Diane Keaton sits on the floor in a skirt suit, holding a baby, her briefcase and newspaper on the floor next to her

Will We Ever “Have it All”? Examining the Career Woman of the 1980s and in the COVID Era

The US government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has illustrated just how divided the country has become on the topic of childcare and women’s role in the workforce. In October 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its September jobs report, which indicated that, of the 1.1 million workers who had dropped out of the workforce altogether, eighty percent were women, including 324,000 Latinx and 58,000 Black women. The Washington Post, CNBC, and The Boston Globe blamed the labor crisis on the lack of affordable childcare in our country, while others, such as Kenny Colbert, CEO of the Employers Association, told news outlets that women are leaving their jobs by “choice.” Nowhere, however, did commentators consider the question at the heart of the issue: why are women, and not men, quitting their jobs to take on the burden of childcare?

I am skeptical of the word “choice” when it is used relationally to women rather than by women. Even in the most egalitarian households, women often occupy the role of family caregiver, and the burden falls on them to care for sick family members and educate children learning from home. When the pandemic forced our household into lockdown in March 2020, I spent the first two weeks home with my daughter while preparing to move my courses fully online. I had no other choice but to juggle work with child care, often staying up until midnight recording lectures. My husband soon transitioned to working from home, and we decided to split up the day to even out child care— he took the mornings and I took the afternoons. Still, my daughter would always defer to me when she needed something regardless of whose “turn” it was. I was incredibly lucky, however, to have a job that allowed me to work from home despite such challenges.

Essential workers were not afforded these privileges. Women in the service industry, for example, faced the choice of returning to a workplace where a new level of disrespect emerged over the politics of mask-wearing or staying home for their personal safety. Economists warn that such household income disparities could have major consequences on American society. NPR’s chief business editor, Pallavi Gogoi, explained that the pandemic has reduced the number of women in the workforce to levels not seen since 1988. As childcare centers close and workers are furloughed, women who already make less than men may be relegated to the home for the long haul.

Michael Keaton holds a bear in the air while two children surround him and wrap his legs with a bedsheet, and a white woman, his wife, waves goodbye, briefcase in hand
Mr. Mom movie poster. (Wikimedia Commons)

During my girlhood in the 1980s and 1990s, I was told that I could “have it all” when I grew up: a successful, high-paying career, a family, and a satisfying personal life. My worth became inextricably linked to my potential as a worker, and I came to see economic equality as my feminist agenda. I did not recognize the bargain women made by gaining entrance into male-dominated professions: that “having it all” meant “doing it all.” My next book examines the experiences of Xennials (late Gen-Xers born between 1977 and 1983) who discovered feminism in unconventional places, such as film and television. I recently rewatched a selection of “career woman” films produced during the 1980s and was fascinated by the persistence of this “have it all” narrative. The shoulder pads, Reebok high tops, and blaring saxophone solos are luckily relegated to the past, though similar attitudes toward economic equality and the gendered division of labor remain.

Prior to the recession of the early 1980s, a father could earn enough to support a family, and it was still the norm for women to rear children. Feminist scholar Nancy Hartsock explained that, in 1983, “compulsory heterosexuality and male dominance” continued to define societal expectations of the family, leaving very little choice for women who wanted more.[1] The film Mr. Mom introduced the concept of the stay-at-home dad into popular discourse and examined how the recession of 1980 to 1982 forced more and more families to reconsider traditional, heterosexual gender roles. When Jack Butler (Michael Keaton) is laid off from his engineering job at the Ford Motor Company, his wife Caroline (Teri Garr) bets him that she will find a job before he does. Caroline previously received an advertising degree but left the workforce to stay at home with their three children. Jack becomes the stay-at-home parent when Caroline is hired by a Detroit-based advertising firm and quickly moves up the corporate ladder, causing tension in the couple’s marriage.

As a stay-at-home father, Jack experiences depression, boredom, frustration, and emasculation over his mishandling of feminine domestic tasks.[2] The audience is led to believe that Caroline is a selfish, career-obsessed, and absent mother who must endure the sexual advances of her boss because it is the bargain career women must make. By 1989, only ten percent of fathers in America were stay-at-home parents, yet “Mr. Moms” and single dads were everywhere in the 1980s media landscape, including in the television shows Punky Brewster, My Two Dads, and Silver Spoons. Over the past thirty years, the number of stay-at-home fathers has increased by only seven percent as societal attitudes regarding the importance of male breadwinners persist.

In Mr. Mom, Carolyn’s role as a married woman in the workforce is framed as a temporary solution to her husband’s furlough. The unmarried 1980s career woman, however, faced an expiration date in the workplace due to her biological clock. She had to make an impossible choice: ignore the ticking and end up old, single, and unsatisfied, or get married and have children, but give up on her career. When Harry Met Sally, Working Girl, and He Said/She Said depict professional women in antifeminist terms as high maintenance, difficult, and obsessed with their fertility. They are simply biding their time until they meet the perfect businessman, marry, and fulfill their biological destiny. In 1989, Felice M. Schwartz infuriated professional women everywhere in an essay published in Harvard Business Review calling for a “mommy track” within corporate America for women who were “career-and-family” oriented rather than “career primary.” To “have it all,” one must become a superwoman who can work a sixty- to seventy-hour week and manage a double day of domestic tasks and childcare at home.

Baby Boom is a cautionary tale of what happens when the superwoman is forced to face the burden of motherhood. J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is an Ivy League-educated corporate consultant known in the business as the “Tiger Lady.” When Wiatt’s boss asks her to become a partner, he expresses his concerns that she will want to get married. “A man,” he tells her, “can be a success and have a full personal life” because his wife raises the kids, decorates, and provides emotional support.[3] Though J.C. assures her boss that she does not “want it all,” her professional goals are upended when she inherits a baby from a distant cousin. New York City’s corporate world has masculinized her, and she has no maternal instinct to take care of a baby. The film’s implicit message is that feminists brought this dilemma upon themselves by telling women they could be anything they wanted to be. Professional women like J.C. no longer understood the importance of motherhood or even a biological clock. Feminism had made them hard, angry, and uncaring.

Growing up watching these films, I was confused by the contradictory messages in the media about female independence and economic equality. Teachers and parents told girls they could do anything that boys could while women in contemporary society had to compete for success in a world that did not set them up for it. The theory that women could “have it all” was only hypothetical. I remember thinking, “things will get better for my generation.” It feels as though the pandemic has catapulted us back into this world. Women are now responsible for it all – remote learning and their family’s health, while worrying about job retention during insecure financial times. Yet, I am encouraged by stories of women who chose to quit their jobs because the pandemic pushed them to a breaking point. This period of uncertainty has only exacerbated the need for affordable childcare. Even before the pandemic, women workers making hourly pay often faced the decision to work and have their wages go directly to childcare, or stay at home and save money, but lose valuable work experience. The pandemic has emphasized the need for corporations to more seriously consider the plight of their female workers. If change is to come, my hope is that it will come from courageous women who decide they are not willing to compromise their personal health or children’s safety because they were told they could “have it all.”

  1. Nancy C. M. Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Toward a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism (1983),” in Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives, 4th ed., eds. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim (Routledge, 2017), 369.
  2. Mr. Mom, directed by Stan Dragoti (1983; Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 2011), DVD; Mary Doulas Vavrus, “Domesticating Patriarchy: Hegemonic Masculinity and Television’s “Mr. Mom,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 3 (September 2002), 355.
  3. Baby Boom, directed by Charles Shyer (1987; Beverly Hills: MGM/UA Communications, 2001).

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