The New York Times (and International Herald Tribune) has a series called Female Factor where it focuses on articles related to women. In its own words: “Articles in this series examine the most recent shifts in women’s power, prominence and impact on societies around the world, and try to measure the influence of women on early 21st century development.” The series does a good job of covering women’s issues in many different countries.
The most recent article is about women in France entitled, “Where Having It All Doesn’t Mean Having Equality.” The article explains that the French government provides women who have given birth with free nursery schools, family allowances, tax deductions for each child, discounts for large families on high-speed trains, a paid four-month maternity leave, and ‘perineal therapy’ (described in more graphic detail in the first paragraph of the article, but generally regarded as pelvic floor rehabilitation, followed by abdominal workouts).
According to the article, “courtesy of the state, French women seem to have it all: multiple children, a job and, often, a figure to die for.”
And yet, “having it all” has not brought happiness and equality to French women. Women in the article complain about carrying the expectation that they do all the housework, even once they return to the work force. They also discuss their frustrations with their inability to gain high positions in the working world as well as a sense of having to justify their actions if they decide to stay at home with their children (this would be the lack of equality part mentioned in the title).
My biggest problem with this article is its conception of “having it all.” A woman has it all if she can work outside the home even when she has children while ensuring that she looks good (of course). Emphasis is placed entirely on physical or secondary features of these women. When our conception of having it all is so limited, then we get stuck in these false dichotomies, like staying at home to raise the children or working outside of the home. There is no question that women should be able to choose which course of action better suits their life and the lives of their families but when we focus entirely on this choice we get lost in the debate. We go from one extreme to the other, from not allowing mothers to work outside the home to looking down on those that choose to do so, or we assume that if women have a clear path back to work then we have achieved equality (as in the case of Sweden). We don’t value the act of working (in whatever location it may be) and the qualities and attributes that person brings to their working environment but rather on the decision of where to work. And if this is how society is categorizing us, as limited to just what we do rather than who we actually are, it greatly skews how we see ourselves.