake to focus on that?

(CROSSTALK)

DEBORA SPAR: Exactly.

If women set as the goal for themselves having it all, by definition, they’re going to fail. And I think what I’m seeing in women my age now is if they feel like they don’t have it all, they feel as if it’s a personal failing on their part. And that’s a real problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re about — are you talking about all — you say up front that you’re writing as someone — you come from — you’re white, upper-middle-class background. When you say women, do you mean certain women? All women?

DEBORA SPAR: Well, it’s a really good question.

And I’m trying to be very clear in the book that I am writing from my personal experience, and so I am who I am. But one of the things that’s really struck me is that I see women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, all races dealing with this problem of juggling and dealing with these feelings of guilt and frustration.

And I think those are feelings that cut across socioeconomic category, although clearly the juggling that women — that poor women, working-class women are doing is much more difficult than what I’m doing.

 

JEFFREY BROWN: You go through in the book — you’re talking about everywhere. You’re talking about workplace, home life, young women and their attitudes about sexual practices. You see this everywhere?

DEBORA SPAR: Yes.

And the book follows the course of a woman’s life. So I talk about how we raise girls and how girls think about bodies and body image. And what I am arguing is that, ironically and unfortunately, women and girls today face a much higher set of expectations than their grandmothers did. And that wasn’t the point of feminism. It wasn’t — certainly wasn’t what the feminists were trying to do.

But the effect of a lot of the well-intentioned social movements is that at every stage of a woman’s life, I think she feels really shackled by expectations, rather than liberated.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you promote this — use this word and promote it, satisficing, right, coined from economics.

DEBORA SPAR: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain what that means in practical terms to satisfice in life.

DEBORA SPAR: Well, satisficing is a very interesting economics term that also plays a long role in negotiation theory.

And it’s the idea that if you can’t get your first-best option, maybe settle for your second-best. And I think it’s a useful term to bring into these debates around women’s or people’s lives, because we can’t always get exactly what we want. And I want to make clear that satisficing isn’t about giving up or failing.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what is it?

DEBORA SPAR: It’s about maybe not getting everything, but getting — but getting a lot of stuff.

But I’m trying to argue that, because no one can have it all, if women really want to have high-powered careers, something is going to have to give on the home front.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what? So what? You say it’s not about giving up.

DEBORA SPAR: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what — but something’s got to give. So what do you tell people?

(CROSSTALK)

DEBORA SPAR: It’s about realizing, you know, if you’re going to be working a 50- or 60-hour-a-week job, you’re not going to make it to every one of your kids’ flute recitals or basketball games. And if you really, really want to make it to every flute recital and basketball game, you’re probably not going to be able to work a 60-hour-a-week job, or your spouse is going to have to make career sacrifices, or you are going to have to move in with your in-laws, but something is going to have to give.

At some point, it’s just the math of how many hours there are in a week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you focus a lot on your own story in this life, so let me ask you, have you given up — I don’t know if given — you don’t want to use that word, but what have you sacrificed?

DEBORA SPAR: Tradeoff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or tradeoff.

DEBORA SPAR: I think tradeoff.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re a college president. Right? You just wrote a book, so you found the time to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You describe yourself — you’re a mother of three, a longstanding happy marriage. Is that not having it all? What have you given up?

DEBORA SPAR: That’s having a heck of a lot.

But if I look back at choices I have made, I wasn’t as involved in my kids’ lives as I might have been. As my kids will be quick to tell you, I didn’t make it to every open school night. I didn’t serve on the PTA. I didn’t sew their Halloween costumes.

I didn’t spend as much time with friends as I might have. That was something particularly when my kids were little. I didn’t have a social life. I didn’t go to conferences. I turned down additional work assignments, certainly not sacrifices, but I think it’s important to underscore you have to make choices. The good news is that women now have this candy store of options, but the hard news is, we can’t have all the candy all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we can’t have all the candy.

On that note let’s stop, and we will continue this online, OK?

DEBORA SPAR: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, Debora Spar, the new book is “Wonder Women.” Thanks so much.

DEBORA SPAR: Thank you.