The first woman to ever become director of policy planning in the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, has written an essay on women and work-life balance in The Atlantic that's sparking national discussion about whether it's really possible for women to have it all.
In "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Slaughter wrote about leaving Washington to resume the career at Princeton University from which she'd taken a public-service leave of absence to serve in the nation's capital. She left because her son, then in eighth grade, was struggling.
She said she represents the relatively narrow demographic that includes highly educated and well-off women, which carries with it some priviledge, but even so, Slaughter noted the "half-truths," including that a woman can have it all, if she is committed enough; that marrying the right person can make it possible; or that it can happen if you can just get the sequence of things right in your life. It would be even harder, she noted, for women who have less education or resources.
The big one, she said, is that commitment alone determines whether a woman can be successful at home and in a career at the same time. "A balanced life still is more elusive for women than it is for men," Slaughter wrote, pointing out that the male Supreme Court justices each have children, but two of the three women are single and childless, while the exception, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, didn't become a judge until her younger child was nearly grown. She further pointed to Condoleeza Rice, the sole female national security adviser, who is also the only one since the 1950s without husband and children.
"I still strongly believe that women can 'have it all' (and that men can, too). I believe that we can 'have it all at the same time.' But 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 acknolwedged — and quickly changed," she says.
The changes she embraces appear gender-neutral, making it possible for men as well as women to reprioritize family against the backdrop of workplace needs, from more flexibility in terms of where work is done to allowing what she calls "intervals" where an investment of time is in family, rather than driving endlessly forward on an upward-trajectory career path. Women and men both need to be able to admit their children have needs and that it's important to meet them. She has begun, she says, to publicly state that she's leaving work on time to get home for family dinnertime or that an absence was due to a child's doctor appointment and to treat family obligations as we do religious ones.
Not everyone frames the issues the same way that Slaughter does.
"Why Women Shouldn't Want to Have It All" is Keli Goff's take, published in the Huffington Post. "My first thought is that Slaughter is to be commended for having the courage to say what many women, particularly feminist women, are afraid to," wrote Goff, a HuffPo contributing editor. "Namely, that no matter how smart, talented, ambitious or gifted a woman is, there is no such thing as a perfect life, so we should stop aspiring to lead one. Just as important, we should stop perpetuating the illusion that any woman — or man — has one. ... But my other thought about Slaughter's beautifully written piece is what a missed opportunity it was. Yet again, a powerful, influential woman had a platform to talk about the issue of choice when it comes to women, parenthood and power and chose not to discuss one of the most undervalued choices of all: the choice not to become a parent."
On Washington Post writer Janice D'Arcy's blog, the burning issue isn't whether women can have it all, but whether it's even a relevant question. She refers to a new report by University of Mary Washington called "Feminism and Attachment Parenting," just published in the journal "Sex Roles."
That survey suggests, says D'Arcy, "that mothers who consider themselves feminist are now more likely to embrace more intense child-focused parenting," including extended breast-feeding and co-sleeping.
The survey found that a sort of society-imposed silence regarding choices left many of the feminist mothers feeling atypical, when they were actually in the majority among those surveyed. "Culturally, we have too often told ourselves that there are certain types of parents: Either passive, professionally underachieving and child-obsessed or self-centered, cold-hearted careerists," wrote D'Arcy.
"It’s so ingrained that we tend to think that since we don’t personally fall into either group, we must be atypical, our work-life problems must be unique. We have a hard time recognizing that none of us, really, fit either stereotype."14 comments on this story
In a Q and A, Slaughter told the New York Times' KJ Dell'Antonia: "I’m hoping we can make space for women and men parents to ask for what they need. Men are equally constrained by career expectations from asking for room to have their family lives. The whole idea that you can’t cut it if you have to go home is hard on any engaged parent. When I was dean [of the the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs], I was very conscious of openly saying 'I have to go to a parent-teacher meeting. I have to go home for dinner.' What kind of society doesn’t let us say these things? People who have to pretend they’re doing something else are just going to be miserable, and ultimately they’re going to drop out."
Dell'Antonia responded that "It seems like we’re not talking about a change in policy, but a change in social culture."
Slaughter's essay and the response in other articles, in turn, has prompted animated online discussion, like this from Jamee Tenzer of Shesarealmother.com after the New York Times piece: "There is no answer that works for all women and for us to say a woman can "have it all" is kind of silly when we don't really know what "all" means to each woman. Instead, we should be asking what is most important for each of us and how can we meet the needs of our work and family? Let's let go of perfection and try for good enough — so that we can have less stress and guilt and more time for ourselves and our families."
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