Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic: “Women Still Can't Have It All.” Can Anyone?

Atlantic cover shows a woman holding a white baby in a briefcaseAnne-Marie Slaughter’s new cover story for the Atlantic is out today. In it, she discusses how “women still can’t have it all” and outlines some possible solutions to the work-life conundrum she’s faced in her career as a professor and government official. Says Slaughter:

All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

Feminist critics’ reactions to this piece have been a mixed bag so far. Some people are rightly pointing out that Slaughter comes from a position of extreme privilege (something she acknowledges in the piece, but only kinda) and that many of the issues she frames as affecting “women” actually apply only to “white, educated, wealthy women who have high-powered jobs.” Many lower-income workers and people of color never have the option to stay at home with a family, let alone take a sabbatical to Shanghai for a year. This is true, but I don’t think it disproves Slaughter’s points about work culture, it only makes them less universal. white baby sitting in a briefcase You’ve got a long, depressing way to go, baby. As a childfree young-ish person, I found Slaughter’s arguments both interesting and depressing. Slaughter herself mentions a generational shift she’s noticed in women’s expectations, and I have to anecdotally agree. Women of my generation don’t, in my experience, expect to “have it all” (which in this case means a successful career and kids) without making big sacrifices. The very notion of having “it all” sounds so ludicrous to me that I can’t help but put it in quotes. As Rebecca Traister argues at Salon, “We should immediately strike the phrase ‘have it all’ from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again.” According to Slaughter, though, this wasn’t true for her generation:

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.

The problem, then, isn’t with feminism (as some would have you believe—more on that in a sec) but with our cultural attitudes surrounding work and family. Feminists are right to want “it all” (The quotes! As a cynical millennial I can’t help it!) if “it all” means a career and a family, and society should allow for that. Where this article loses me a little is in its focus on women as opposed to everyone. I agree with Slaughter’s points about how “we should be able to move to a culture where the office is a base of operations more than the required locus of work,” and how we should “choose and celebrate different role models [who prioritize family life]” but this isn’t just a women’s issue. It affects everyone who works and has a family—and that doesn’t just mean kids, either. “Family” in this case means “a life outside of your career,” which is something we (almost) all want out of life. Why aren’t we asking whether or not men can “have it all”? Wondering, “Have feminists sold young women a fiction?”—as a subheader in the piece does—completely obscures the point. To be fair though, much of the OMG BLAME FEMINISM framing comes not from the content of Slaughter’s piece but from its packaging. Of course the Atlantic, home of headlines like the “The End of Men,” “The War Against Boys,” and “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” would slap a baby on its cover and ask “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Calling this article something more measured, like “Why We Need More Workplace Flexibility,” wouldn’t sell magazines the way a panicky HOLY SHIT WOMEN story does. All that being said, I do think Slaughter makes some solid points in her piece. We do culturally value work over family (though we purport to do the opposite), and any number of U.S. workplace statistics prove this. I appreciate that Slaughter outlines some steps for how we might change this, because if we want to “have it all,” we need to make real policy changes and paradigm shifts. Slaughter’s article isn’t perfect, but I hope it’s a step in the right direction. How about you? Read an interview with Slaughter about her piece here at the Hairpin.

by Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

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22 Comments Have Been Posted

Having it all? Not really.

Personally, I think this notion of "having it all" within the current context of our society is not a healthy goal to have (for anyone, regardless of gender.) This division between personal life and work life is not an absolute, and has not existed for most of human history. It is hard to juggle domestic responsibility and full-time work because it's not how we're designed to function as a species.

Capitalism has done an excellent job of convincing us that wage slavery is normal, and it has destroyed our family lives in the process. Wage slavery is terrible, period. We need to focus on changing our lives and dropping out of consumerism in order to change how we live. That requires that we change our notions of what "success" is.

I was a working-class girl, raised by a single mom, who went to college and after years of scraping and working as a waitress, finally got a fancy office job. I stayed there for only 2 years, because I realized how soul-sucking it was. It's not worth it to sacrifice yourself in order to slave away for a large corporation, sitting in traffic for 2 hours each day, destroying the planet and destroying your health with stress. I'm now living creatively in order to live the way I want to live (it's a work in progress, but I'm getting there!)

It's sounds very out there to suggest a re-direction of what our culture values, but I think it's worth shooting for.
It's about time the mainstream feminist movement stopped trying to encourage women to emulate what the Capitalistic Patriarchal culture has defined as "success", and make our own definitions that are healthier for ourselves and our families.

Isn't being able to, "make

Isn't being able to, "make our own definitions that are healthier for ourselves and our families" having it all?

Not necessarily. Creating a

Not necessarily. Creating a personal definition doesn't always make it manifest.
It's hard work, and some of us have more means to create what we want than others do.

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A few things

I don't think anybody can have it all. I totally understand why you put it in quotes.
That said, I think the discussion about having it all, in order to be a true discussion, needs to be less of a women's issue. I also think any discussion that is comprehensive should include a reference to Veronica Chambers' excellent book, Having It All, which is often not included in these discussions which sort of gloss over the experience of working-class, middle-class and people of color. I have the Atlantic issue with this article in it, but I haven't read it yet.
The sentiment behind Having it All, though, seems to suggest that women want too much. They want to be happy, just like men. But societal expectations for them to be perfect and never fail do not match up with the shifting cultural changes in our country. Women fail to be equal, but not for lack of trying and that's not feminism's fault, they fail to be perfect women/mothers/wives/partners because if they work too much they're not good mothers even if they climb corporate ladders and if they live childfree, they're selfish shrew-spinsters who couldn't be "real women." So the confusing cross sections of these beliefs work against thoughtful women at every economic level and across ethnicities.
I'm looking forward to reading Anne's piece and having a more specific response to it. But I'm still annoyed by the insinuation that women are failing at life just by taking advantage of the opportunities that our foremothers fought for us to have. It is, after all, extremely American and Western to continue having the same conversation about having everything after decades of debating the same. I am content to have enough. I know a lot of women who are. When can we start having that conversation, I wonder? "Why it's amazing to have enough." I guess it's not as sexy.

i was confused about my

i was confused about my feelings on this article. and I'm not going to lie, i did NOT read that whole thing, by any means! I'm too tired. lol. maybe tomorrow. but there was something that just didn't quite speak to me, and i had a hard time articulating it for a minute. but what really speaks volumes about us, as a society, is that we still have these internal conversations about "WOMEN" or about "MEN" ... when there are almost 7 BILLION people in this world... so say it is 50/50... we are actually attempting to group 3.5 billion people into one neat little category? i understand its not as simple as all this, but i think this is what needs to be addressed. i don't know how to make it "better" because i do understand that we need to discuss "women's" issues, but at the same time, it feels so beyond flawed.. especially about saying that women just want to be happy like men, or "have it all" like men .. which men are these? and how do men have it all if their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives aren't happy or don't have it all?
funny thing, i was watching Kathy Griffin show the other night when Chelsea Handler was on, and I was beyond disgusted by a comment she (Chelsea) made, when they were discussing the fact that women make 0.77 cents on the dollar ... Chelsea said something along the lines of "the more we talk about women not being equal, the more it becomes reality." and also discussed how well off she is, and how lucky she is, so she wanted to stress she was NOT complaining.. it was as if she was so afraid that by standing up for other women, or even talking about inequality, that the fairy that granted her wish to be successful would come and take it all away, that she wouldn't even talk about it... just left a bad taste in my mouth. That she was so lacking in confidence in her position of power that she felt she couldn't help other women out less she be punished, just made me really sad. And obviously i don't agree with her in any way, but maybe she was getting at something I missed ... that by continuing to discuss women in this way, we are defining ourselves or our sex as the Other, opposed to the male sex. And we need to figure out a way to stop doing that.
But i digress.
Good night.

Of course women can't "have it all"...

someone has to take care of all those little unpleasant facts of life so men can. Ugh. I do so hate this entire discussion. The only reason women can't "have it all" is because so many men refuse to pull their weight and so many women allow them to get away with it. I have a career. I have 2 kids. I make most of the money in the house. My husband cooks dinner. He does the laundry. He loads the dishwasher. He takes care of the younger child when I'm at work. Notice that I didn't say he "helps me" with that stuff? He does it because it's his job as much as it is mine. As long as women put up with some asshole who doesn't take being a father and partner seriously, we'll continue to hear this same nonsense. I haven't put up with it, and I don't have any problem having a career and a family.

I love when people get

I love when people get righteously angry. Our desire to make feminism palatable to the wider world means that we often stifle our very legitimate anger, and I just wanted to say you're awesome.

Meanwhile, I just posted this idea on another blog, and I want to throw it out here as well: women's "choices" aren't really choices when there is systemic inequality skewing them. The "choice" to work less isn't necessarily a free one, by any means.

And I never did understand the phrase "have it all."


I initially felt pretty isolated from this article. Slaughter does, after all, seem to be speaking to all of us, but on behalf of a select demographic, ie, young, privileged, incredibly ambitious women. I fit the former two bills, but even for all my desire to advance in my career, I'm not the rhodes scholar-pulitzer winner-astronaut-law journal editor-mother that Slaughter points out is the norm for most females profiled at the tops of their fields. I think it's a worthy point to make, to recognize that often, the only female role models we have in positions of power are, like, superhuman abstractions of what not just an average woman, but an average educated, privileged, intelligent, and ambitious woman, is. It took me a minute to digest, but i do think there is some universality in the message that says "we need to expand not just our definition of success, but also, the perceived profile of who can succeed." It really is, as many commenters have already pointed out, a much more far-reaching cultural issue, comprehensive of men and women and institutional roles and rights, than I often see it to be.

It is a trap

I posted about it over the weekend:

I doubt any of these writers care to ask me if "I have it all" - nor do I expect someone to text me the question. Here's my response…I'm sure you will sense some sarcasm.

I do have it all. ALL of it. I have laundry, email, and dinner to make. I have a daughter who knows the names of the people in my work world better than she knows her extended family. I have a husband who's keeps a calendar to know when I'm home for dinner, and when it's his turn to cook. I have student loans, bills, a car that got a really bad car wash, and a stinky bear that I had to "pull some strings" in order to rescue him from daycare at 11 at night. I "have it all" for a couple of people.

I see the point of these writers - theres's an inequity in our worlds. Have your babies too young and you endanger your educational opportunities, which then impact your income-making prospects. Have your babies too old and you endanger professional advancement, which then impact your income-making prospects. And - if you forego (either by choice or force) babies, there's this unspoken implication that you do not see the value in childrearing.

And here we are again…the value of a woman has been boiled down to our willingness to have children. Not our desire to have children, but our willingness. How nice.

So, here's the deal. Clearly, I sense a conspiracy here. There's a distraction at play, and the ladies are all being fooled into forming a circle to start shooting at each other. There's the stay-at-home mom, the attachment mom, tiger mom, working mom, the no-children lady, the infertile, the all or nothing, the bitch, the pushover, the liberal, the conservative…. I didn't even get the chance to talk about the economic inequities of women - within womanhoodland.

Don't get distracted, there's a political war that is separating and compartmentalizing women. I have this horrible gut feeling that we are losing this war. Our menstral cycles are clearly not lined up, and we are not on the same page. Maybe once scientists find the cure for male-pattern baldness before a cure for breast or uterine cancer...we will start to feel that sense of urgency.

Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Atlantic: "Women Still Can't Have

It's going to be finish of mine day, but before end I am reading this enormous post to improve my experience.

"Having it all" vs happiness

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