Did You Even Read It All? A Response to the “Having it All” Debates

Feminism

Apparently, this child has been abandoned naked in a briefcase because hir mommy works too much.

When the July/August issue of the Atlantic arrived in my mailbox with its cover photo of a woman carrying a toddler in her briefcase and its sensationalized headline WHY WOMEN STILL CAN’T HAVE IT ALL­­ (not to mention the still more incendiary editorial “summary”, “It’s time to stop fooling ourselves…”) I plopped down in my lawn chair and commenced reading. It looked like another article about the old binary between family and career, and the choice women must make between these two paths in life, unless we are blessed with enough superhuman power to do both, a kind of super-strength we don’t expect from men. But as it turned out this was just the way the article was packaged and framed by the Atlantic. The actual argument that Anne-Marie Slaughter has made, and the point that reactionaries appear to be missing, is that American people of all genders must restructure our economy if we are to achieve anything approximating a work-life balance. And yes, because of the gender gap in careers that persists, work-life balance is harder right now for women to achieve than men, and yes, the author hopes that women leaders will close this gender gap, but Slaughter is arguing for a much greater system overhaul than a choice that only concerns individual women.

I found the article to be something of a relief, because it confirmed a number of facts I knew to be true. I suppose I am one of the young women Slaughter references, who is tired of being told that I too can “have it all”, the kids and spouse and the high-powered career, after seeing so many older women burn out from the pressure without the financial resources to outsource childcare and  housework. What I have learned from observation is that women are always making choices between family and career, and that even in the happiest marriages, they are shouldering most of the responsibilities at home. What I have learned is that my mother supports my decision to finish graduate school and focus on my career before even considering children, because she knows how hard it was for her to go back to school and re-enter the workforce when her youngest daughter was eleven. And I still have to question, as Slaughter argues, this potential fallacy of my mother’s that I can have both as long as I sequence it in the right way. The women of my generation are no fools. We know that education and birth control can help us to shape the futures we really want, and as a result many of my peers and I are choosing careers over marriage and/or children. On the first day of this semester I asked my students, ages seventeen to nineteen, to write about why they came to college. Several of the young women answered that they have come to college so that they can achieve financial independence and never have to be dependent on someone else. Ain’t nobody’s fools.

So I identified with Slaughter’s targeted audience of young, educated women and I agree with her that “having it all” is still not possible. Yet I am disappointed that her aim to promote changes in economic and social policies has been stymied by debates that oversimplify, dismiss, and misread her argument. 

For example, many writers have criticized Anne-Marie Slaughter for speaking from a position of privilege, as a white, upper class, highly educated woman, and therefore make the assumption that her argument is irrelevant to other women. These writers are reacting to her situation without reading her argument closely. To be much more fair, Slaughter acknowledges her privileged position right away and directly addresses the limitations of her own argument. She dedicates enough page space to identifying the educated class of women she is writing to, clarifies her aim to close what she calls a gendered leadership gap by addressing this audience, and acknowledges the many other women who “are worrying not about having it all, but rather about holding on to what they do have” (89).

To critique, then, only what she does not write and who she does not address; that is, to critique this article for not being about women of a different class or race, or for not being “universal” enough, as if having a universal audience is an achievable goal, is to dismiss her argument wholesale and avoid engaging in productive dialogue. The existence of problems facing less privileged women do not make Slaughter’s article irrelevant. She doesn’t claim to speak universal truths. She only writes about her experience of being criticized for her choices, and she makes a very intelligent argument for economic and policy changes that support parents. This argument is necessary and applicable for lower-income women and single parents, and while she chooses not to discuss policies concerning minimum wage, education reform, and health care that could improve the status quo for most women, it’s not that she’s ignorant of these needs. She just has to start the dialogue somewhere. If you want to continue the dialogue by publishing articles about the problems facing working women who are less privileged, then please, please publish them.

Another popular half-baked reaction is to cry out that men never “had it all” either, even though Slaughter’s proposal for change includes both men and women in America, and she never argued that men did “have it all”. E.g., in Linda Hirshman‘s case, repeating arguments about the economy already made by Slaughter in her article as if they are original rebuttals. In her response to all of this criticism, Slaughter acknowledges again that men have some of the same problems, and continues to assert that women are currently the people most likely to make the choice between career and family; therefore she did focus the article primarily on women. And you know what, men? She’s right. While it matters that men also struggle with work-life balance, and also must engage in economic and social reform, it’s clear that American men do not face the same dilemmas regarding childcare and their careers. Falsely accusing Slaughter of failing to acknowledge her male counterparts and their role in the work-life balance issue only distracts from more constructive questions, such as “how can we implement these policies to make life better for both men and women?”

Others read Slaughter as blaming feminism for causing her problems, and I think that is truly the most egregious misreading of the article. Though she aims to put her dilemma in historical perspective and push for further social reform, and yes, question  mainstream feminist goals as her generation knew them, she never asserts that feminism is the reason she felt like she failed at “having it all”. She does assert that the economic and societal structures in America made it impossible for her to simultaneously be with her family and fulfill a very demanding government job. She does assert that while feminists of her generation aimed to “have it all” (to her generation, she says, this meant having a career and a family), it is still not possible within these economic and societal structures. She does not make an argument against feminism.

By framing the article within this narrow definition of a “feminist” (read: for women only) debate about family vs. career, the Atlantic and others have been able to obscure the fact that Slaughter’s cultural critique had a Marxist bent. It seems that many have been reacting to the title and few have been reading the thesis. Slaughter says that she does believe women can “have it all”, and “have it all at the same time”. “But,” she writes, “not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged­—and quickly changed” (87). In the middle of her article she argues against several prevailing fallacies: that women can have it all if we demonstrate commitment, that we can have it all if our spouses or partners share the family responsibilities, and that we can have it all if we don’t try to have it all at the same time. It’s seven pages in that she starts to propose a set of solutions to restructure our economy and re-value life outside of work, including family life. Here is her ultimate proposal:

  1. Change the economic culture of “time-macho” to one where we have more realistic goals for workers’ time and more flexible schedules.
  2. Change assumptions about working parents and revalue family life outside of work.
  3. Redefine the “arc” of a successful American career according to our current life expectancies and life demands, and change ageist assumptions about older workers.
  4. Rediscover the pursuit of happiness as an American ideal, through the pursuit of work-life balance.
  5. Make space for play, innovation, and imagination at work by allowing employees to integrate their jobs with the rest of their lives.
  6. Include men in the effort to achieve greater work-life balance for Americans.

This is not a proposal for just women. This is not a proposal for just feminists. This is not a proposal for just parents. This is not a proposal for just the 1%. This is not a proposal meant to pit full-time working mothers against full-time at home mothers in some ridiculously oversimplified, sexist and infantilized debate called “the Mommy Wars”. This is a proposal that questions our basic assumptions about happiness, success, and the binaries Americans have created between “work” and “life” or “work” and “family”. Could she have organized the argument more effectively to clarify her thesis? I think so, and she discusses how she might reframe it here, in her response to the debates, titled “The ‘Having it All’ Debate Convinced Me to Stop Saying ‘Having it All’.

      Apparently our assumptions about the economic, temporal and gendered structures of American society are so deeply ingrained that responders have chosen to deflect a well-formed argument for restructuring the economy by returning to our familiar war between the sexes, or the familiar war between “career women” and “family women”. But this kind of reaction, this oversimplification and focus on stale debates, is only another form of dismissal and disengagement. It’s all very passive, very “idk. TLDR!” Three months later, we’re still talking about the article, but we’ve all forgotten what it was really about, if we ever really knew. Wasn’t that the article about how it will always be impossible for women to balance career and family? Wasn’t that the article where the privileged woman failed to acknowledge her own privilege? Wasn’t that the article that only focused on mothers and ignored the problems of fathers in the workplace? No, it wasn’t. Read it again.

—————————————————————————————-

        So we’ve established, and Slaughter has acknowledged, that the article could have been organized more effectively, with more thoughtful rhetoric. Now we need to be asking the more important questions, such as what “having it all” means now and if we (humans, Americans, women, of all income levels and intersections of identity) want or can possibly have “it all”. How might we reframe “having it all” to signify a more achievable goal? I know Rebecca Traister had something to say about that.  Feministe has some intelligent responses to the article here. And this is as good a place as any, too, to discuss Slaughter’s most tragic mistake, one that is actually worth critiquing: her shaky and self-described “dangerous” claim that childcare matters more to women than to men, and that we suffer more emotionally for missing time with our children. On this point, Linda Hirshman, I completely agree with you: there is no place for genetic fallacy in an academic argument. Anne-Marie Slaughter had better retract that claim if she expects to be taken seriously, and quick.

       Gentleladies, time to weigh in.

What do you think about the rhetoric of “having it all”? Is this a goal worth striving for, how might we reframe it, and what does it mean to us now?

How have we as Americans come to establish a division between “work” and “life”, and how can we restore our sense of balance; what would that look like to you?

What is the role of single people in this dialogue?

Other responses, to anything regarding these debates?

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4 thoughts on “Did You Even Read It All? A Response to the “Having it All” Debates

  1. Funny that I stumbled upon your blog and this entry today. I have not read Slaughter’s article, but these questions re-entered my mind today following Julian Castro’s keynote speech during the Democratic National Convention. I agree that we must do away with the binary model that says we can only have a career or a family and that this will require a complete restructuring of our economic system. Beyond that, it requires redefining our ideas about what it means to be successful.

    One minor trend I have noticed is that the younger and techier generation is demanding more flexibility at work. I belong to that small part of the workforce that works remotely from home and many of my coworkers are parents who are able to build their work schedules around their family ones. I’d love to see more of this type of flexibility as we move towards a new economy.

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