So what do I really think of Anne-Marie Slaughter's article ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All") in The Atlantic? As you've undoubtedly heard by now, Slaughter's piece is about how she decided to leave a dream job as the first female director of policy planning for the State Department to tend to her responsibilites on the home front.
Yes, it is another cautionary tale about a well-trodden subject: the difficulty (or is it impossibility?) of work/life balance. But what gives Slaughter's tale punch is that it comes from someone who made the tough climb to the top only to retreat after two years on the job. Plus, she is brutally honest about her decision to pull back.
In fact, she pretty much renounces the feminist package that she had bought into:
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 one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all. . . . 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).
I like people who willfully step into a minefield. But back to my original question: How do I really feel about Slaughter's piece?
Well, it's complicated. First, I think it's important to point out that Slaughter didn't drop out of the workforce. She's back teaching at Princeton—hardly a pedestrian job. So she's not saying that women with families have to throw in the dish towel. What she is saying, though, is that having a highly pressured job in the way the economy and society "are currently structured" makes "having it all" very, very tough for working moms.
I don't think many people can disagree with that, but here's my quibble: Didn't she know that going into the job? Even more than law practice, heading policy for the State Department is inevitably highly stressful. The stakes are unimaginably high, and everything is an emergency. It is not the place to stake out work/life balance.
To be fair, Slaughter is trying to make a larger point beyond her own situation. To that end, she argues that we should rethink our work structures. (Among other things, she urges greater work flexibility, less emphasis on "face" time at the office, and more honesty talking about our home demands at work.) I think she's right that there must be institutional changes to achieve balance in our working lives.
Yet, even on this broader point, I find the article regressive, deflating, and infuriating. Let me tell you what jumps out at me.
1. Slaughter rebukes Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg for putting too much pressure on women to succeed. Remember Sandberg’s TED talk, in which she advised women not to “leave before you leave” (Sandberg says young women are so concerned about balancing work and family that they pull back from challenging work even from the get-go)? This is Slaughter's take:
Although couched in terms of encouragement, Sandberg’s exhortation contains more than a note of reproach. We who have made it to the top, or are striving to get there, are essentially saying to the women in the generation behind us: “What’s the matter with you?”
That's not the way I heard Sandberg. If anything, I thought Sandberg was extremely encouraging to women. Her message is that young women ought to go for the top while they are unencumbered by family demands. Is that so bad?
2. Slaughter assumes women have a greater biological need to "nurture" than men. Even though Slaughter had a supportive husband (also a Princeton professor) who took the "lion's share" of the child care responsibilities, she says that didn't alleviate her stress:
The proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands 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.
Though Slaughter admits, "I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes," I'm puzzled why she placed so much emphasis on how women are wired differently than men when it comes to kids. Certainly, this can't make it easier to argue that both parents should be engaged in caring for their children.
3. Slaughter oversells Michelle Obama as a role model. Slaughter notes that Michelle Obama "started out with the same resume as her husband," but made career decisions based on "the kind of parent she wanted to be." She adds:
We should celebrate her not only as a wife, mother, and champion of healthy eating, but also as a woman who has had the courage and judgment to invest in her daughters when they need her most. And we should expect a glittering career from her after she leaves the White House and her daughters leave for college.
I have two problems: Why does she assume that Mrs. Obama has to wait until her daughters are in college for a "glittering career"? And is being a stay-at-the-White-House-mom superior to being a working mom? Deep down, I wish we had a working first lady. Wouldn't that send an incredibly enpowering message to girls? Of course, I'm realistic enough to know that a working first lady would be political suicide for any presidential candidate.
I get the impression that Slaughter's personal circumstances tipped her decision. She mentions that her teenage son had been going through a difficult adolescence, and that she felt she had to be there to shepherd him. Indeed, Slaughter's pullback from the super-fast track is unusual, because women usually feel the pressure to be close to the homefront when the kids are much younger. By the time their kids are adolescents, working moms are back at work full-speed.
I can only assume that things were very dicey at Slaughter's home. As a parent, I totally sympathize. But I wonder if she would have left the State Department if her son weren't going through this rough patch.
Slaughter suggests that the demands at home made her rethink her priorities, that ultimately she realized she just wanted to go home and smell the flowers:
I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.
The article concludes with a call to arms for everyone—men and women—to put more balance in their lives. But I'm not sure what the takeaway is. Is Slaughter suggesting that the tugs of motherhood make taking up a demanding career impossible, or that it is indeed possible, if only the right systems were in place? (She talks wistfully about how having a female president would change things.)
If she's saying that the stars have to be perfectly aligned before we see genuine progress, then women will have a long, long wait.