And is it good?
Why Women Can’t Have it All.
The following transcript is from a speech delivered at an event entitled “Lies of the Ruling Class,” hosted in May 2022 at the Claremont Institute’s DC Center for the American Way of Life.
People are always more likely to believe a lie if it’s plausible. The lie that women can have it all has as many adherents today as it does because it’s not obvious why it should be a lie. Have a career and a family: why not? There are enough hours in the day. The challenge of refuting the lie that women can have it all—that is, that they can prioritize career and family equally—lies in the fact that the trade-offs that make it impossible are hidden, not obvious, because mathematically it’s not something that should be impossible.
If only employers would do more to accommodate working women, if alternatives could be found to fulfill duties at home that mothers used to do for themselves, like childcare and housework. But the more you start thinking about those accommodations and thinking not just about what it means for any one woman to have it all, but for society to be restructured around women having it all, the more impossible those trade-offs start to seem.
Obviously there are women today in America who are trying to have it all, and many appear to be doing so successfully, at least insofar as they have both demanding careers and children. But look more closely at those households, and almost invariably you’ll see that behind every woman who is balancing work and family, there is an army of low-paid labor, immigrant cleaning ladies, nannies who are paid cash under the table, Door Dash delivery men who deliver the meals that mom never had time to cook. It’s no coincidence that the vast increase in female workforce participation has coincided with the reappearance of something that the more egalitarian America of the early 20th century did not have, and that is a servant class.
America today is more prosperous than it was 70 years ago, and yet it is no longer possible for an ordinary worker to support a middle-class family on a single income. The story of how that happened is bound up into a lie that has become gospel today, which is the lie that women can have it all. Undergirding that lie is a further lie that the Republican Party can have it all. The GOP has very much hitched itself to the idea that it can be the party of stay-at-home moms and girl bosses equally. Again, superficially this seems like it ought to be possible. Live and let live, it’s a free country. But this bargain is unsustainable in practice. We only have to look at the last 30 years to understand why.
The official position of the Republican Party today is that the government’s job is to make it possible for everyone to make the right choice for their family. This rhetoric of maximizing choice requires politicians to talk as if some women will choose to be moms and some will choose to be girl bosses, and it’s really 50/50 which one you end up being. You know, both are equally valid. Who’s to say one is better? But that’s just false, and it’s false according to women’s own preferences. The number of women who say they do not want to have children is very low, in the single digits, around 5%—and that’s just the number who will tell surveys that they predict they won’t have kids when their childbearing years are over. The number of women who actually reach old age and feel satisfied with their life, being just a girl boss with no children to keep them company, is even lower.
Squaring away all this family happiness is and ought to be a higher priority than maximizing women’s career success. It is also a more urgent priority. A woman cannot simply wake up at age 35 and decide she wants to have a family. Everyone says that the sexual revolution was brought about by the advent of the contraceptive pill, which was supposedly ushered in at an amazing new age of a new human experience thanks to science. But it actually changed a lot less than we think. We’ve gotten quite good at not having children when we don’t want to have them, but the science that gave us the pill has not made us very much better at making children arrive when we do.
Look at the Supreme Court—a perfect example. The first woman on the court, Sandra Day O’Connor, had three kids, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had two kids, and both of them had their kids quite young. I think the last one was at 32. Both of these women followed the life course of having kids young and then pursuing their career ambitions afterward. And apparently it worked. They wound up on the Court.
Then look at the two women appointed to the court afterward. Sonia Sotomayor had a brief marriage to a high school boyfriend when she was young. It was annulled shortly after she graduated from law school. Elena Kagan never married. There was some speculation during her confirmation that she might be a lesbian, but her friends confirmed to reporters that she’s straight. She just never managed to put it together, to have a family.
So, this generation gap between the female Supreme Court Justices born in the 1930s and those born in the 1950s illustrates the paradox of having it all. If you put family first, you can end up doing both. If you set out trying to do both, you will end up probably or likely enough with just the career. And worst of all, you’ll end with neither in the sense that you’re not going to be a Supreme Court Justice, you’re not going to have wonderful, stimulating, intellectually accomplished work to console you in your childlessness. You’re going to have a laptop job doing corporate busywork.
Sotomayor and Kagan are both boomers, and even among the boomers childlessness is still relatively rare. That’s not the case for millennials. Millennials are on track to be the most childless generation in American history. Projections have it that 25% of millennials will be childless. By comparison, for boomers it’s closer to one in nine. For millennials, it’s going to be closer to one in four. They’re also the least married modern generation. If you want to look at how married a generation is, you look at age 21 to 36. In 1965, 17% of that age block had never been married. In 2017, it was 57%, and that trend shows no sign of decreasing. In fact, 2014 was the year that the balance shifted and the majority of adults over 16 had never been married before that 36-year cutoff.
The Republican Party’s conventional wisdom that we should maximize everybody’s choices rests on the assumption of informed choice. There’s the idea that women in their 20s know what they want, know what they will want when they’re older, and have a good sense of what’s possible when it comes to deciding their future life course. But that is a notion that is completely false. Many young women today lack knowledge of basic facts of biology.
Sergey Brin, the co-founder for Google, selected as his second wife a woman named Nicole Shanahan, who, as you might expect, is beautiful, smart, and accomplished. But now that she’s a wealthy woman, Nicole Shanahan has chosen to make one of her philanthropic causes female fertility research—or, as she calls it, reproductive longevity—because, as she told interviewers, when she started to think seriously about motherhood in her early 30s it was “eye-opening to me that there are biological factors that would impede that dream.” She had assumed she could simply freeze her eggs and then come back to them when she needed them. She didn’t understand that IVF does not work like magic, that it was possible to, as she did, go through several rounds and end up with nothing. Eventually she and Sergey were able to have a child, thankfully, but imagine a woman that brilliant and accomplished lacking this basic knowledge.
Even female doctors don’t understand some of these basic facts and constraints. There was an astonishing letter published in the New York Times in September of last year in response to an article that they’d run about childlessness among female doctors. From the byline in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this letter writer wrote, “As a reproductive endocrinologist, I have seen countless 40-something female physicians seeking fertility treatment only to be genuinely shocked that their peak egg number and quality,” that is their peak fertility, “has long since passed. Often the only viable treatment at that point is using donor eggs from a much younger woman.” Family planning, to the extent that it is taught in our schools, focuses entirely on the prevention of undesired pregnancy. There is apparently no reliable time in any American’s life, including our physicians, when they are taught the basic limitations on how to become pregnant.
So how in the world did it get this bad, that even our doctors don’t understand basic, fundamental facts? Well, one reason is the deliberate suppression of the truth by feminists. In 2002, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine bought some ad space in movie theaters and on buses here in Washington, a ton of PSAs. These PSAs were entirely innocuous, they said things like, for example, “Advancing age decreases your ability to have children. For more information, see the website of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.” NOW, the Natural Organization of Women, organized a campaign and had those PSAs pulled because “they sent a negative message to women who might want to delay or skip childbearing in favor of career pursuits.”
Now, normally it would be the responsibility of older people to inform the younger generations that feminists are lying to them, that family is important, and that it does not just happen automatically. So why haven’t elder generations been fulfilling their responsibility to impart that wisdom to younger people, especially younger women? Obviously in part because it’s socially taboo, but also because in many contexts it is illegal to do so. As you may know, if you’ve ever hired somebody for a position at your organization, it is illegal to ask a woman in a job interview if she is pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant. If you are mentoring a female employee at your company and you tell her that your personal advice is that she should have kids before she gets too old, even if that means putting a pause on her career, that remark can get you into trouble. If that woman is ever passed over for a promotion, she could turn around and sue the company for sexual discrimination and use your remark as evidence.
In 1981, a female English professor named Julia Brown was denied tenure at Boston University. She sued BU for sexual discrimination when they denied her tenure. One item of evidence she cited was a speech by university president John Silber at a think tank event in Washington, quite like this one, where he connected the rise in working mothers to a decline in children’s wellbeing. If you know John Silber, you may know he was a bit combative, with a big mouth, but this particular speech he gave was completely innocuous. He said things like, “Lack of parental supervision associated with both parents working explains in part that children watch 24 hours of television a week.” It was a completely innocuous speech with ordinary social conservative observations about women.
During the trial, the professor’s female lawyer asked Silber on the stand, “So, some of those career women that you denigrated are in universities, including your own. I suppose that’s one way to get them back in the kitchens, to get them out of the university. Is that so?” And this lady English professor won her case, whilst the university was ordered to give her tenure. The jury found that they had denied her tenure simply because BU hated lady professors or something. So, expressing the opinion that motherhood is more important than a career, especially when children are young, is enough to expose your institution to legal liability. My boss is here. I hope I’m not exposing the American Conservative to legal liability right now.
Imagine a scenario. A boss might have a sincerely held opinion that motherhood is important and he doesn’t want his business to be complicit in taking a mother away from her children, especially when the children are young. This boss might want to operate his business by the rule of thumb that a lot of owners had before the sexual revolution, which is he doesn’t want to hire a woman who has kids under the age of five, with whatever exception. You might think that boss should be free to do that, just as a woman should be free, if she has children under five, to go out, disagree, and find a new employer, but no. Such a policy is illegal and has been illegal since 1971.
It was a Supreme Court case named Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation (1971), which involved a company that had a policy of not employing women with preschool-aged children. The Court found it was a violation of the Civil Rights Act because the company did not also have a policy against employing fathers with preschool-aged children. The idea that mothers and fathers of young children have different responsibilities was dismissed by the Court as an outdated stereotype. In other words, we live in a regime where agreeing that women can have it all is legally mandatory. You cannot express dissent from it or operate your private business by a different set of assumptions.
So has the Republican party done anything to reverse these legal insanities? No. On the contrary, Donald Trump, in many ways a buster of orthodoxies, did nothing to bust up this one. Instead he put his daughter, Ivanka, in charge of a push for paid parental leave, which is a misguided policy that does a lot for girl bosses, but gives stay-at-home moms nothing. And here we have the reason why the Republican Party’s have-it-all fallacy was bound to fail. Once you lead women down the primrose path of thinking they can have a career just like a man and also the family that they want, then millions of women are going to try and do that. And it doesn’t matter for most of them to eventually fail because, once they all try, they then become a constituency. And if, as we’ve seen today in the middle class, the math doesn’t quite add up and becomes a lot harder to sustain the two-earner family model, they will have enough political heft that they can get the government to step in and make up the difference, subsidize that lifestyle that’s not working for them.
Defunding the Lie
Thankfully we’ve dodged the bullet. We did not get Ivanka’s paid parental leave plan. But we have to get lucky every time, and they only have to get lucky once. Once an entitlement like that is enacted, it would be very difficult to reverse. The knockdown argument of the people who say women can have it all and we should build a government around them is that, quite simply, it’s my family and you don’t have the right to tell me how to run my family, nobody has a right to tell me what to do. And there’s some validity to that, but right now my policy wish list for providing for the American family doesn’t involve telling anybody what to do or telling anybody how to run their family.
It’s very simple. There are three things we could do right now that would put a big dent in the multiplying lies that have come from feminists for the last 40 years about women and careers. First, stop subsidizing college so much. One of the main reasons why marriage rates are so out of whack right now is that so many more women than men are going to college. The last time I looked, if you look at people who are 22 to 29, so the age that we want people to marry, there are more than a million and a half more women with college degrees than are men with college degrees, and there are four women with college degrees in that demographic for every three men. So, clearly that’s out of balance, those numbers are not going to add up, and that’s going to lead to a lot of women with college degrees who don’t end up getting married. Stop sending everybody to college.
Two is do more to promote male-dominated industries. Several of our economic policies for the last few years have led to a lot of growth in so-called pink-collar industries and to the biggest collapses in blue-collar industries usually dominated by men. We’ve been operating under the assumption that that’s fine, but we have in the last five years crossed over the once unimaginable threshold where there are now more female employees in the economy than men. There are more women working than there are men, and that’s very recent and not something that was foreseen 1975. Frankly, there are a lot of other reasons to think that replacing factory workers with home health aides is not a good idea for our economy, but gender relations is also one of them.
And the third and final one is, don’t subsidize childcare. A lot of people, from Elizabeth Warren on down, think it should be the next big push for helping working moms. I know a lot of working moms around here struggling, spending almost as much on childcare as they’re bringing home from jobs. That might actually be good information the economy is trying to tell you, that if it’s not worth it for you to pay somebody else to raise your children, then maybe the division of labor that every other civilization in history has settled on is actually pretty smart. But any government childcare entitlement would put a massive thumb on the scale in support of the two-earner family model as opposed to the one-earner family model.
So the thing about lies is that they can’t endure. They will eventually fail. And I think that the line that women can have it all will do so of its own accord, if we will only stop supporting it with the massive economic and legal power of the federal government.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.