In October 2012, the Connecticut Forum hosted a sold-out panel discussion with Gloria Steinem, Ashley Judd, Michelle Bernard, and me on “The State of Women.” At one point during the spirited discussion, moderator Michel Martin asked us, “Can women have it all—and what does that mean?”
Steinem’s response brought down the house: “Why are men not asked about having it all? Until men are asked about having it all, it will mean that women are doing it all. Also, it’s a very privileged question, because most women are worried about losing it all. I just think it’s a bullshit question.”
Of course, Martin had to ask, as the question was surely on the minds of the 3,000 in attendance. That summer, The Atlantic had published an essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Months later, we were still talking about it.
Slaughter wrote the essay after leaving a high-level job at the State Department that required her to live apart from her husband and two teenage sons during the week. She returned to her full-time, tenured job at Princeton University, teaching, writing columns on foreign policy, and delivering dozens of speeches a year—hardly a slacker. She was taken aback by the collective reaction, particularly from women, to her admission that she left her job in Washington because she could no longer delude herself into thinking her family was doing fine without her. “I routinely got reactions from other women my age or older that ranged from disappointed (‘It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington’) to condescending (‘I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I’ve never had to compromise, and my kids turned out great.’),” she wrote. For years, she had been on the other side of that conversation: “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.” Now, Slaughter added, she realized she had “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).”
In her new book, Unfinished Business, Slaughter writes that she soon regretted the essay’s title, half-jokingly suggesting it should have been, “Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Stay in the Pool and Make It to the Top.” Nonetheless, she readily admits that the title helped drive print sales and online traffic. To say that Slaughter’s essay went viral doesn’t begin to describe the roar of acclaim—and outrage. As she notes in her book, within a week the online version of the story hit a million views. It is now, she boasts, the most read article in The Atlantic’s 150-year history, with an estimated 2.7 million views. Countless writers and pundits offered their own reactions, for weeks.
That was the immediate public response. What led Slaughter to write her book was what happened in the ensuing months, in email exchanges with readers and face-to-face conversations with women and men who showed up for her speeches across the country. These discussions helped clear out some of the enduring stereotypes taking up too much territory in her own head. “Gradually, I allowed myself to break free from an entire set of deeply internalized assumptions about what is valuable, what is important, what is right, and what is natural,” she writes. “The process was like going to the optometrist and having her flip the lenses in that little machine, with the letters on the far side coming in and out of focus until gradually what had been a complete blur becomes sharp and startlingly clear.” This paragraph in the introduction foreshadows Slaughter’s call to action: Our culture that keeps women and men trapped in outdated, and even harmful, roles will change only when we do—reform starts in our heads. We must be open to new ways of thinking if we are to more successfully—and more happily—navigate what playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman called the “daily mess” of life. From childrearing to mentoring, from who gets hired to how we determine our self-worth, Slaughter sees a need for overhaul in our perceptions as much as in our actions.
In 2009, Slaughter left her tenured job as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs to become the first female Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State. Two years later, she returned to Princeton to spend more time with her family. She is now president and CEO of New America, a nonpartisan think tank “dedicated to the renewal of American politics,” and has also rejoined Democracy’s editorial advisory committee. (We have never met.)
In Unfinished Business, Slaughter has done the hard work of surveying and analyzing the research—nearly 50 pages are devoted to endnotes—and readily shares the wisdom of dozens of other writers, thus illustrating one of her primary tenets: The life of any community is best determined by that community as a whole. In Slaughter’s world, all voices matter, and how we make a life is everybody’s business. She quotes Christian theologian Timothy Keller, who laments that “Americans think about leisure as merely ‘work stoppage for bodily repair’ rather than a time to ‘simply contemplate and enjoy the world.’ ”
Slaughter devotes a good deal of her book to the tensions most mothers, and increasingly fathers, feel as they attempt to strike a balance between work and family. “[K]nowing your presence might help a child, parent, or spouse thrive and that you are stuck in a meeting, or working another late night, doesn’t feel like choosing to sacrifice ‘time with your family,’ something you wish you could have but are denying yourself, for the sake of your career,” she writes. “It feels like sacrificing your loved ones’ well-being for your own aspirations.”
She does this throughout her book, stripping our struggles of their euphemisms and naming what ails us. Boldly, she asks that we stop extolling the virtues of the most competitive among us. Why, she wonders, do we worship them so?
Overcoming the competitive mystique means dismantling its aura of mystery and power. Bluntly, it means asking ourselves why we think people who have made more money than anyone else or risen to the top of a particular hierarchy by beating out others are automatically role models. What about their values? How do they treat other people? What was the cost to their families—the people who brought them into the world, people they married, people they brought into the world? How can that part of the story not be relevant to who they are and how we should think about them?
Her overarching warning is that “[a]ssuming that life will go your way is not a recipe for success.” What she is encouraging all of us—spouses, caregivers, employees, and employers—to do is to integrate all the moving parts of our lives into a more harmonious whole. Productivity, self-awareness, family, social life, love—all of this matters, and each part contributes to the whole of who we are, and who we can be, as families, as workplaces, as communities.
In her Atlantic essay, Slaughter took issue with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that the moment when young women feel the tug of potential parenthood pulling them back from their careers is precisely when they should “lean in” to their jobs. Slaughter remains critical of the “lean in” philosophy, which she sees as encouraging women to try to succeed in a system that is already “antiquated and broken.” And she is done with the myth of the have-it-all woman, too, which is never clearer than in her observations about Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, who is known to encourage corporate women to “do your best and don’t set limits on what you think you can do.” Fine, says Slaughter, but let’s be clear on what that requires. She points out what we seldom hear about Hewson: that her husband was the primary caregiver to their children as she moved eight times and held 18 different leadership positions in the company. “[I]t is not enough to tell younger women that they need ambition and confidence, or even ambition, confidence, and a partner willing to share domestic duties,” Slaughter argues. “Women who plan to accept every promotion and move wherever the company wants them to go will need a spouse who supports them by taking on the full load, or at least the primary load, at home—exactly as male CEOs have always needed.”
She is right, and in spelling this out Slaughter illustrates how her book is as much a personal journal as it is a tutorial—especially when she encourages us to question our assumptions about men and to champion a “men’s movement.” She is, after all, the mother of two sons and is married to Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik, who has often assumed the primary parenting role in their marriage. She chronicles in detail how her husband’s close relationship with their children forced her to reconsider her own cherished view of her indispensable role as chief consoler and comforter. “If I am honest with myself, the toughest issue when I heard our son call for Andy rather than me was not guilt but envy,” she admits. “Even with all the rewards of my career, I would have still liked for them to call me first. . . . Mothers have gotten that special rush for years when a child reaches for us and says no one else will do; the question is whether we really want or are willing to share that role with others.” Slaughter challenges women to examine how we contribute to harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man in America. “Women define the nature of masculinity as much as other men do,” she writes. “If they are going to change, we have to find and embrace an image of a man who can care for children; earn less than we do; have his own ideas about how to organize kitchens, lessons, and trips; and still be fully sexy and attractive as a man.”
Casting the issue of “flex time”—which gives employees more control over their schedules and allows them to work off-site—as a “women’s problem” is to marginalize it, Slaughter writes. And casting work-life balance as a parent’s problem is to disrespect all the unmarried people who have just as much right to build meaningful lives.
What we need, Slaughter says, is a “coalition for care” that builds on the best parts of the feminist movement and expands its reach. We can share the lessons of sisterly support—and most of us feminists have that hallowed list of women who helped us navigate that new terrain—and expand their reach to benefit everyone in our lives.
“Care is the crucible,” she writes. “Care can unite women up and down the income scale and across races and ethnicities. It can unite the experiences of heterosexual and same-sex couples, older generations and younger ones. It can provide a common metric for the quality of single and married life, for couples and communities of different kinds.”
I appreciate the goal, but I bristle at the casual mention of uniting women “up and down the income scale.” This goes to the heart of what has long divided feminist activists from women who have never known the luxury of philosophical debate over their plight.
As early as page one, Slaughter acknowledges that hers has been a life of privilege. She notes how another privileged woman, Betty Friedan, wrote a book in 1963 that claimed to chronicle the despair of American women. Slaughter rightly points out that The Feminine Mystique named a problem for the Betty Drapers of the world, those housewives who saw their lives wasting away in suburbia. But the book did little to address the lives of millions of other women who had no choice but to work, most of them in low-level jobs.
As I scribbled in the margin on that first page of Slaughter’s book: “Great distinction.” Will she succeed in championing these “other” women throughout her own book? Alas, no. There are only occasional references to the many women who are hourly wage earners, and a few mentions of the challenges for single parents, the majority of whom are still women.
I concede a personal bias on this front, as I am the first in my working-class family to go to college, and thus am ever mindful of the continuing challenges for the people I come from. I find it confounding that there is so little discussion in Unfinished Business about how labor unions can elevate the lives of workers who otherwise have no voice in the workplace. I know from nearly 20 years as a Newspaper Guild member that a union not only empowers employees to negotiate the terms of their employment, including benefits and wages, but also protects the rights of workers to speak their minds. I have often said that my guild membership allowed me to tackle the toughest issues as a newspaper columnist, often irritating editors in the process, without fear of losing my job. I was also a single mom for a decade. I was one of the lucky ones, working for a major metropolitan daily with that union protection. Still, I have often described myself during that time in my life as a ghost walking the floors of my own house in the middle of the night after awakening with worry. The union could keep me employed, but the editors were in charge of my hours. I can’t imagine a time during that period in my life when Slaughter’s many suggestions for how to negotiate better work hours with one’s boss—such as admitting that a sick child is the reason for a day off, or asking bosses to let me prove how productive I could be if they’d only let me write at home—would have made me feel anything other than despair or, after one of those sleepless nights, even anger.
When Slaughter writes about the need for flex time, she makes only a passing mention of how such policies can exacerbate tensions between those lower-level employees who are stuck in the workplace and do not have any flexibility and those who are allowed to make more generous incomes working from home or the nearest Starbucks. Her ultimate goal of happier employees is admirable and worth pursuing, but at times she comes across as tone-deaf. I don’t mean to suggest she doesn’t care about support staff. My impression is that she cares about pretty much everyone but is short on solutions for those millions of employees who will never have the time to read her book.
I do want to stress that there are ways for employers to allow support staff to work at home, too. I have witnessed this up close with one of my oldest friends, who is a secretary in Cleveland. After more than two decades working for the same corporation, and always in the office, she’s now allowed to process the weekly payroll on a company laptop from home. On many other mornings, she starts work at her kitchen table, where she answers customer phone calls on her company-issued cell phone. She has long described herself as an early riser but not a morning person, ready to work but not eager to be dressed and at her desk by 9 a.m. Starting her workday at home allows her to start at 8 a.m., rather than racing to get ready so that she can be stressed and unproductive in rush-hour traffic. She is a happier employee, yes, but also a more productive one. She feels respected—and trusted—by an employer that never had any reason to doubt her. But employees like my friend have few champions, and that will change only when we stop seeing them as “the others,” those men and mostly women who exist to make others’ jobs easier. Whenever I have to interview executives at their jobs, I pay attention to whose names they know as we walk past desks on the way to their offices. We don’t feel the need to champion the people we choose not to see.
But let us not end on a sour note. When I reviewed Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for The Washington Post, I made clear that I didn’t agree with all of it, but would be buying the book for our three daughters and daughter-in-law.
They are all married now. Two of them are mothers, and two are pregnant. This grandmother will also be passing along Slaughter’s book, but this time the enclosed note will be addressed to their husbands, too.