But I don't have an answer to this question!
December 13, 2012 12:46 PM   Subscribe

What is the history behind feminism supposedly claiming that women could "have it all"?

This post on the blue has me wondering about the origin of the phrase "having it all", in relation to feminism. There have been many other posts, and plenty of popular articles, I've read that treat it as a common assumption that feminism once promised women they could "have it all", usually referring to having a career outside the home and being a wife/mother. This is often used in pieces that criticize feminism for making a false promise, or women for believing it. The connotation of it, to me, is that women or feminists are somehow greedy for wanting or expecting to have both careers and family lives.

I consider myself fairly well versed in the history of feminism, and feminist theory, yet I've never come across an actual scholarly or pop-culture feminist source that promised women they could "have it all" in those exact words. Certainly, feminism told women they could pursue careers outside the home, and that they could do this and still be good mothers and spouses, but I have never read any feminist source that promised this would be easy and you would never have to make any hard decisions about balancing work and family life.

So where did the particular phrase "having it all" in this context originate? Was it originally used by critics of feminism, distorting what feminism actually said women could do? Or is there actually some feminist source that once claimed that women can "have it all?"
posted by nakedmolerats to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Helen Gurley Brown.
posted by holgate at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Interesting question. I'm searching. It was already a cliche (being called into question, challenged, endorsed, etc) by 1975. No pointers to an original source yet.
posted by Miko at 12:53 PM on December 13, 2012

Huh, OK, seems like there's a very strong case that the originator was...Helen Gurley Brown!
Gurley Brown is credited with inventing the term "having it all", a sentiment that endures to this day, if only in making women feel like failures for not achieving her ultimate feminist goal. But what Gurley Brown arguably intended was for us to want more, to not have to choose between having a family and retaining our own identities, or between caring for our families and providing for ourselves. "Don't use men to get what you want in life – get it for yourself," she often said. And she never suggested women use anything but hard graft to make it. "Nearly every glamorous, wealthy, successful career woman you might envy now started out as some kind of schlepp."
Or...what holgate said!
posted by Miko at 12:56 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the links! Interesting. For those interested, I've also found this article claiming that Gurley Brown was widely misunderstood; that by "having it all" she was referring to love, sex, and money, regardless of marriage. So it seems that her original quote/intent might not have really been about balancing career and motherhood - I'd be interested in tracking how the usage evolved along the way.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:08 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Don't nitpick about whether HGB was a feminist. Off-topic.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:37 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this is what you're looking for, but when I was a young girl, I distinctly remember this Enjoli commercial being played ad infinitum on tv. That type of subversive cultural message had a very poisonous effect, I think, because it made women feel like total failures if they weren't effortlessly "having it all" like the women in the ads and commercials.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:00 PM on December 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, god, that Enjoli commercial. Now it's earworming me.

I seem to recall there were a lot of advertisements along those lines in the '70's (I recall one for an awful perfume called "Cachet" which supposedly was the mood-ring of perfumes) so I wonder if this idea stemmed from advertising rather than any one feminist stating "a woman can have it all."

HGB wrote her book around 1980 well after the "having it all" meme was under way; having actually read "Having It All" I agree that she meant "a good job, love, sex and freedom." Kids were barely mentioned in the book - IIRC the meat of the book was about landing a job and getting promoted, and HGB herself was pretty hardcore about the importance of work to a woman's existence. She herself was childfree.

I wonder if "having it all" is another "feminists burned their bras" - where advertising jingles or a single statement or action was taken completely out of context and took on a life of its own.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:45 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do not know where this idea comes from, but I would be extremely surprised if HGB used the term to mean "career and motherhood". She never had kids and apparently never wanted them. So I think you will need to keep digging.
posted by Michele in California at 2:55 PM on December 13, 2012

Best answer: No, it really looks like Helen Gurley Brown gets full credit for this phraseology, if not the entire trope.

I found it first by searching in Google Books and limiting the search time to before 1980 and then before 1975 and then before 1970. Nothing appears before HGB is credited with it (in 1964) in Sex and the Office, her work-focused sequel to Sex and the Single Girl. The "have it all" construction doesn't seem to turn up in "Single Girl," but it appears a few times in HGB's encouragement of women to stay in the workplace and earn their own money. The relevant quotations are:
If you're clever, you can have it all - success, the look of a lady, and an air of devout sexiness right in the no-nonsense precincts of the office.


Don't you that see by working you can have it all? Hire somebody else to do the household drudgery, keep your dainty mitts on the creative stuff if you like (gourmet cooking and decorating), continue to golf and no-trump for recreation, and be more exciting to your husband (or to that someone you have in mind for the future in case you're a divorcee or a widow).
There's no readily available evidence that it started in advertising first. I chased down the Cachet idea; their I'm Ready Now campaign doesn't seem to show up before 1984, at least in my search. Before that it's pretty much about competing with other women.
posted by Miko at 3:09 PM on December 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

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