Why Men (and Women) Can’t Have It All by John Erickson


Growing up, my favorite movie was The Associate staring Whoopi Goldberg as a woman at a Wall Street firm attempting to climb her way up the corporate ladder through hard work and dedication.  Her character Laurel Ayres does all the work and comes up with the ideas that clients eventually invest in, her partner Frank takes all the credit and eventually surpasses her at work by getting the promotion she had been vying for.  In a prodigious scene that I still vividly remember from my childhood, Laurel quits her job and starts an investment firm on her own; betting every cent and piece of property she has on the eventual success of her new business adventure.

In an attempt to break through the proverbial glass ceiling and play with the big boys of Wall Street, Laurel eventually discovers that although she can be (and is) the genius behind many of the great ideas that would save companies millions, she still needs to have her ideas expelled by a man she creates in order to win over clients, which eventually leads her to become successful.  However, while Laurel is reaping in the benefits of having Mr. Cutty, her made up business partner, by her side, she eventually learns that no matter what she does she will always be secondary to her male business partner.

Although the movie ends with a good feminist one-two punch to the proverbial patriarchal face, it taught me an important lesson about the politics and sacrifices each gender consciously or subconsciously make while trying to succeed in life’s adventures.  Why were perfectly good ideas by a female second fiddle?  Why were men the only ones capable of coming up with ideas?  And more importantly, why did women and men use each other in the same manner in order to succeed and further themselves in the world?

I’m sure many of the readers of Feminism and Religion have read the painstakingly long and brutally honest piece titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter and others might have read Gina Messina-Dysert’s blog in response to it.  While we all took to the blogosphere to find and discuss our answers to the age old feminist question that many have been afraid to publically ask like Anne-Marie Slaughter and few have actually dared to answer in great detail, I’m here to tell you that both men and women still can’t have it all regardless of how many eye rolls you just had after reading this last sentence.

Yes, men use women and yes, when you look at the political, social, sexual, and religious landscapes of the world, white, Angelo-Saxon men blot out the terrain like an ever-growing forest in a land of capitalistic enterprise hell-bent on earthly and gendered domination.  However, what we fail to realize is that women also use men in many of the same gainful enterprises.  While I live in the world of academic, I also live in the real world.  I go out to clubs with friends, I listen to the stories from both men and women from highly respected careers discuss their crazy Saturday night, and hear from each of them about how they skillfully and successfully manipulated the opposite gender (or those of the same gender for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters) out of the club and back to their apartment or into some other compromising position that placed one at a disadvantage and the other in a seat of power.  

While my friends bragged about the escapades over coffee at brunch or in a text message, I often felt that many people are afraid to admit to their misusing because they are worried about how it will make them look rather than admitting it is something that we all have and still continue to do.   The point and problem about using each other is, that it serves as a catalyst to many of the world’s problems and successes.  Academics, many like Anne-Marie Slaughter and others would like to sit back and write about the inequalities in gendered politics and the advantages and disadvantages to women and men without truly engaging in the matter that they too once did the exact same thing that they are now writing about.

Can women have it all?  Possibly.  Can men ever have it all? Maybe.  Regardless of however we put it, the are ills to every good deed in the world and we need to get back to understanding how and why we use each other in order to fully understand that behind every good man might be a good woman but also behind every good women there might also be a good man.

We all use each other to get ahead in the world and there is nothing wrong with that.  It is the matter in which how we use each other that we need to question and deconstruct in order to fully realize and understand Slaughter’s final point about understanding our own power and in the process making the world better for all women and in the process men as well if we truly are attempting to create a world based on gender equality rather than inequality.

Much like the ending of The Associate, we all create and use people in our lives to succeed and fail in our endeavors.  Although Mr. Cutty was a fictional character, he eventually became the physical manifestation of everything the Laurel Ayres attempted to escape at her old job and recreate in her new, female owned and operated one.  She eventually had to literally become the actual manifestation of Mr. Cutty at an all-male New York City club to reveal that behind every good man may be a good woman but behind good women may still be the predestined and already defined actions of men that feminists have been trying to fight against for years.  Men and women may be able to have it all but they won’t get anywhere near achieving the goals of Slaughter’s article without acknowledging how we got there in the first place.

John Erickson is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Claremont Graduate University.  His research interests involve an interdisciplinary approach and are influenced by his time as the director of a women’s center and active member in the GLBTQ and women’s rights movements.  His work is inspired by the intersectionality of  feminism, queer identity, and religious political and cultural rhetoric.  He is the author of the blog, From Wisconsin, with Love and can be followed on Twitter at@jerickson85.



Categories: Abuse of Power, Community, Ethics, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Film, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Identity Construction, LGBTQ, Men and Feminism, Politics, Power relations, Race and Ethnicity, Reform, Relationality, Social Justice, Women's Suffering

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. John, “we” do not all manipulate people in the club scene, and that scene is not the dominant motif for “everyone” in their professional lives. In fact, some if us have avoided the club scene altogether precisely because of the predatory dynamics you highlight. Some of us try to be collaborative and collegial rather than mercenary. Nor is asking others for help tantamount to “using” them—unless one intends never to reciprocate. I find highly problematic (and anti-feminist) this universalizing of your own personal experience. Speak for yourself. Period. The rest of us are perfectly capable of doing likewise.

    Like

    • Dr. McGinn,
      Although I find your comments useful, I believe you missed the point of the blog all together. I think that if you are willing to have such a visceral reaction to the thought of using someone (the club scene is one example, but as you point out there are many more) there might be more truth than you’re willing to admit to. That’s the hardest part, admitting “being used” exists and the point of the blog.

      We all like to “cry out” and state that “we are being used” and there is “nothing we can do,” when we go right around and do it, whether we know it or not, to another person.

      You have worked to be collaborative and collegial now but when you were younger, I find it hard to believe you didn’t “slip up” or find yourself pondering many of these questions and you were walking down your life’s path. I write about what I see in the world and I ask around and listen to the stories of others and write about them.

      The point is not about mercenary politics it is about coming to terms with a very pragmatic way in which the world goes round. If you don’t believe that people, even the best of people, use each other in some way shape or form, then really what hope is there for progress? We have to admit to the problems we see (I see it all around in both clubs and the highest halls of academia for the sake of juxtaposition) or there is no hope.

      If you strictly claim this to be and age issue (the younger generation vs. the older) then I don’t know what else to tell you than your assumption is very wrong and completely ageist.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Like

      • John, this is a very complex subject, one I do not feel qualified to contribute. However, I would like to point out, that I don’t remember seeing a comment on any blogposts on this forum, where the person making the comment felt it necessary to put “PhD” after their name. I wonder if some people would find this a little intimidating, perhaps even manipulative. (I believe there are a number of contributors here with PhD, whose views are respected without the letters.)

        Like

      • Hi Andre,
        Some individuals perfer to have their PhD after their name and I could not mind either way. A PhD is an grand investment of one’s life energy and time and I respect that choice either way. I come at it from the “You worked really hard to get that degree, use it however you choose too!”

        We did have this line of comments before on this blog and we agreed that if people wish to have the PhD after their name, that is perfectly fine. Although I do understand where you are coming from. Thanks for your comment!

        Like

  2. John, I have mixed thoughts and feelings about this posting. I always get excited to see a new post from you, so I want you to know that I very much respect your thoughts and insights. I have to agree with Sheila though in that . . . I live in the real world as well but the particular dynamics you describe are not opperative for me or most of the people/communities/friends I have had through most of my life. In this way, your blog is a bit foreign and non-sensical to me. In addition, you state that “We all use eachother to get ahead in the world and there is nothing wrong with that.” I dont’ know . . . I think that is exactly the problem. I don’t understand how approaching people with purely utilitarian goals and motivations is healthy. Perhaps you mean we are simply all capable of this behavior and I agree–none of us are perfect. But this statement strikes me as a little machiavellian. I think there is something very wrong with using others to get ahead.

    It is certainly true that oppressive systems like patriarchy invariably turn everything into a power-struggle. Both men and women participate in this struggle for power and both men and women can become vicious and manipulative. I have witnessed this both in myself and in others. Is not the point of feminism to strive to go beyond the system that turns us against one another in the first place? But this moving beyond and pulling free from such oppressive power struggles will necessarily play out differently for men and women, and for individual people. If you are suggesting that both men and women have to take responsibility for their own behavior and for the ways in which we all contribute to perpetuating patriarchal systems–agreed. However, I don’t appreciate hearing such an admonission from a man. I feel angry hearing you speak about what is and isn’t a responsible way for women to respond to an oppressive system. I don’t mean to say that I feel animostity toward you but rather that this particular blog and some of what I have perceived in it makes me clench my jaw. I have no intention of standing behind a man but neither do I want a man simply following me around. This spacial imagery in and of itself is symptomatic of the problem. Why can’t men and women stand together? Side by side? I feel like you would not disagree with such and ideal so . . . I am confused by this blog.

    Like

    • I have been coming at life in a very practical and pragmatic nature recently. While I want to walk side-by-side with my sisters and brothers I find it hard, very hard in fact, to believe that this is possible in today’s sociopolitical climate. Yes, we must find ways to live with what we have and fight against systems of oppression to get to this utopian vision of equality but we must also realize (and have in our mind somewhere) the possibility of failure. We don’t like to talk about failure and when we do there is a blame game that is typically played out.

      I’m not stating anyone should stand behind anyone but rather, if we do live in a world where people use people (I find it hard to state that this doesn’t exist), we have to accept 1.) Why we use people and 2.) What and where did it get us?

      We do use each other in positive ways though and that might be the lighter side of the argument.

      Thank you for your comments. I would love to talk more with you about this.

      Like

      • I agree with most of what you are saying with this comment . . . I would agree that such ideals are near impossible and that progress only comes through honestly facing the ways in which we use people and attempt to get power over others, learning to assess what this “gets us” as you say and daring to explore new ways of being with others. To be honest I feel like failure is pretty certain. :)

        I would like to know what the positive side of “using” each other is because I simply don’t find that word helpful. So I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that and would like to understand what your thought is there.

        I think what I find off-putting about the blog post is that for me it has a sense of like . . . women check yourselves, men are not the only problem. This may not in fact be your intended attitude but this is the way it kind of comes across to me. I find it problematic because the assumption about women in general is that we do not accept responsibility for our own behavior but prefer to pontificate and point fingers at men without doing the hard work of overcoming our own patriarchal conditioning. This may be very common. I have had to go through this transformation myself and I’m sure it will be an ongoing process throughout my life. But I think that is in and of itself a part of patriarchal conditioning and one that women can call one another out of and away from with grace and compassion. I get prickley when a man asks women to be more responsible in their response to patricarchal power struggles. Does that make sense? I do not want to deminish your insights, nor do I want to discount your own experiences of oppression and restriction by our socio-political climate. This is simply what has been triggered for me by this blog posting. Thank you for being a conversation partner.

        Like

  3. I, too, have never participated in a club dynamic or used a man sexually. I had one boyfriend in my life, who I eventually married and we’ve been married for 14 years now. I don’t believe that either of us have ever exploited someone else for our own personal gain, let alone bragged about it later. I feel bad/guilty for speaking negatively of someone else, even though, in times when I do fall into that, what I say is TRUE.

    Like

    • Saying what is true is half the battle. We all try to live and walk through life according to some notion of the “golden rule,” but we need to step back, realize, and admit to our our misgivings and failures no matter how bad they might make us look.

      Like

  4. I think John brings a good point that ANY one regardless of gender can use another person for personal, financial, and political gain. I know it took me a long time to recognize that regardless of how many times women have to ‘grin and bear’ the lot that patriarchy has given us, we can also become the very tool that we fight against. I think this post is a great stepping stone for men and women to start realizing what we do to each other in our daily lives and how we can ALL come together to stop this cycle.

    Like

  5. John, I appreciate your interest in this topic, as I too was consumed by Slaughter’s article. I think you are making some interesting points here and are giving us an important question to ask, “Can men have it all?”

    But I want to echo some of what the others stated here. First, I also do not participate in the club scene – and do hear that there can be predatory dynamics. I find it disturbing that some think it is acceptable to act as a predator. But I also wonder, does there always have to be a victim? Can someone have power to choose to participate in such an encounter?

    I don’t think we all “use” people. In fact, I hate the idea of “using” others and I find it upsetting to think that someone think “using” is an acceptable way of getting ahead. As Sheila points out, it is not using if we reciprocate.

    I also really hate the saying “behind every good man there is a good woman” or the reverse of that. I like to say that beside this good woman is a good man. I think that is true in my marriage, but also in my other relationships including my career. Why does anyone have to take the back seat?

    Like

    • I think we like to operate in a utopian image of the world at times where men and women walk side by side when we still know that women still make less than men and there are still women who walk behind their men willingly (I’m seeing images of Mitt Romney’s wife in my head right now.)

      While the good marriages and relationships that have been highlighted on this blog are great they are still few in larger society. But it is through dialogue and the “hard truth” as I call it that change does happen!

      Like

  6. Here is another thought. How can any of us who are feminists “have it all” in a society that has not changed? Lucky those who have found “ideal” or “nearly ideal” partners. There don’t seem to be enough of them to go around, so many of us find ourselves in unequal or even abusive relationships or we don’t have partners. In work, too, how can we have it all when society has not changed? How many jobs– in a voracious capitalist society that has very little interest in the meaning and conditions of work or the environment –are truly satisfying? In our field of Religious Studies feminists (are especially women) are not exactly “free” to “choose” not to be part of patriarchal religions and to get jobs teaching about them, unless they wear the veil of disinterested objectivity. So, no, we cannot have it all. And anyone who thinks that most women can have it all probably has only a superficial understanding of feminism. Feminism is not “about” having it all–it is about changing the world so that more women can have more freedom and happiness.

    Like

    • Yes! You are so right.

      Like

    • I coudln’t agree more Carol. Your oomment about people finding the “perfect and “equal” partners are scarce and we often find ourselves in those abusive or misleading relationships. Even when we think we have found the “perfect partner” we still could be wrong. I know this from first hand experience and I sure you did too when you read my blog about my break up.

      Like

  7. One of the issues is what we see as “using”, how anyone else involved in the situation regards it, and also what neutral observers see it as.

    Last year, I had an operation on my foot and needed to be looked after at home for a few days, and asked a friend. Was that “using”? Was it simply an expectation that friends do things for each other? Is having that expectation a hidden form of “using”? And would it be using if I paid someone to look after me?

    I felt your blog raised important issues, but that you see too many interactions as “using” and not mutuality. Partly your experience of life, I would guess, partly an important warning to us all to examine our motives and behaviours.

    Like

    • Daniel,
      Exactly. I was talking with another blogger on this site earlier this week and we talked about how I defined using. She said I should have been more specific but thinking back on it now, I don’t know. I like it vague because it opens up more room for interpretation, etc. Admitting to how we use people that eventually leads to the admission of mutuality is crucial in the process. We cannot have one without the other. Typically when we admit something is mutual it goes past the process of “use” in the negative tone and into the categories that Gina and them mention above.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Like

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: