Well, I suppose it’s time to say something about the recently penned, (in)famous Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. In this article, Slaughter explains how, as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, aiding Hillary Clinton, she ultimately found the job unmanageable after two years because she discerned that she needed to spend more time with her two teenage sons, one of whom seemed to be acting out and needed some more parental support, even with her husband taking on the lion’s share of the parenting during the week. She therefore left the State department to return to Princeton as a full-time, endowed professor of politics and international affairs. She still works on books and speeches (40-50 speeches a year, good Lord), but she can now spend more time with her family during the week.
The immediate provocation for her article is something else, though: in informing other high-powered women of her decision to leave the State department, Slaughter observes that many are judgmental of her decision to prioritize family over work. Many assume that her choice was a lamentable necessity, and others suggest that only an inferior stock of woman could fumble the career/kids juggling act. Moreover, Slaughter realizes that younger women in their 20s feel suffocated by the supposedly feminist mantra of “you can have it all!” and actually do want to carve out real time for child-rearing, even at the expense of their careers, but they don’t know who they can talk to about that: “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.” Feminism is apparently stabbing everybody in the back.
The thought of attempting to summarize this rather lengthy reflection of Slaughter’s is too daunting for me (it’s 25 pages printed!), so, if you haven’t read it, I recommend you do so. It’s actually a fairly complex piece of writing and deserves some contemplation. Furthermore, there’s been some really good analysis of this piece, much of it critical. Here are some of the main critiques: first, feminists never claimed women could “have it all,” with “all” signifying The Hardest Job Ever + cooking an elaborate meal every night, and that, rather, advertising executives are the ones who coined that phrase in the latter twentieth century. Second, “having it all” is an impossible ideal meant to make women feel crappy and inadequate, so let’s please jettison it rather than blame the feminist movement itself. Third, since Slaughter’s position at the State department was so grueling (getting up at 4:20 Monday to catch the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington, working all hours of the day with attending constant meetings and checking over endless written documents, and then riding the train home late Friday), men would also struggle with the work/family balance in that situation. Fourth, many women don’t want children, so can that PLEASE be acknowledged as A Real Thing rather than a lamentable anomaly signifying career woman cold-heartedness? Fifth, maybe we need to talk about what it takes to cultivate some kind of actual happiness for oneself, and how that’s different for each person, rather than The Platonic Form of Having It All (let’s acquire All The Things, whatever they may be!). Just to name a few kinds of critiques.
I am going to raise a couple of my own questions and concerns specific to my own perspective but also resonant with some of these aforementioned critiques. Here we go.
First, I have noticed at certain points of the media coverage on this article and its backlash that people sometimes still want to critique Slaughter for leaving the State department. The critique goes something like this: “Oh, your 14-year-old son had ANGST? And you got to leave your ridiculously privileged position in the State department to still be a full-time professor at Princeton in order to be around him? Boo-hoo for you having to make that choice to help with your son’s ‘angst.'” This critique is valid in the sense that Slaughter just really does not seem aware enough of the ways that other, less privileged women don’t get to make that choice, and that many of these women just have to work, no matter what, for the money. Slaughter does make a side-comment acknowledging her particular privilege at some point, but she doesn’t do much with it or honestly seem to care (when she suggested late in the article that couples take a cue from her and her husband, who VERY TRANGRESSIVELY “took a sabbatical” year in Shanghai to spend time together, and so that the kids could enjoy the benefit of learning Mandarin, I rolled my eyes).
And, concomitantly, she seems unable to grant, simultaneously: (i) the tremendous debt that she owes her foremothers in the feminist movement for even making space for her to have these choices (again, she does acknowledge them for half a paragraph at some point, but so what?), and (ii) the failures of the feminist movement to address the socioeconomic oppression that women of lower classes still suffer, disproportionately, when compared with educated, socioeconomically secure women. (And this point can be made somewhat analogously with respect to certain social and economic privileges that white women enjoy, and which women of color are often excluded from enjoying.) So when I read this article, I simultaneously thought: where is the gratitude to the women who came before?– AND, if she’s going to critique feminism, why doesn’t she do so on the grounds that it obfuscates our ability to see the ways that many poor women (especially poor women of color) don’t have the luxury of making these same kinds of choices about work and family? Critiquing feminism on the grounds that it supposedly tricks educated, privileged women into thinking they can have every single thing they want, rather than on the grounds that its critique of gender inequality hasn’t actually gone far enough to better the lives of ALL women in ALL classes, is a missed opportunity.
That said, I do think people should shut up about her leaving to take care of her son. That’s her decision to leave the State department, and you know what? Maybe her son really did need her. We shouldn’t act like there’s no way her kid could have been dealing with grave enough problems to merit her leaving, just because it’s a socioeconomically privileged family. We just don’t know, so let’s take her at her word and respect her decision, mkay? The problem isn’t with Slaughter’s particular decision to leave the State department, it’s with the way she blithely generalizes from her own experience.
Second, I’d like to make an observation about the structure of this article. I think it’s a bait-and-switch: it starts out being about the need to talk honestly about women being unable to balance high-level work and family life, but then it moves to a broader and, to my mind, more compelling discussion of reforming the work/life balance for all. It starts out as a critique of feminism from somebody who at least used to be feminist (and still is? or isn’t?) and becomes a critique of how (privileged, educated) people in America think about work and harbor certain expectations about what it involves, as always necessarily coming at the expense of one’s personal life. I suspect that things were set up this way in part to get attention–who doesn’t love a good ole “feminism lied to me” piece? Because then we can just talk about how ambitious women ruined everything with their ambition-y lack of concern about children. Tisk, tisk, Atlantic.
The problem with this structure is that Slaughter makes a lot of confusing statements about gender identity that she never really clears up and that allow certain assumptions about gender which really need to be challenged to go, well, unchallenged. Specifically, I find that men — particular men she mentions and then “men” as such — remain a class of shadowy, ill-defined figures hovering at the margins of her argument about the need to value professional people who value their families. Men are in an in-between state: Slaughter would like to say that they matter in family life, but then she would also like to say that they don’t care about mattering as much as women do, and that this is apparently natural in some vague sense.
On the one hand, Slaughter talks briefly about her ultra-supportive husband bearing the brunt of the parenting responsibilities, and toward the end of the article she alludes to the fact that men can and should also benefit from the formal accommodations offered to new parents in various work contexts. She suggests that work/family balance is a desirable good not only for women but also men, and she offers suggestions for how such adjustments in our work mentality can come to pass. This is actually the core of her argument, and it deserves a more cogent unpacking than she can afford it within the confines of the banal “women can’t have it all” paradigm.
And yet, on the other hand, here’s this gem, worth quoting at length because it is at the heart of what is wrong with this piece:
Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husband or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them. In my experience, that is simply not the case. // Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes. From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help. I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job. // Many factors determine this choice, of course. Men are still socialized to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the breadwinner; women, to believe that their primary family obligation is to be the caregiver. But it may be more than that. When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.” She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the ‘choice’ is reflexive.
While I’m relieved that Slaughter seems aware of gender socialization, I’m disappointed that this awareness seems to have no impact on her decision to still go ahead and say that men and women just are different, because, apparently, there are just Really Deep Feelings that women have toward their children and THAT IS IT. I’d like to clarify from Feminism 101 that gender socialization is not an enterprise of superficiality: the gender mores within which we are raised deeply shape our subjectivity, our sense of who we are; this includes Really Deep Feelings that are seemingly pre-social and reflexive. We really can’t so easily pinpoint the line, in any person’s psyche, between what’s been socialized and what always existed as natural. Quite honestly, I’m a bit surprised I even have to make this point. Cf. Judith Butler.
Now, I’m not going to say, “It’s construction all the way down!” (that would be naive too!) but I AM going to say that the claim that a “maternal imperative” is deep and therefore NOT the product of socialization is just plain naive, even within the context of Slaughter’s article itself. Why this naive reinforcing of hermetically divided gender roles when she has offered so many good examples of men struggling with the exact same kinds of questions about work and family that women have been forced to?
Nature/nurture re: gender identity is an incredibly complicated conversation (and apparently one that doesn’t go away), so all I’m going to say to complicate this for now is that we haven’t really given enough thought to the “paternal imperatives” that are stifled in our commonplace constructions of masculinity. So I’m not saying that women don’t *really* love their children, but I guess I’m also saying that for some reason it seems really hard for us to sit with the idea the that men might actually also *really* love their children such that they may have had to sacrifice a lot to be considered a Real Man. Maybe, just maybe, men aren’t born wanting to spend all their time at work, in oafish ignorance of the lives of their children. It’s a shame that Slaughter semi-obliviously contributes to this stereotype of the Man Who Prefers Work Over Family, especially since her article is actually peppered with allusions to specific men who have had to struggle to carve out time for their families, somewhat to the detriment of their professional lives. Who knows what kind of reflection about work-life balance from men we’re stifling when we continue to peddle these trite gender assumptions not only about women, but about men as well?
Remaining questions and comments, since I am running out of time:
-Apparently balancing being a full-time professor at Princeton with raising teenagers is grounds for feeling disappointed with one’s limitations? Good grief, Slaughter. Adjust your expectations about “it all”!
-Can we please acknowledge that raising children while having a career is not the only challenge that women face? Specifically, single women (including those who do, and those who do not, want to end up in relationships and/or have kids at some point) should not simply be lumped in with men when it comes to weighing the relative challenges of the workplace still operative today. Good old-fashioned sexism, namely, the judgment (often implicit) that women are less competent than men in the workplace, is still a thing. In particular, women’s appearance still carries some significance when their coworkers evaluate their work performance: conventionally “beautiful” women receive positive and negative attention because of their appearance, and conventionally “less attractive” women usually just receive negative attention. In both cases, appearance is seen to carry weight in evaluating a woman’s work performance. There are many studies to support this…and also, I can’t even count the number of times that colleagues and professors (usually male) have randomly commented (positively or negatively) on my appearance, out of the blue, in the workplace. And I have seen this happen to female colleagues over and over.
Overall, I think Slaughter’s article opens up some important conversations regarding women’s AND MEN’S professional lives, though it would be nice for her to realize just how retrograde some of the operative assumptions of her gender politics actually are. Hopefully, though, her piece will bring to light the rifts (some anticipated by her and others not so much) that still need to be addressed.