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Can women 'have it all' when it comes to work and family life?

Published: Monday, June 25 2012 6:29 p.m. MDT

Can women 'have it all' when it comes to work and family life?

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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."

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