On a recent autumn night, a friend sat in my mother’s kitchen crying inconsolably. She’d had a blazing fight with her husband and screamed something she feared was unforgivable. As she sat slumped at the table with heaving shoulders, she recounted not just the row, but the stressful day that had crescendoed towards it, the exhausting weeks beforehand, their precarious patchwork of childcare, work pressures, sleep deprivation—on it went. This much was clear: Whatever she’d said in their fight—and the ensuing breakdown—were the byproducts of complete and utter exhaustion.
A nonstop campaign of hyper-productivity had left the threads of this professionally successful woman’s life pulled so taut that when tugged, there was nothing left for them to do but to snap.
She was in her early 40s, 12 years my senior. To me, her collapse seemed like a fairly logical result of the unsustainably high standards and frenetic pace that she’d demanded of herself.
But then again, I’m part of a generation that benefits from the critiques of those who have been there and tried that. We’ve watched the impossibly busy lives that women before us have led. We’re suspicious that “having it all” is possible for anyone except the privileged few who can build a nursery in their C Suite office. We’ve listened to the honest opinions of the Anne Marie Slaughters and Michelle Obamas who’ve said, “That’s a lie.”
The “have it all” mantra has limited currency among millennial women. And who isn’t sick of the phrase?
And yet, for all our inherited wisdom, maybe we haven’t learned much at all. The implications of “have it all” that we can slog our way to equality and fulfillment are ascendant in another form that is very much alive and well among us—I’m talking about hustle culture.
#Hustle, #slay, #grit, #werk, #riseandgrind. These are the words of the zeitgeist. As Erin Griffith wrote in The New York Times: “I saw the greatest minds of my generation log 18-hour days—and then boast about #hustle on Instagram. When did performative workaholism become a lifestyle?”
These catchwords aren’t specific to women. “Hustle” has a distinctive start-up bro-culture origin and flavor, and burnout culture among all millennials is an issue. But they do capture the imagination of young women as a way to wrest control of our lives. Publications like Girlboss itself, with its many pieces on side hustles alone, are a testament to that. “I dream it, I own, I grind-‘til-I-own-it,” sings Beyoncé, the queen of hard work, in her Black feminist anthem “Formation.”
Hustle and “have it all” are different in many ways, but here’s how they’re similar: They both assume that external factors will give us internal validation. They both require us to be breathlessly hard-working and productive, optimizing every moment of every day. They both link women’s empowerment with capitalism, perfectionism, and an elevation in socioeconomic class. As writer and scholar Erin Spampinato said, “We have set the exact same traps for ourselves once again.”
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a cruel king whose punishment for outsmarting death was an eternity of back-breaking toil, pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down. Whether it’s hustle, “have it all,” “lean in,” or some other slogan, does feminism always require Sisyphean toil? Is working harder and faster always the prerequisite of progress?
This dooms us to make the same mistakes and end up in the same places—exhausted, sobbing wrecks at our friends’ kitchen tables. But this is about more than squeezing a Pomodoro of self-care into your schedule. Yes, personal wellness is part of it. But it’s also a question of the brand of feminism that we are buying into and what that means for female empowerment collectively, and personal fulfillment individually.
Feminism and the cult of the grind
When writer Christa Hogan sat down in 2018 to read a special edition of Time called “Women Changing the World,” she was looking for takeaways. “I uncapped a highlighter, flipped open to the first interview, and prepared myself to be inspired and moved,” she wrote on The Ascent. It reminded her of when, fresh out of college, she’d interviewed female leaders for a magazine series in a similar pursuit. “I wanted to understand how the women I admired got where they were… Secretly, I also wanted to know how these women managed it all on a personal level.”
Isn’t this something that we all do—read other women’s stories with our figurative highlighters in hand? Even though it’s now something of taboo to ask successful women about work-life balance, we devour all those profiles on how she “gets it done,” morning routines, productivity recipes, and inspirational quotes.
On one level, this speaks to our deep yearning to live a full life and piece together a guide book on how to do it. It also speaks to the idea that there might be some magic-bullet solution out there that could help us do all of this. But on another level, it’s ‘hustle porn’ that perpetuates our insecurities and traps us in a feedback loop of never enough.
As for the key ways hustle culture is different from having it all, it promotes a less conventional understanding of work-based success, giving more space for entrepreneurialism and pursuing passions. But on the downside, it is less results-focused. That frantic pace of life is not a means to an end like balancing a family with a discernible career, or financial independence. Hustle worships hard work as an end in itself.
“In the version of feminism I was most familiar with [as a young adult], financial independence was the litmus test,” Hogan told Girlboss. “But once I started a family and decided to stay home, it felt like a demotion. It felt like I had to turn in my feminist card to be a whole person.”
“I hope things have changed for the better in the past two decades. I hope younger women are getting more holistic support from female mentors. But what I often see is women kicking ass at work and in their businesses at the expense of their health and the rest of their lives. It seems like in our rush to be equal with men, we’re making the same mistakes of misidentifying our value with our bank accounts and accomplishments.”
Dr. Stephanie Dowrick, PhD, is uniquely qualified to speak on both the feminist movement and this very personal question of being “whole”. She co-founded The Women’s Press in London in the 1970s, one of the largest feminist publishers during the second wave women’s liberation movement, and which published iconic texts such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Dowrick is also an interfaith minister and author of several best-selling books about inner wellbeing such as Choosing Happiness, Everyday Kindness, and Creative Journal Writing.
“The women’s liberation movement of 40-odd years ago had far more ambitious goals than simply luring women into workaholism,” Dowrick said. “Yes, it successfully opened up all kinds of seriously overdue educational and work opportunities, but it also asked women to think freshly about what kind of people we wanted to be and also what kind of world we wanted to create and participate in. That second-wave feminism alongside the civil rights movement was genuinely political. It persistently addressed social class and race or ethnicity alongside issues of gender and sexuality.”
Hustle culture on the other hand “is strongly associated with a version of feminism that is itself highly individualistic and insufficiently questioning of power structures that leave many more people out than they benefit. Those are also the structures that privilege who we are in our work lives and how much we can earn or even ‘demand’ over any other kind of valuing of human existence. That kind of feminism is brutal. It is also far from radical.”
“Very far from ‘having it all’, a work-worshipping paradigm actually asks you to sacrifice almost everything else—including how you regard your own mind, heart, and soul—for a depth of validation that comes from way outside yourself. ‘I work therefore I am.’ This is not to say interesting work doesn’t matter. It does! Hard work, effort, conscientiousness, and trustworthiness also matter greatly. But who and what we are hustling for makes all the difference in the world.”
No step for all women
Spampinato challenges the breed of feminism that fails to question power structures in an article on Electric Lit, in which she argues that “having it all” is a “capitalist nightmare” that “pits the dreams of some of us against the labor of the rest.”
“We live in an era where we mistake the American dream (that with enough grit, anyone can make it here) with the dream of women’s empowerment (that all women will have equal opportunities to each other and men),” Spampinato writes.
Hustle culture is essentially a variety of the grit-focused American dream, repackaged for this generation. If Jay Gatsby were alive in 2019, perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald would have him scaling social classes with a series of side-hustles and a start-up. It is the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness—so long as you #WerkWerkWerk. It is tethered to individualism and the rewards of capitalism.
Conflating feminism with this culture—productivity-obsessed, grind-‘til-I-own-it—creates the same myopias for which Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is criticized: It buys into an illusion of control and ignores underlying systemic issues.
But it also overlooks the fact that achieving individual personal ambition when you happen to be a woman isn’t the same as pursuing collective women’s empowerment.
“The hustle is inherently a privileged and classist concept,” Spampinato said to Girlboss. “It elevates certain kinds of work above others. It’s as obtuse as ‘having it all’ is about the realities of most people’s lives.”
“I think we have to recognize that no real progress is made on the backs of other women or marginalized people, and the vast majority of the mainstream gains we’ve made have been on those backs … on an individual level people should do what gives them satisfaction and (hopefully) serves their values. That said, we have to understand that our happiness and satisfaction isn’t justice.”
“If you’re actually succeeding in a capitalist setting and your hustle serves you, I get that. It’s not the right choice for me, but I could see that happening for some women and being great. I don’t think that’s what the situation is for most women, and I think that’s one of the reasons I’m suspicious of capitalism. It makes us think we all have to ‘make it’ the same way.”
Spampinato recognized the inadequacies of hustle culture in her own life, and did something about it. “One of the reasons I left New York was so I could quit the hustle, because it didn’t serve me,” she said. “For some people it does, because their hustle contributes to their success. Society values their work and they show that by paying them for it. But for me, I wanted to write and do other things that don’t pay any money, so I was just hustling from tutoring jobs to other freelance gigs and spending all my time on the subway so that I could afford two measly hours of writing time a day.”
“So many people try hard—grinding themselves to a pulp—and aren’t granted the dignity they deserve as humans, let alone the means to survive in a capitalist system. You shouldn’t have to be good to be treated as a human, and women trying to empower themselves through perfection is, in my opinion, us falling for that lie.”
Rise up and choose
Ultimately, the questions about the hustle and feminism lead back to a familiar word in conversations about women’s empowerment: choice (and recognizing that having choices is a privilege).
Hogan says, “It seems to me hustle culture comes from a place of competition, scarcity, and lack. As if women have to hustle to prove their worth, instead of living from a place of their own inherent value as people. Feminism is about empowering women to make their own choices. Our power is found in digging deep and figuring out who we are as individuals and not trying to measure up to someone else’s ideal.”
One of Dowrick’s books is entirely about choice. Called Choosing Happiness: Life and Soul Essentials (what a radical notion!) it is about our responses, values, and behaviors in our families, work, and communities.
Rather than being reduced to a choice of ‘hustle or not,’ Dowrick encourages us to make choices that are “authentically self-supporting,” no matter what work environment we are in.
“These are the choices of consciousness and conscience that nurture a priceless inner stability along with inner worth and empowerment,” said Dowrick. She gives a (non-exhaustive) list of the kinds of choices we can make each day:
- Check your own sense of agency
- Choose consciously—with some gratitude that you have choices
- Avoid slave phrases like “I have to…”
- Resist the allure of being “one of the boys” if the “boys”’ values aren’t yours
- Check the research proving working excessive hours is uncreative and inefficient
- Discover that your potential and vision of life are evolving, not static
- Support other people eagerly and generously
- Develop your creativity and freshness of thought
- Listen sometimes to the ‘small quiet voice within’ and to the messages of your body, instincts, spirit
- Grow and treasure your aliveness
Prompts like these lead us deeper and reveal the simplicity of our opening question: Do you have to hustle, grind, be productivity-obsessed, toil like Sisyphus, to consider yourself a feminist?
It’s not just that hustle culture and productivity obsessions are exhausting, incurious, and self-aggrandizing. It’s that, on their own, they can offer an anemic, superficial, and tedious experience of life.
They may be useful from time to time, but overall they’re inadequate vehicles for interpreting and expressing feminism, seeking joy, finding fulfillment, or for that matter, deciding how you will spend tomorrow.
“We can live a life fearful of missing out, of being wrong, of making mistakes, of not being noticed. That’s a choice. And a poverty,” said Dowrick. “Or we can throw ourselves into the heart of life. Work is part of that. It may even be central. But it is not everything.”
“At work and beyond it, there’s the richness of trying what’s new, of falling down, as the Zen phrase would have it, seven times and rising up eight. It’s truly liberating, even exhilarating to discover that it is never our perfection that brings us closer into life or to one another; it is far more likely to be the truth of our vulnerability as well as our excitement. That’s also a choice.”
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