Readers Write for September

Readers Write


UPDATE: The deadline for this contest has been extended to September 30. Extra time to write something on the theme alchemy and send it to us!


Good morning, Gentleladies!  We’re back on the blog after a hectic summer in which two of us moved to new cities and one of us completed a super-smart course load for smartypants. Post Labor Day, I’m feeling like it’s time to get back in the writing game. So here is a Reader’s Write contest for you: up to 500 words in any genre, and the theme is alchemy. The deadline is September 24. Update: The new deadline is September 30. The winning entry will be posted on the blog. Email your entry as an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .pdf) to with the subject line “Readers Write”.

Also, for your brain, a definition of alchemy from good old Merriam-Webster:

Definition of ALCHEMY

1: a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life
2: a power or process of transforming something common into something special
3: an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting
— al·chem·i·cal  also al·chem·ic  adjective
— al·chem·i·cal·ly  adverb

Examples of ALCHEMY

  1. She practiced her alchemy in the kitchen, turning a pile of vegetables into a delicious salad.
  2. The company hoped for some sort of economic alchemythat would improve business.

Origin of ALCHEMY

Middle English alkamie, alquemie, from Middle French or Medieval Latin; Middle French alkimie, from Medieval Latinalchymia, from Arabic al-kīmiyā’, from al the + kīmiyā’alchemy, from Late Greek chēmeia

First Known Use: 14th century

September Readers Write Recap:
Theme – alchemy
Length – up to 500 words
Genre – any
Deadline – Tuesday, September 24   Monday, September 30
Submit here –, subject line “Readers Write”, entry in .doc/.docx/.pdf attachment
Open to – EVERYONE, regardless of gender or sex
Prize – your words on our blog!

Tips for Writing Cover Letters


Writing a cover letter for submission to literary magazines is a skill rarely taught in creative writing classes or workshops. That’s because teachers want their students to focus on the craft of writing, not on the lure of publishing. Writing and publishing are very different; one can be an artist without ever participating in the business side of art. At the beginner’s level, student work isn’t usually ready for publication anyway, and focusing on the art of writing should be the priority. But by the time writers are ready to send their work off to literary magazines, the cover letter still seems to be a mystery to many.

I won’t pretend to be the expert on this, but I have learned some things from professors, and from working on the staff of literary magazines. So, since Broad! has started accepting submissions for our next issue, here are some tips for putting your best foot forward with a cover letter:

1. Keep it brief. A cover letter for a magazine submission differs from a cover letter for a job application or a manuscript query letter for an agent, in that its purpose is entirely clerical. It goes with the manuscript to identify the genre and title of the submission and relevant information about your writing career. It should only be a few sentences long. For most magazines, your cover letter will include:

  • An introduction stating the genre and title of your submission.
  • A list of any relevant publications of creative work, writing awards, and/or fellowships or residencies.
  • If applicable: where you earned your MFA degree, where you teach writing, and/or editorial positions at magazines or journals.
  • A conclusion thanking the editors for their time.

2. Follow the magazine’s guidelines. Every magazine has a set of submission guidelines on their website, and you should follow these to the letter. If the editors want you to disclose in the cover letter that your submission is simultaneous, do so. If the editors want you to comment on stories that you read and liked in their previous issues, go ahead. Show them that you’re paying attention to their magazine. If the guidelines don’t say anything about the cover letter, use step one.

3. Be professional, not personal. I repeat, the cover letter is a clerical document. Resist the urge to tell the editors how you wrote your first book at five years old, and it was about your childhood dog, and your mom laminated it for you. It’s also not professional to include personal biographical information, like that you grew up in Connecticut but summer in Maine, or that you went to space camp when you were twelve. While potentially interesting, this is not information the editors need, and including it makes you look like an amateur. Stick to the information in steps one and two.

4. Cut out all of the padding. If you don’t have any publications, awards, or residencies yet, no problem. Broad! and many other literary magazines publish first-time authors all of the time. So you can send out cover letters that simply say “If accepted, this would be my first published story/essay/poem”. What you shouldn’t do is try to pad your cover letter with less relevant information, like where you got your Bachelor’s degree in Sociology or how you won an award for your writing in middle school. This makes you look like a student, and you want to look like a writer.* In addition, avoid mentioning other works-in-progress. If it hasn’t yet been published, accepted, or won an award, it doesn’t belong in your cover letter.

5. Let the work speak for itself. At one journal where I interned, we read the cover letters last, because we were much more interested in the work submitted than the author’s resumé. I suspect this is the M.O. at many other journals and magazines. Here at Broad!, we receive your cover letters in the emails, but I still try to hold off until after I’ve read the work. Which makes it irrelevant when a writer decides to summarize or analyze her work for the editors. The cover letter is not a query letter to an agent, in which an author tries to sell the manuscript to an agency by making the story sound exciting. Journal and magazine editors are going to read your submission because we read all submissions, and we are going to know if it’s a medieval romance or a set of poems with deep themes of death and longing. Your work should be strong enough that the plot and/or themes need no explanation. Editors also don’t need to know the story of where and how you received your inspiration for the work. Limit yourself to the information in steps one and two, and your professionalism will earn you respect from the editors of any magazine.

* One author told me that even revealing your status as an MFA student makes you look less professional. If you already graduated from an MFA program you might include that information, but leave out who you “studied under”, because it makes you seem pompous and has no bearing on your work. It’s also worth mentioning that while an MFA shows that you have dedicated significant time and energy to the craft of writing, writers without a Master’s degree have an equal chance of getting published, as do writers without a BA or BFA in English. In fact, I’m sorry, but your Bachelor’s degree is not important to mention in a cover letter to a literary magazine.


I hope this post provides some clarification to writers who have been confounded by the enigma of the cover letter. We welcome questions and comments below. And as always, we look forward to receiving prose, poetry, and artwork from our wonderful submitters at Broad! Happy writing!

April 2013: Doors

Readers Write

Picture 6

The winner of April’s door-themed readers write challenge is Jenny Lapekas with her entry titled “Long Stay”. Congratulations, Jenny, and thank you to everyone who submitted!


by Jenny Lapekas

My father begins in the middle of the lot, close to the hangar. He is thorough as he scans the cars in one sweep of his oval eyes. The blue sign seems to sigh from boredom: LONG STAY CAR PARKING. A man’s black Bentley sits dazed, bugs still springing within the vehicle’s frame. This man is a stockbroker who will never know my father’s hand has opened his German-made door. My father’s fingertips are soft pads from years of swimming in chlorine and murky springs, orange shorts and shiny whistle wavering above mud and clay, in search of lost swimmers who have become aquatic corpses haunting the dark waves. These are the same hands that look like maps to me, interstates and turnpikes scattered between cornfields and water, a confusing sort of math.

By the time the man recalls his error, he will resent the ground that passed beneath him.  As he sits at a press conference overseas, he has no idea that my father, the man who collected train sets as a boy, has flicked a simple plastic switch and watched the car’s headlights died down. In my mind, my father sits in his Chicago home, a small boy, crashing his toys together and waving to me from a bright red caboose. The man will return to his hotel and never discover that because of my father, his car will start the first time the jagged key turns, and he will return safely to his family.

My father steps out of the car door, one shiny loafer at a time, positions his captain’s hat, so brave, so pronounced, straight and tight around his head. The golden wings glisten on his lapel as he tosses his heavy coat over his arm and straightens his frame. His tie, the one with small globes and smiley faces on it, escapes from his black jacket and flaps in the warm breeze. My father searches for more twin lights begging his attention. These are the headlights others so carelessly, so humanly, forgot to turn off.

GIFs for Writers


Sometimes words just don’t describe our experiences as well as random video clips, and that’s OK, because tumblr has given us #whatshouldwecallme and a variety of spin-off blogs that never fail to amuse us when we should be doing something more productive. Except I don’t think there’s one specifically for writers and MFA students. And that’s a damn shame. So, to rectify this situation:  UPDATE: A reader told us that there IS a gif blog for writerly types: #whatshouldwecallpoets at Enjoy!

That feeling you have immediately after finishing a first draft:

And when you read it again the next morning:


When people say they don’t really read books:

When my mom tells me about another writer who sold a break-out Young Adult novel she started on her blog:

Graduating with a degree in creative writing:

When someone I know gets published:

(If he or she is my friend)

If s/he is someone I don’t like:

When someone in a workshop tries something new or experimental:

When MFA students teach Intro. to Rhetoric:

When you send your work to literary journals who have rejected you before, knowing your writing has improved:

And of course…

A Gentlelady’s Guide to Ending Slut Shaming

Feminism, Politics

We at Broad! have realized that many of our submitters are young adults in high school, which means that many of the people who read this blog are probably young adults who are dealing with this issue of “slut shaming”. Not that the conversation around shaming women should be limited to high school. Definitely not: I want to include everyone, men and women of all ages, in this conversation. N.B.: I use “woman” in this post to refer to any female-bodied or female-identified human who has gone through puberty, and therefore transitioned from girl to woman, however young. It’s science. 

As for me, I’m in my twenties, going on fifty, so I listen to NPR a lot, and on NPR recently I heard this segment by amazing  sixteen-year-old journalist Temitayo Fagbenle titled “Online ‘Shaming’ a New Level of Cyberbullying for Girls”. The piece made me think that being in high school is maybe a little harder for young women now than it was when I went there, because when I went to high school phones didn’t have cameras, so a guy couldn’t secretly videotape a woman having sex with him and then post that video on Facebook without the woman’s permission, and their peers couldn’t then comment on it and repost it all over the internet, effectively “slut shaming” the woman who didn’t even know she was being taped. So yeah. We didn’t have to deal with that, although people in my high school definitely knew how to participate in the timeless sexist tradition of shaming women for their sexual activity, clothes, and behavior. Adults participate in this too; clearly, since just last month internet celebrity Jenna Marbles posted her video “Things I Don’t Understand About Girls Part 2: Slut Edition”. The video reinforces so many sexist assumptions about women and sex that I’m not even going to link to the whole thing, but instead will show you parts of it through the response of Sex+ vlogger Laci Green, who debunks Marbles’ slut bashing myths. Note: both vloggers use crude language in this video. Not safe for work.

If you watched the video, hopefully you’re clear on what slut shaming means and why it’s dangerous, and if you didn’t, here are some takeaways:

  •  Slut shaming is based on a societal tradition of women “earning” respect and approval through “good” (i.e. monogamous) sexual behavior.
  •  Slut shaming is based on a double standard and is a punishment for women who exercise the same sexual freedom as men.
  • Slut shaming is not about “self respect”. It’s about controlling women’s choices.
  • Slut shaming leads to victim blaming in cases of sexual assault, and perpetuates rape culture.

We at Broad! do not condemn or shame women for the clothes or makeup they wear, the photos they post online, the number of sexual partners they have, or what they do with those sexual partners. Nor do we blame victims of assault or rape for what they were wearing, or where they went, or any drugs or alcohol they might have consumed, because the fault is always that of the person who chose to assault or rape the victim. Why do we not participate in slut shaming and victim blaming? Because we’re gentleladies, and gentleladies have manners, dear. And also because we are committed to working toward a future of gender equality, which includes a sex positive culture for women and their choices, and the end of the rape culture we have now.

But I didn’t say it was easy. Standing up for women is always hard in a society that rewards slut-bashing, victim-blaming, rape culture behavior and silences feminist speech. Standing up for yourself and others is especially hard if you’re in high school. Still, here are some things you can do to stop slut shaming.

1. Don’t participate in making mean comments on photos or videos of women who are being “slut shamed”. It’s pretty easy to avoid commenting or “liking” something that is meant to bully someone else, so one of the best things you can do is just not participate.

2. Redirect others who are participating in slut shaming by pointing out how hurtful it is for the person being shamed, and how their sexist comment or action plays into rape culture. Urge them to respect individual womens’ choices and resist judgmental thinking.

3. Drop shaming words from your vocabulary: slut, whore, skank, bitch, c—, etc., etc. If there isn’t a true male equivalent for a word like this (and there usually isn’t), then by using the word to describe someone else, you’re participating in a double standard that actively shames women for exercising the same freedoms as men. “Manwhore” just doesn’t have the same connotation as “slut”, and honestly, you’ll do just fine in life without using either of those words.

4. Get new nicknames for your female friends. I used to sit next to these two women in a college class who would greet each other with “What’s up, whore” and “hey, slut”. It was…endearing? And showed how much they loved each other? Seriously, I’m all for reclaiming words the way SlutWalk wants to reclaim the word slut and the LGBTQ community has reclaimed the word queer, but something tells me that wasn’t the point for these two. Unless you’re actively reclaiming a shaming word to give it a more positive connotation, maybe greet your female friends with words that don’t invoke such negative stereotypes.

5. Encourage male friends to respect women, and discourage their slut shaming comments or actions. In the NPR segment, Fagbenle interviewed a friend who said he received 2,000 Facebook friend requests after publicly posting an intimate photo of a young woman he knew. He felt good about participating in slut shaming because of all of the positive attention it got him. That kind of positive attention for men who do sexist things is part of what perpetuates rape culture. Men who discourage other men from slut shaming, and encourage them to respect women instead, will have an especially powerful influence on their peers.

6. Educate yourself and others about sexism, victim blaming, and rape culture. Here are some websites to start with: Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog; Women’s Media CenterRAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network); and Sexual Assault Center (counseling and education).

7. Participate in activist gatherings like SlutWalk and Take Back the Night. These can be empowering and help you build a community of people who respect women and women’s choices. You’ll be able to make your voice heard and work to end sexism, rape culture, and sexual violence.

8. Participate in the conversation right here, in the comments section! We’d love to hear about your experiences with these issues and listen to your opinion.

Book Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Book Review

Though the title of this book is paradoxical, it becomes oddly accurate, as Solnit guides the reader into an introspection and a comfort with not knowing, with being lost. It is one of those text-artifacts that is what it means, in that Solnit not only writes about various ways of getting lost, but has a language that spirals in on itself, refusing clarity in search of a deeper grace. From meditations on blueness, to story-songs that map landscapes, to white settlers (or invaders) taken captive by Native Americans in the 1800s, and through her own flirtation with punk rock, Solnit leads the reader on a fascinating, meandering tour.

Readers could expect this book to be absorbed in geography and landscape, but what is surprising and lovely is the intensity with which Solnit stares beyond these landscapes, into their hidden things. There is much meditation on this book about darkness, about mystery. And though there are many quotes I could choose, I think this one suits my purposes:

“It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, ‘live always at the ‘edge of mystery’­—the boundary of the unknown.’ But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”

The dark sea is of course blue, a color that Solnit constantly re-evokes because of its connection with distance, with lost things: blue—as in the sky, as in the ocean, as in the faraway—is not real, but an intricate mixture of light and desire.

I wondered, after reading this book, about my ability to access the dark blue unknown, to go there and get lost. With my GPS and my cell phone, with email and social media accounts and blogs, with Google tracking all of my website visits and advertisers targeting their online commercials to my preferences, there is no longer the same possibility for being lost: for remaking and renaming oneself; for transformation. It feels crass to bring the buzz of the digital age into conversation with Solnit’s work, which is so deeply engaged with the real and the true of history or nature and never with the cheap, passing fads of popular culture. Still, our post-Enlightenment culture worships science, and with these technologies we all seem to be desperately striving to make the unknown known, to haul in all of the mystery and desire we can find, map it, tag it, and monetize it.

I left Facebook for a matter of months and some of my friends behaved as though I had left the world, had gone missing. In the summer during this hiatus a more iconoclastic, nomadic friend passed through town and we met at an arranged time and place because he had discarded his cell phone somewhere between North Carolina and Utah. We found each other but got lost in the park where we walked, forgetting the time along the way. We discussed trust and how leaving digital life is a form of going astray; there comes a doubt, a frustration, from others who would prefer you to be always found. I would like to say that losing a cell phone or an online account is like getting lost in Solnit’s sense, but it is only a taste of that underworld; further transformation cannot take place with so many watching. Much of A Field Guide tells stories of hermitage, of reveling in solitude.

Solnit recognized the anxiety we have historically felt about getting lost, about separation from community, about the unknown. But seven years after she published this book, I have to think that anxiety has been amplified with our fixation on digital identities. Recently I recreated my Facebook profile and was instructed many times, in the imperative, to “find friends”. Today Google+ informed me, after I added three Broad! editors to my circle for a virtual meeting, that I “might be lonely!” if I didn’t contact more people. I think if we are anxious about getting lost, with its implications of loneliness and separation, we are now even more fearful of being lost, of not being remembered in an age when every moment can be simultaneously archived forever and forgotten immediately, buried under so much that is happening in the present. But to continue with Solnit’s paradox, I hope A Field Guide to Getting Lost never will be lost or forgotten; it is an increasingly relevant work of literature that promises to endure.

What Makes a Writer


Last month there was another article in Poets & Writers about whether or not creative writing can be taught. In it, Gregory Spatz told the story of a student who came in writing cliché material, worked hard in his MFA program, and ended up publishing a book of short stories…so voila, the answer is yes, creative writing can be taught!

It makes sense that this kind of article would show up in the annual MFA issue, along with program rankings and short articles about various new programs. There’s always an article like this somewhere; we can’t seem to stop asking whether good writing is the result of talent or hard work. Gregory Spatz does argue that writing can be taught, but he also ended his article with a list of four character traits that helped this student to be successful: “dedication, desire, drive, and discipline.” Desire and drive are the same thing; dedication and discipline are pretty much the same thing, so in the end, according to Spatz, there are two main factors deciding whether or not you can write: you have to want it, and you have to work hard.

People buy the MFA issue and read those articles because they want to know if a studio master’s degree in writing is the right choice for them; if it will be worth the time and money and result in better writing. There’s the ongoing debate, which has its moments of eruption on the internet, about whether getting an MFA actually improves your writing, or turns it into boring, cliché literary fiction, or whether you need an MFA to get fellowships and publications, and really, the only answer to either of these questions is, it depends on you. The best answer I’ve heard to the question of what an MFA does for you is that it speeds up the process. If you want to be a writer, and you’re working hard at reading and writing, and you’re getting honest feedback and revising, you might improve. But if you’re doing all that in an environment where you are given time to write, and you write a lot, and the feedback you get is from professors and students who know what they’re talking about, you might improve faster. So, is that the place where you want to spend your time and get your feedback?

I get tired of that debate about what kind of fiction MFA programs “produce”. Teachers and programs don’t produce writers. Writers produce writing, and if you’re complaining that most of the writing by MFA graduates is mediocre, well, I have news for you: most writing is mediocre! While we should be skeptical of the institutionalization of art, the idea of the individual genius writing on his own is equally dangerous. Someone has to decide what counts as genius, and geniuses have generally had gifts of money and time that allowed them to hone their creative gifts, which is to say that those deemed genius are usually privileged. What I like about MFA programs is the possibility for diversity; the idea that anyone can be accepted for his/her potential as a writer and then given funding to read and write.

People also get upset because having MFA programs for writers creates a system in which some writers can be seen as more legitimate than others. The same debates still rage for visual artists and musicians. Maybe, for some editors and programs, seeing that someone has a degree makes a difference, but I would say the most important factor in any decision is always the writing. I see flat, uncertain writing from MFA graduates all of the time; I  also see compelling, original writing from people who don’t list MFA programs in their cover letters. And the opposite is true for each. I agree with Spatz that writing is not pure talent or pure teaching; it’s some combination of characteristics in the writer’s personality that work to help him/her learn. I’d also like to expand that list just a bit, beyond desire and discipline, because I think there’s more to it than wanting to write and working hard.

Imagination. When people speak of talent in creative writers, they may talk about a finely honed sentence or line of a poem, but I think the root of it is always the writer’s imagination. Imagination is a part of the unconscious that we all have access to, and maybe some people have more access to it, or they tap into it more. To demonstrate imagination in writing requires risk taking; it requires thinking differently from other people and presenting bold ideas that very well may fail. It’s key to good creative writing because it is the creativity, that raw talent that shines through. I know that teachers can teach reading, writing, and revision strategies, and I know that hard work can produce better writing, but creativity comes from within.

Humility. You have two ears and one mouth; use them accordingly. Humility is important for accepting feedback and revising, for checking the ego while writing, and for receiving numerous rejections from magazines and publishers. Humility is the place from which dedication comes. Humble writers read more than they write and learn from the books they read. They continue writing because they are not yet satisfied. Humility means being wary of praise and self-congratulations, and it means being willing to ditch failed work and start fresh. Being open to growth and improvement as a writer often means pushing the ego out of the way. That said, you need to be just foolhardy enough to attempt risky projects in the face of failure.

Obsession. You have to be obsessed. I mean, you have to be batshit crazy about sitting alone at your desk for hours and just making things up, and then revising those things over and over. Desire and drive are much too mild to cover this one. Obsession means needing it even when it doesn’t make you happy, and refusing to stop even if you’ve crossed the threshold of humility and gone straight to despair, which, like arrogance, can be a trap. But, short of clinical depression, your obsession should be able to drag you out of that discouraged place and get you to start over, simply because you have to. This is also where perfectionism and dedication come in, because the willingness to work comes from an obsession with making the work better.

These are the things that cannot be taught. Like Spatz, I want to argue that creative writing can be taught like any other subject, but I always end up arguing that it is something in the personality; it is some particular combination of qualities that make people pursue writing. Because, in the view of the rest of the rational, logical world, writing is crazy. It’s nuts to spend hours making up stories that, in all likelihood, very few people will ever read. It’s nuts to go into any kind of debt for a master’s degree that, in all likelihood, will not result in a related career. It’s a fool’s errand. So, to do it and do it well, maybe you just have to be that particular brand of fool.

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


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?

How to Stay in Love with a Broken World


This essay is my contribution to Molly Templeton’s How-To Issue project, a response to the gender inequality in the New York Times Book Review 2012. You can read about how the How-To Issue started here. You can also read this post over at the Issue.

1. Allow yourself to face the problems. The world is far from perfect. Mitt Romney will run for president and announce an extreme right-wing running mate who thinks Ayn Rand’s economic philosophy is inspirational. A mass murderer will kill twelve people in a movie theater, and another will shoot up a Sikh temple during worship. The New York Times Book Review, in 2012, will act like the feminist movement never happened and only publish two how-to essays by women: “How to Cook a Clam” and “How to Raise Your Kids.”

2. Get angry about these events, and release your anger. Don’t let it seep into your bloodstream and poison you into sullenness; let it out. Rant at the television news anchors, call and vent to a friend, write a journal entry. If you’re going to make empty threats, make them original. Threatening to move to Canada is so 2004.

3. Stop ranting. Transform the sparks of your anger into intelligent, well-argued statements aimed at people of influence, such as voters and congressmen. Make the phone calls; write the letters. That is, if you’re not actually moving to Canada.

4. Remind yourself to look at the beauty. A woman in Afghanistan found a way to get hydroelectric power to her village. A recent college graduate is traveling around the world doing favors for people. A freaking Adele song woke a British girl up from a coma. The American Cancer Society was able to give $5.5 million to Illinois researchers, double what they gave last year.

5. Do not spend too much time questioning the beautiful things. Avoid criticizing them because they are smaller than the seemingly insurmountable problems, or because they could be more beautiful, or because they do not represent a whole and perfect solution. Just acknowledge them, and be grateful.

6. Expect solutions instead of more problems. A cynic expects people to be self-interested, and avoids doing anything out of a philosophy that creating solutions is not worthwhile. Instead, expect people to be generous. They often are. If you sometimes meet with disappointment, you are still bound to have more success than someone who did nothing because she was pre-disappointed.

7. Create more beauty. Don’t be overwhelmed with the idea that you must create perfection, or solve a large and complicated problem with one solution. This is how people grow passive. Just begin with something small: a newspaper article, a piece of art, a favor for a stranger. Meet up with other people who are creating similar beautiful things. Focus on what you’re creating, and on crafting solutions, instead of being at war with the problems. Invite more people, expect their generosity, and be grateful. This is how to stay in love with a world that seems broken: to become the part of it that seeks wholeness.