15 Feminist Quotes from Badass Women that Prove “Having It All” Is Bullshit

Or is it?


As we discussed earlier this week, “having it all” is a deeply flawed concept (from its limitations to mostly upper middle class white women to the fact that having it all was never intended to be…a thing to begin with). And while most of the discussions we’re having at this point are more meta than actual, it’s hard to stop internalizing the fact that we should at least be trying to have it all (or, do it all, as it were.) So today, as a reminder that sometimes goal digging isn’t the only thing to set our sights set on (sometimes nap digging is a thing too), we’re kicking off this month with fifteen badass, successful women, talking about why having it all is totally bullshit. Just in case you ever forget:

gloria steinem on having it all

Gloria Steinem, Journalist and Activist:

“Guilt is a way of getting a group to conform; you get them to oppress themselves by making them feel guilty. In the earlier stages of feminism, women were told they could not be whatever it was they wanted to be. After women became those things anyway, then society said, ‘All right, you’re now a lawyer or a mechanic or an astronaut—but that’s only OK if you continue to do the work you did before—if you take care of the children, cook three meals a day, and are multiorgasmic until dawn.’”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Supreme Court Justice:

“You can’t have it all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time, things were rough.”

Shonda Rhimes, Writer, Director, and Producer:

“‘Shonda, how do you do it all?’ The answer is this: I don’t. Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area of my life. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home. If I am at home sewing my kids’ Halloween costumes, I’m probably blowing off a rewrite I was supposed to turn in. If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby’s first swim lesson. If I am at my daughter’s debut in her school musical, I am missing Sandra Oh’s last scene ever being filmed at Grey’s Anatomy. If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing.”

Melanie Healey, Former President of Proctor & Gamble’s North America Division:

“The choice not to have it all, far from being defeatist, is extremely liberating. Slugging through a decade of work but losing touch with your family and friends or with your community creates its own sense of failure.”


kirsten gillibrand on having it all

Kirsten Gillibrand, Senator:

“I think it’s insulting. What are you ‘having?’ A party? Another slice of pie? ‘All’ implies that a woman staying home with her kids is somehow living a life half-full. What we’re really talking about is doing it all. How do we help women do all the things they want to do?”

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo.:

“I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for thirty-four years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.”

Dee Dee Myers, First Female White House Press Secretary:

No one can have it all. Any woman or man in the throes of a career with kids at home will tell you, nobody has it all. One of the things that has been accidental is that my husband [editor and writer Todd Purdum] doesn’t travel as much for his job which gives me flexibility to travel more. When I have been busier he has stepped up, and when he has been busier I have stepped up. For him to be at [his previous role at] the New York Times at a daily job covering the White House and for me to work at Warner Bros., that would have been impossible for us. Our family comes first. When [the children] were younger, I worked from home for a lot of years. They are ten and fourteen now, and it is much easier than it was ten years ago. My career has had chapters, and my husband’s career has had chapters, and we have figured out ways to mesh those in a way that has mostly worked. Sometimes it has worked more smoothly than others. We certainly don’t think we have it all. Taking a moment to be grateful in spite of the challenges can be helpful.

sandberg having it all

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook:

“Having it all is the worst. No matter how much we all have and how grateful we are for what we have, no one has it all, because we all make tradeoffs every single day, every single minute.”

Lindy West, Writer:

“‘Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness,’ [Anne-Marie] Slaughter says [in ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’], ‘and let us start at home.’ That’s the most presumptuous line in the whole article. Maybe some women don’t find happiness at home. Maybe some women do find happiness in their careers. Or in unprofitable art. Or in providing for their families. Or in being alone. There isn’t a singular goal for any person—man or woman—and yet feminism has sold us this prepackaged notion of success that, when you open it up, is totally undefined. And I think that’s my main problem with Slaughter’s article—that she tries to come to a conclusion about this thing that is almost entirely without definition.”

 Madeleine Albright, Former Secretary of State:

“I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once.”

Hillary Clinton, Former Secretary of State:

“I can’t stand whining. I can’t stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they’re not happy with the choices they’ve made. You live in a time when there are endless choices…. Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way, but you don’t even have to have money for it. But you have to work on yourself…. Do something!”

ilyse hogue having it all

Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro Choice America:

“I don’t think anyone can have it all. Who would want it? Having it all sounds like a lot of maintenance. Life is about priorities and choices, not just ones externally imposed on us as women, but ones we are able to define for ourselves.”

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department; President and CEO of the New America Foundation:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Maria Shriver, Journalist and Author:

“Telling women that some women ‘have it all’ only makes others feel less-than. I think we all have different struggles and issues…. My mother once said to me, ‘There’s a time to mother, a time to be single, a time to work, a time to volunteer, a time to pray, a time to be active, a time to be, a time to do, a time to talk to yourself, and a time to be quiet.’ …Get up, be grateful, try to center yourself, and try to do your best that day.”

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron, Writer and Director:

“So what are you going to do? This is the season when a clutch of successful women—who have it all—give speeches to women like you and say, to be perfectly honest, you can’t have it all. Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

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  • Kayjayoh

    I particularly love and value the fact that this round-up features contrasting voices who disagree with each other. Yes to this.

  • lady brett

    love it!

    especially this one, which solidly sums up my personal view: “Having it all sounds like a lot of maintenance. “

    • jubeee

      I totally agree, having it all sounds like a chore, also you won’t have sleep….then you won’t have it all!!!!

      • Violet

        Right, like when Ben Franklin tried to eschew all vices to become perfectly virtuous, but then he realized he had “pride.”

    • Alyssa M

      That was definitely my favorite quote. God does it sound exhausting.

    • I agree. I don’t want it all. And I certainly don’t want it all at once! Unless ALL includes a nap and a vacation.

    • Totally! Unless having it all is extended paid vacation, too.

  • AnneBonny

    I think that from now on when someone asks whether women can have it all, we should respond, “Do you mean, Can women have what men have?” Because if that’s not what they mean, then what the eff do they mean?

    • Sarah E

      I’m with you on what the eff do people even mean. If I had that question asked of me (unlikely), I’d definitely just pepper them with follow-ups for clarification. It’s such a vague phrase, and there’s no way to answer it. All what? indeed.

    • Lawyerette510

      I think the question means can women have what men have, plus fulfill the “second shift” and then some responsibilities. I think it bothers me because I don’t hear it being asked of men, because what they are traditionally expected to be doing is viewed as enough, where as a woman who is doing only what a man is traditional expected to do in career or who is not pursuing a career is seen as “not having it all.”

    • Emily

      I agree–what exactly does that mean? Does it mean can women have a career and a family life? Yes. Does it mean can women be an astronaut and a general and president and a doctor while breastfeeding on a mountaintop at dawn? Umm, I don’t think anyone can do that.

      I am more comfortable with the idea from the other conversation–“I want what I have.”

    • Alyssa M

      I mean, I always took it to mean “can women have what men have without giving up what women traditionally did?” And really, when you think about it, that’s utter nonsense as a goal.

      • Meg Keene

        AND WHO WANTS THAT? Nottttttt me.

      • I never ever WANT to clean the bathroom. That’s just a role I’ve been assigned by the fact that I’m female. So is my bathroom clean? Not as clean as I’d like it. So I guess I don’t have it all.

        • Don’t tell anyone, but I love cleaning bathrooms. My room however, is another story.

        • Caroline

          I don’t ever WANT to clean the bathroom, but my standard of cleanliness in the bathroom is higher than my husbands, and I enjoy having a clean bathroom, so I clean the bathroom. But then, he cleans the kitchen and often cooks and does the dishes, so it balances out.

    • Meg Keene

      Which is why in real life I always say yes. Because I have a job I like and a kid, just like lots of men have and… That’s a thing that can exsist! Right?

      Sometimes I feel like I must not understand the question.

      • Maybe that is it. I don’t understand the question. I don’t have it all because I don’t dream big. I don’t have it all because I don’t pay for someone to clean my house and I really wish I could. So really, we’re largely back to defining having it all as a white middle/upper class problem. This just isn’t a question for someone who doesn’t make enough to cover everything. If you need to work to support your family and that job is not your dream job, then I guess you don’t have it all.
        I like your answer Meg. Yes, compared to the “all” that a man has. I have it all and more, because I still make dinner (and clean the bathroom). hooray.

    • Right! Because do men take on the housecleaning? The dinner-making? The (insert whatever blank that doesn’t get done)___? And the question of having it all doesn’t enter in. I guess having it all would be having a wife and family and someone else to deal with the other stuff that no one wants to deal with – sometimes that’s a wife, sometimes it’s paid help. In that case, “having it all” means “having the money to have it all.” For men, careers are “it all”.

    • Caroline92507


      I came back to this post again after thinking about it for a while. I, too, have never understood what “it all” actually meant. All I know is what I want out of life. Is what I want the “it all” that we supposedly can’t have? Or is what I want “some of it all,” and therefore more attainable? “It all” is an abstraction to me, and can’t seem to figure out how it applies to real life, to my life.

      As a recently-engaged, ambitious feminist, I know that advancing my career and having a loving marriage are both important to me, but I wonder if we’re overanalyzing. Or maybe it’s just me who is overanalyzing. I may take a break from reading articles/essays about “having it all,” and just keep on setting goals, prioritizing, and working toward what I want. Maybe it makes me anxious because I give the conversation more space in my head, more power, than it deserves.
      (But I will still be reading all of APW’s other posts! APW is the best! :)

  • Laura C

    Speaking of having things (actually, totally off topic), how big a monitor would I need to have to see these images all on one screen? It’s been an issue for me in wedding posts, too, since the images got so much bigger, but I don’t want to disrupt someone’s wedding post by asking about it. Big pictures are nice, but these are so big I lose much of the impact of a picture as I’m trying to scroll just the right amount to see it all go by!

    • Lawyerette510

      Try zooming out on your browser.

    • It depends on your browser too. Chrome appears really big, while Firefox is more normal sized. But the giant text makes it great to read on my phone. Just hit ctrl- or ctrl+ to adjust the size on your screen.

      • Laura C

        Huh, Firefox seems to be the same size for me. I guess zooming out it is.

  • KB

    I appreciate this post – and all content on APW – but I can’t let it pass without taking a moment to say that this conversation always seems to bring in voices of a very, very select group of women. I care about these women’s voices but really, I need to hear – and hear often – the perspective and context of my daughter’s daycare teachers, my office’s cleaning staff, the AP processor at the next desk, my L&D nurse, and so on.

    • ML

      Completely agree. I think these women are asked this because it’s already perceived that they do “have it all” to some degree. But what does “having it all” mean to women that we don’t hold up as examples of success? This selection just reminds me of how limited our view of success is. I think many “ordinary” women might feel they do have it all, or all they want, just by simply having a paying job and being able to care for loved ones. But that is not very glamorous and might not track with what we on the outside would say is enough.

      • Maddie Eisenhart

        Yeah, I think these responses are very much a response to the pressure to strive for the C-Suite job. I agree, absolutely that we need more voices about different kinds of success, but I also like that these directly address the idea that having it all looks like one thing. Because even the people who we look up to as “having it all” as defined by popular culture, really don’t have it all. And are still struggling with some of the emotional aspects of balancing work/life that those of us who aren’t managing multi-million dollar companies or state legislatures are dealing with. Like, if Shonda Rhimes is making sacrifices, then maybe I can forgive myself a little when my work/life balance gets out of control.

      • Meg Keene

        Yeah, it’s interesting, because when people ask me if women can have it all (like is it possible) my response is “duh, yes.” Because in real life I always translate that question as “can women have work lives they are satisfied with and jobs they care about, and maybe kids too?” And I’ve seenlots of people have that, like my mom who was an elementary school teacher in inner city schools. She didn’t have loads of money or no problems, but she had a job she loved and a family she loved and… So that seems like a yes to me!

      • Vilmos Kovacs

        But wouldn’t it be better for all women if more women were successful in the eyes of the mainstream? If all women check out of the race for the brass ring, then only guys get that ring that lets them make the decisions, run the world, influence history.

    • Meg Keene

      TOTALLY agree. However, this post was basically “every single quote you can find on the subject through Internet research,” and this is what’s out there. Which is pretty informative in and of itself.

      I’d love an outlet with some serious journalism power to interview a bunch of women not in the c-suite and compile it. Someone do that please!

    • Ilora

      Ooh ooh! I’m a daycare teacher, pick me! *hand waving frantically in the air*
      For me there are two answers:

      1) Yes, you can Have it All, but quite frankly I think that it’s a very bad idea and not actually healthy.

      Anecdote: One year when my brother and I were kids my parents let us eat All the Candy we wanted. My brother ate candy till he threw up from the sugar overload, then he went right back to eating candy, until he puked again, he did this three times in one night. So to be literal about things, did he have it All (where ‘All’ means All of the Candy)? He sure did! Was it worth it? Nope! He took more than he could handle and ended up forcibly rejecting it all. (My parents aren’t terrible people I promise!)

      This leads to my second answer:
      2) Forget having it All, let’s talk about having Enough.

      As I said, I work in daycare, I am never going to make a lot of money, but I will make enough. I will make enough to buy the things I need, to get some things that I want, to have an emergency fund, and to put aside some savings.

      I love my job, it’s fulfilling, it’s important, and I’m good at it. I don’t get paid what I’m worth
      (and I won’t unless there’s a significant societal shift that allows for subsidized daycare), but I’m going to keep doing it. I could get a different job, one that pays more, I could even find a different job that I would like almost as much, but I’m not going to, I’m content where I am.

      I will never have a Pinterest worthy home, there will always be more shoes than my closet can reasonably contain, there will always be a bag of flour just sitting on the kitchen floor because it’s too big to reasonably put in the cupboards. But there will also always be a kettle on the stove, pictures on my walls, and more scrapbook paper than I could possibly use (challenge accepted!).

      We don’t have kids yet, but K and I have struck a good balance between together time and friend time and extended family time, and when we do have kids we will balance that too.

      I’m starting to ramble so basically what I’m saying is that I’ll never Have it All, I don’t want to. I’ll have enough to be happy though, and if I have enough to be happy then I’ll have all I need.

  • cbomb

    Because the concept of “having it all” was trending, I felt that every media outlet felt obligated to write articles that added nothing new to the discussion. More often than not, these articles took defensive stances that seemed to want to pit women against one another. Compilations like this one are extremely encouraging to a young woman like myself and shows me that APW is committed to going the extra mile by working to reshape the conversation, embrace nuance, and open up new more important questions about the experience of womanhood.

    • Emily

      Hear hear on women not accepting being pitted against each other! I constantly think of the quote (I know if from Elizabeth Gilbert) – “Women, be kind to one another.”

      • Amanda

        Speaking of Elizabeth Gilbert and the restructuring of the conversation, have you guys read this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/11/elizabeth-gilbert-on-failure_n_6608164.html

        • Emily

          Thank you for posting that link… it is fantastic! I love it.

          • Amanda

            I had already sent it to all my friends, my mom, my sister, my aunts and some co-workers and have been looking for more people to share it with so I was glad to have another opportunity. :)

  • Vilmos Kovacs

    To me, Gloria Steinem gets it. I have been frustrated with the dialog on this site for the last month (commenting wise, not editorial wise), because to me it has trended very anti-ambition. There has been a lot of focus on balance and sacrificing for the sake of family. I know a lot of women want balance. I may want balance some day. Right now, I really don’t. I want to work 12-14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. I wish there were more women who can unapologetically say, “I want money and lots of it. I want power and lots of it. I want respect and lots of it. Now get out of my way while I go get it.” I know I should throw an essay into the ring about what it feels like to be the breadwinner, but I don’t want to open myself up to public inspection. Which is hypocritical, I know.

    • Anna

      I think Meg actually wrote an essay a while back on a similar topic! I can’t find the link at the moment but I encourage you to look for it, it was a great perspective on ambition/balancing toward work more than family.

      I also think that “anti-ambition” is kind of a strong word for what people have been saying; I think there’s been a mix of commenters who say they focus more on work (or wish they could) and who say they focus more on family (or wish they could). And obviously it’s not just a “work vs family” binary. Like, I would say I’m not ambitious, but I don’t say that because I want to stay home and raise kids (which honestly in many cases IS a very ambitious pursuit); I say I’m not ambitious because I’m happy to stick with the same reasonably well-paid programming job indefinitely, with no particular inclination toward upward mobility (as long as I get to work on interesting problems and make enough money to pay my bills, I’m good). I don’t want to work 80-hour workweeks, but it’s not because (or not directly because) I want to spend that time with my family; it just doesn’t sound very pleasant to me.

      But I’m non-ambitious in the same way that my SO is (he’s happy to remain a high school math teacher indefinitely because he loves teaching, even though his math degree could probably get him a much higher-powered job). We both found things we like to do and want to stick with, even though we might well be qualified for more ambitious careers. So even though I totally understand why it’s useful to have gendered conversations about ambition (since it has historically been presented to men and women quite differently, so the current “ambition landscape” is fairly different for men and women), I also think that women’s ambition or lack thereof doesn’t have to be gendered (which sounds like it might be part of what you’re saying as well).

  • Karly Edwards

    I wish there was a quote about how “not having it all” could mean, choosing to not have children….

  • Hailey

    I loved this post!

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  • I love “having it all” but that doesn’t me I want it all at once! It’s true, there are always trade offs and switches.