The resurgence of the can women have it all? rhetoric during the coronavirus crisis is tiresome, says writer Eleanor Margolis
Yesterday I cleaned the toilet, made myself an exquisite toast lunch, and wrote this article. Sure, I dont have any kids. But I do have a demanding cat and believe you me on top of the career, housekeeping and culinary excellence, his needs were met. Whats it like to be the woman who has it all? I hear you ask. Spectacular. Eye-opening. Humbling.
In reality, my life has changed relatively little since the lockdown. And that, specifically, is why Im lucky. Ive worked from home for several years and yes, of course, looking after an animal that spends 90% of his time either asleep or outside is about as fair a comparison to having a child (or multiple children) as the western world in the time of Covid-19 is to the Handmaids Tale. Which is not to say that womens lives and careers arent being stunted by this pandemic in which we find ourselves (while the actual virus is proving more deadly to men).
Its women who are more likely to be made redundant (as Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson of the Womens Budget Group told the Independentin March); women, particularly those who are BAME or disabled, who are more at risk of poverty; women who are more likely to be self-employed; women, mostly, who are at increased risk from domestic violence. The strikes against us in this crisis go on and on. Which is what makes it all the more galling to see a resurgence in the deeply retro can women have it all? narrative.
One Daily Mail article, with portraits of newly WFH or furloughed women proudly wielding feather dusters and cakes, frames the lockdown as a sort of spiritual (as well as literal) homecoming for career women. Thanks to a deadly virus, were back where we belong; pottering around in aprons and absolutely loving it. See, women cant have it all, this says. And theyre happiest back home in their natural habitats, like those goats that took over that town in Wales. Because everyone knows a goat is at its happiest when in walking distance of a Superdrug.
Obviously theres absolutely no shame in doing, or even enjoying, most or all of the housework. Stay-at-home mothers are some of the least appreciated, hardest-working people on earth. And anyone who disputes this has clearly never met a child. But to wrap up this en masse homecoming of women (those who dont count towards the legion of key workers, of course) in 1950s housewife faux nostalgia is unhelpful at best.
I nearly did a spit take on reading this line from a recent piece in The Times on being a woman who has it all: When I realised that lockdown meant that the cleaner couldnt come, it was clear I was living through a dystopian nightmare. Ironic or not (in this particular case), some of the tone deafness of the more conservative medias coverage of women and coronavirus is a lot to handle. And which one is it, then? Has Margaret Atwoods darkest work been brought to life, or are we living the domestic dream? Could it possibly be that neither is the case?
It would be nice for the same narrative to be applied to men. Multiple articles about men swapping their suits for aprons and marigolds would, of course, be equally condescending. But at least they would be a change from the surprisingly present focus on what during a global pandemic constitutes the perfect woman.
The fact is that, as before the Covid days, women (working or otherwise) do more housework. With the closure of schools and nurseries, thats been exacerbated to the point of a crisis in unpaid labour. This isnt cute. Its not pleasingly mid-century, its for countless overworked women a living nightmare. And thats not to mention those who are self-isolating with abusive partners. Or single mothers who were already struggling before the entire world imploded.
If were going to look at the nature is healing-type positives to have come out of Covid-19, its hard to argue that more work and less money is one of them. No matter how aesthetically pleasing this may be to the kind of people who feel nostalgic for blancmange and corporal punishment in schools.
Theres a lot of talk of achieving your full potential during lockdown, which is all the more unfair when other people get to define exactly what that full potential is. When youre trying to prioritise staying sane and alive, it would only be polite for the question of can women have it all to get on the tube and lick a handrail.
Eleanor Margolis is a writer and columnist at the i and Diva magazine