Feminism lied to me!

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.

22 thoughts on “Feminism lied to me!

  1. Thanks for this fine review and analysis of the article and the ideals associated with “having it all.” I have read the piece and some related commentary. Most of the commentary falls into disdain for Slaughter or disdain for feminism; I will have to check out the link that you provided in the piece.

    At 54, I grew up in the midst of the movement and the notion that I could “have it all.” As a corporate executive from the 80’s up until the end of 2007, I watched a lot of “the all” from my vantage point as a single corporate executive. Poor me – I clearly did not have it all! (I was fine.)

    Marriage came late for me and with it, stepmotherhood. Frankly I’m grateful for a different kind of work (parish secretary, grad school, blogger…) that keeps me out of airports, and I do have more time with the family I now have.

    But that the feminist ideal is what served or what failed – well, it is so much more complicated than that, as you aptly break down for us. Thank you.

  2. While there are certainly elements to criticize in Slaughter’s piece (especially the part you blockquote), I felt most of it focused on the need to change both work cultures and social entitlement programs to help people raise families, and I’ve been really surprised at the amount of backlash this piece has drawn from feminists.

    Particular to this blog’s audience, I’m wondering what you theologians think about one of Slaughter’s suggestions for changing cultures: always having her family cited along with her professional accomplishments, for example, when she gives talks. In general, I get why you would want to make it clear that your family is just as important to who you are, just as much a part of who you are, as your job. But in Catholic theology, your family structure could be read as legitimizing or delegitimizing your work. I’m not thrilled about the idea that somebody might grant me more cred if I worked on marriage or family ethics because I am married, and what’s worse is that single folks or those in same-sex partnerships don’t always have the same freedom to assert their own pride in their choices. So this is a fairly minor point of Slaughter’s, but it stood out to me as immediately relevant to what we do–I’d be interested to hear what others think.

    • I’m so glad you brought this up, Kate. I’ve spent a lot of time considering a related question: I was once at a lecture in which Virgilio Elizondo proposed that every theological publication should begin with a statement on the social context of the author. He was thinking primarily in terms of the way that his identity and ministry as US Mexican and mestizo forms his theology, but the suggestion that this should be a requirement highlighted the many ways in which LGBT junior theologians simply are not free to make such statements, as well as the way in which experiences we may not wish to highlight—mental or physical illness, experiences of sexual or physical violence—can influence our theological approaches.

      And, yes, as a single and childless woman I struggle with the question of how I can help create solidarity between single and married and partnered, or childless and parenting, people in the Catholic academy when I have heard some voices calling for greater support of students or junior faculty with family express that call in ways that reinscribe a problematic elevation of the nuclear family.

      • I just want to second appreciation for this thought, Kate– and now Bridget. I personally get kind of an aversion when I hear announcements of family and whatnot when giving a professional talk (which is a different issue than what you’re raising, and which I really appreciate), but I’m not sure what to do with that feeling. I wrestle: am I just an angry-single-family-hating-career-woman or do I have some more substantial critique that I haven’t worked out yet. But yes, Kate, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that such announcements either act for more cred or less depending on the situation of the speaker, and that is not appealing to play in to.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kate. I’ve been thinking about what you said and might do a follow-up post soon that addresses many of the (potentially liberative) suggestions that Slaughter does indeed make in terms of structural change to help people raising families, as you point out. I found those to be the most interesting part of her piece.

      I am also grateful for your second point about the role of family in scholarly identity, as it is something I wrestle with as well, for all the reasons you mentioned. I might recycle your question in a post, if that’s all right with you (tell me if not!).

      • Elizabeth, please feel free to use it in a post. I’ve been glad to hear I’m not the only one who struggles with this. Thanks, everybody, for your comments.

  3. What bothered me about her article as a feminist and a Catholic is that for many women in the US, there is no choice about work vs. staying home with the kids. Some women are lucky if they get any kind of maternity leave, at all, and the ones that do really can’t afford to take the time off.

    And employers not hiring women because they might go off and have kids someday is another rant for another time. My reproductive choices shouldn’t have anything to do with my abilities as an employee, but they do, whether I’ve chosen to reproduce or not.

    • I agree, Jen, that she could have brought out the hard reality of this “balance” for most working mothers much, much more than she did. I get the sense that she *wanted* to talk about structural reform of work environments and such but couldn’t quite pull it together…

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  5. I haven’t read the article though I heard 2 interviews with her and I think that Slaughter did a lot of post-writing clarification (maybe for herself). She was very forthright in both interviews about her very privileged position. She made the point repeatedly that if she found it difficult/impossible to balance work and life, it could only be more so for women (parents) working in low-wage jobs with no flexibility.

    The other, what seemed to be in-the-moment, clarification the interview helper her with was about why it was necessary for her as “mom” to step away. Slaughter was making a generalized gendered “kids just need their moms” kind of statement then hedged it. Then the interviewer noted that it seemed to be more about family dynamics in general rather than Mom’s Very Special Role — she needed to be there because of the specific role she plays in her family and we need to focus on removing unnecessary barriers to working parents — moms and dads — being available to their children.

    Ultimately this isn’t about women not being able to have it all (leaving aside Slaughter’s extraordinarily unrealistic expectation re: “all”), it isn’t even about feminism per se. It is really about how we need to reconfigure work given that most working parents do not have a co-parent who is staying home full time. Forget maternal/paternal drives, it is simple logistics.

    I am a little dumbfounded at her surprise, frustration, description of feeling misled or feeling like she was misleading other women. Econ 101: time and energy are scarce and there are opportunity costs when deciding how to use them (i.e., if you use some parenting, you can’t use it for your career and vice versa).

    I would think by the 3rd wave, we’d have clearly established that the feminism cannot eliminate those choices. Feminist is about subverting patriarchy not the laws of physics and/or biology to give us more time in the day or make it so our productive and reproductive years do not coincide. At best feminism allows us — men and women — to make those choices to best suit our desires, personalities, and gifts while minimizing their opportunity costs.

    • Well-said, MJ. I especially love your point that feminism “is about subverting patriarchy not the laws of physics and/or biology to give us more time in the day or make it so our productive and reproductive years do not coincide.” And thanks for telling me about her interviews; that’s good to know.

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  7. I’ve enjoyed reading this lively exchange regarding Slaughter’s piece, which I found to be an honest and provocative assessment of the challenges facing many American women, particularly those educated, ambitious women who aspire to top leadership positions. I am glad the article is receiving so much attention, and I am hopeful that the conversations it generates will yield productive results. If we want to see more women holding leadership positions, there needs to be change.

    I would like to offer some specific responses to Elizabeth’s initial post. First, the complaint that Slaughter does not pay sufficient homage to her feminist foremothers seems unwarranted. Given the length of Slaughter’s article, it is appropriate that she does not spend more space praising the achievements of female activists of the past. And what better way to honor the venerable tradition of feminism than to continue to wrestle thoughtfully with the new challenges and obstacles that women are dealing with in today’s rapidly changing society?

    Like MJ, I did not read Slaughter’s article as a critique of feminism per se. (It is helpful to recognize, though, that “feminism” may mean different things to different people and that the connotations of the term may change over time.) Rather, I think that Slaughter is attempting to revisit the goals of feminism. Instead of seeking professional success above all, and often at the cost of personal and familial happiness, she suggests that the desire of many women to bear children and to nurture families should be taken seriously and should factor into the equation of feminist fulfillment. Yes, it is important to acknowledge that not all women want to have children and that the value of women does not lie exclusively in their reproductive powers. But it is also necessary to acknowledge and respect the fact that many women do want to have children (and thankfully so)! Slaughter requests that we recognize this fact and consider what it means for women who also desire to build careers and assume leadership positions. Moreover, she offers some practical suggestions for how to better facilitate women’s competing impulses to raise families and build professional credentials. Many of Slaughter’s suggestions, such as the plea to coordinate standard school and work schedules, are aimed at easing pressures for parents and caretakers of all socioeconomic strata.

    Elizabeth criticizes Slaughter for failing to discuss at length the idea of gender as a social construct. Particularly in relation to the section quoted at length above, however, I would offer a different critique of Slaughter’s somewhat vague assertion that women often feel a closer bond to their children than do men. Along with many other contemporary feminists, Slaughter seems hesitant to acknowledge the simple fact that there are physical differences between the sexes. Only females are capable of carrying and bearing children. Nine months of pregnancy is a significant bodily investment that often entails sickness and unpredictable physical changes. As a result, not all women will be able to perform at full force professionally during their pregnancy. Moreover, after giving birth, many women choose to breastfeed, which also has an important impact on a woman’s schedule and career. Slaughter does not deny that men face their own particular problems surrounding the work-life balance. But given the biological particularity of the childbearing act, the responsibility of child-raising has also traditionally fallen primarily on the mother and will likely continue to do so.

    Slaughter speaks from her personal experience and generalizes from her own experience. She does not do so “blithely,” however, but thoughtfully and constructively. Her analysis may not be perfect, but it should be given respect and attentive consideration, especially by those of us who are concerned that women be afforded sufficient opportunities for professional and personal fulfillment.

    • Hey Maria,

      Thanks for the comment. In response I would just say that Slaughter’s portrayal of other ambitious women as largely snide and judgmental, precisely as the immediate catalyst for the article, plus the lack of really striking examples of ambitious women supporting each other now or in the more immediate history of feminism, struck me as casting feminists in a certain simplistically negative (and stereotyped) light. (Though, if women were really snide to her, that’s obviously her prerogative to write about that; it just seems as though those portrayals need to be more balanced with equally striking images of women helping each other in the workplace, which is also a reality that bears repeated acknowledgement, in part so that people can stop writing feminism off as being about a bunch of bitter, callous, child-hating women, ha.). But, as I said in my initial post, I agree that I think this article is really about equitable work structures conducive to family life for all. I think the article was packaged this way (women can’t have it all) in part to be provocative and to get The Atlantic some good attention. But I think this packaging creates a confusing argument and oversimplifies “men” and “women.”

      There’s more I could say about the merits and problems of Slaughter’s article in defense of my initial reading, but I think I’ll end this comment simply by saying that we need a much more variegated account of “women” and “men” if the best of Slaughter’s article is going to shine through. I’ll leave it here and see if anybody else feels like weighing in. I probably won’t be able to again. Thanks for reading.

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