Having it All – Circa 1970

Having it all.

This phrase, perhaps more than any, is a flashpoint for 21st century feminism. In a New York Magazine piece headlined “When Will We Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’?” Molly Fischer describes the utopia:

A job should be challenging and fulfilling, putting your talents to their best possible use and nurturing your growth while also offering the flexibility and compensation to allow a rich life beyond the office. A romantic relationship should combine intellectual companionship with emotional support and sexual chemistry, ideally lasting for the next 50-plus years. Parenthood should reconfigure your soul, revealing new frontiers of selflessness and energy, while also producing gifted, health, and well-behaved children.

Possible? Of course not. So what are we to do? The Mommy Track was one of the first suggestions – different workplace expectation for “career-centered” and “family-centered” women. More recently, the headlines have extolled (for educated and upper middle class women, anyways) the virtue of “opting out” of the workplace to at least “have it all” at home. In the most-read article in the history of The Atlantic, Ann-Marie Slaughter told us that we should stop fooling ourselves about “having it all” and get to work to make the structural changes in the workplace and society needed to provide opportunities for all women. In recent months, Sheryl Sandberg has argued that women need to “lean in” to enhance their ability to have it all and Deborah Spar (Wonder Women) provides advice about “having it all” to today’s young women:

Because women today face such a dizzying array of options, they need to be more systematic in recognizing the specific choices they face and the distinctive trade-offs that accompany each one. Harshly put, they need to realize that having it all means giving something up—choosing which piece of the perfect picture to relinquish, or rework, or delay. Having choices means making them, and then figuring out how to make them work.

I found myself wondering what my ladies – the women’s page editors of the 1960s and 1970s – would think of all of this talk.

Clearly, these women recognized that there were choices to be made. A couple of the most successful women’s editors never married (Marj Paxson, Marie Anderson) and others were married but had no children (Maggie Savoy, Mary Ann Grossman, Gloria Biggs, Koky Dishon). Dorothy Jurney, who split up from her husband in 1959, recounts that they had an explicit discussion of these choices: “Before we were married, he did indeed say that he didn’t think I should work. And I said, ‘well, I didn’t want to have any children and work was really more important to me.’” And there were many more of these women’s editors who were married with children while working full-time at their newspaper jobs.

But what about this “having it all” thing? Several women, in their oral histories, considered the question. Marj Paxson, for instance, said “I guess most people would say I have not achieved the balance because I never got married, didn’t have a family. But really, I don’t think—the way things evolve, it’s just never ever been a major problem. I’ve been able to make friends of both sexes and have people around when I needed to have them.”

I still wondered, though, about what these women were thinking in the midst of balancing work and family. Not looking back, not remembering, but living the life. I found one answer to this question in an m.m. memo written by my mom and published on August 26, 1970, the day of the Women’s March for Equality:

This is the day when many women across the country are striking for a better life.

I’ve talked to some of them about their reasons for so commemorating the anniversary of the women’s suffrage amendment. I find I support completely many of the aims of women’s liberation – those that increase life opportunities for women to reach their full potential. I also must disagree with others – those that try to wipe out differences between the sexes.

But as for Wednesday, August 26, I’m sticking to the job. Both jobs.

Because, for me, the fact that I can do so is the greatest proof that I’m a liberated woman right now. I have the womanly joy of motherhood and the satisfaction of being at the center of a family. I also have enjoyment and pride in work that brings me into contact with a bigger slice of the world and makes use of my particular abilities.

And while I’ve found with many other women that combining the two jobs can be hectic, I have one more priceless asset. That’s the opportunity to choose for myself whether I want to work or stay home. It’s a choice not open to the man of our house—or hardly any other house. Men in our society have economic responsibilities from which liberation is rare.

So I’ll stay with my chosen role on this day. It seems to be that’s what liberation is all about.

I found this memo a few days ago while perusing archives of the Farmington Observer (thank you, Farmington Library, for this wonderful resource!). I thought I had seen most of the memos Mom had written, but this one apparently had never been clipped from the paper and placed in the scrapbook.

Mom wrote this more than 43 years ago. Before the talk of mommy tracks, off-ramps and on-ramps, opting out, leaning in, and super women. Before the notion of “having it all” became a goal both ubiquitous and reviled.

In a sense, Mom had already taken the advice that Debora Spar gives to young women today. She had made choices. She had accepted that her life was kind of nuts and her career was satisfying if not world-changing. But instead of seeing this as – in Spar’s terms – “satisficing” or “a combination of cutting corners and settling for second best,” Mom felt blessed. Blessed that she had the family she had always wanted. Blessed that she had a career that was rewarding and that she was good at. Blessed that she had the opportunities that others did not.

Let’s raise a glass, then, to “having it all” – circa 1970.


  1. Kathy, I was just having this conversation last night with my niece and her husband. Both are finishing divinity school at Duke, both are eager to start a family, both are worried about the pressure that will put on Tori as a newly minted minister. My experience is that we can have it all, just not all at once. I had a very successful consulting career and I had a family. There were times when my work had to take priority (in the weeks leading up to a project launch or in the days leading up to pitching a new client) and there were times when family absolutely came first. I was very lucky to be married to someone who pitched in during the work intense times and when he had work intense times I picked up his slack. Balance, knowing when to say I’m all in and when to say no, picking careers and work options that gave me flexibility and knowing full well from the start that I was not a super being who could be the absolute best mother, career woman, wife, friend, and everything else every minute of the day gave me sanity. To me, that is what is missing from the narrative for today’s young women. Your mother seemed to understand that and carved out a life for herself that gave her satisfaction and peace of mind. What a great role model you had.

  2. I was born almost exactly a year after the march you reference in relation to the quote from your mother. I’ve thought often, over the years, how fortunate I am to have been born when I was. As a Gen-xer I came of age hearing things like “You can be (professionally) whatever you want to be, just like the boys.” What a gift this was and your post reminds me of that gift.

    As for “having it all” I am a woman with a very full life in terms of work, relationship, social network, but I have chosen not to have children. I didn’t choose this because I was too busy doing other things. I chose it because it felt right to me and I’m happy with that choice. I still feel like I “have it all” though I have it in a way that doesn’t seem to be the typical or traditional way of having it all. As I type this, I find it a bit amusing – the notion that there is a traditional way to have it all – considering this very idea was born from women considered nontraditional in their day. I also recognize what a priviledge it is to even consider these thoughts/ideas in the first place.

    You reference that the ideas you write about are of a certain class. This leads me to wonder if you asked women not among the upper middle classes and above, what would “having it all” look like?

    Food for thought and thanks for your thoughts on the subject!

  3. Your Mom’s writing is a rare acknowledgement of the lack of choice for men. Until men have both the opportunity and responsibility to choose a work/life balance, it will be more difficult for women to have it all. Ideally, a couple can face these choices together, and find a balance for their particular family, leaving traditional gender roles out of the equation.

  4. Such a frustrating discourse around this issue. I like your conclusion that perhaps choosing gratitude is the best solution to this constant tension. I’m lucky to have a son. I’m lucky to have the highest degree in my field (well, almost). I’m lucky to get to teach important things to the next generation of world changers. I read this blog this morning and want to link the two concepts–we need to stop thinking of our lives as ‘peaking’ during childbearing age: http://justinzoradi.com/84-year-old-art-of-success.html

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