Anne-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. 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.