This month’s issue of The Atlantic includes an article by Anne-Marie Slaughter titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”
I came across the article when it was shared in a LinkedIn group that I’m a part of, and it immediately sparked a lot of comments and conversation. I’ve been stewing over the article ever since I read it, and I wanted to take time to really think — and write — about what gave me such a visceral reaction.
I’ve narrowed it down to the following:
All For One Is Not All For All
In the context of “having it all” the word “all”should be a self-defined metric. Here, the author has interpreted her son’s difficulties and her decision to leave her position in Washington, D.C. as a failure to achieve it all. She then takes her evaluation of herself, and extends it out to all women to say that because she has, in her own estimation, not achieved it “all” it is therefore impossible for women, in general, to have it “all” and that feminism has misled us in thinking that we can.
For me, “having it all” is about having choices. By my definition, Slaughter did “have it all” — she had the opportunity to choose, and to decline, jobs. She left one high-powered position to return to her previous one. Not all working women have that abundance of choices. Not all women who work do so because they choose to, but because they have to. Not all women have an engaged co-parent to lean on for family obligations when work gets demanding. Not all women have the flexiblity in their jobs to care for a child, or an aging parent, or a sick spouse. Being able to choose to dial one’s career up or down, being able to take a break to give birth, and have a paid maternity leave…these are luxuries that not all parents have.
To be fair, though, if I take issue with Slaughter extending her definition of all to me, I should not do the same to her. My “all” is not her “all,” and she is entitled whatever feelings she has about her own experience and achievements. But, I would like to publicly say: Ms. Slaughter, I think you have a remarkable career and are quite clearly a caring and engaged parent. I admire your accomplishments, both professional and personal.
“All” Doesn’t Mean “Perfect”
“Having it all” doesn’t translate to “a flawless life.” Slaughter seems to have interpreted her son’s rough period as an indictment of her choice to work, despite the fact that her husband was able to scale back at his job to spend more time parenting. Let’s reverse the situation and say that she had instead scaled back to spend more time as a parent, while her husband pursued his career more aggressively. If her son was still having issues, would his father take on that psychological burden and say, “This must be because I’m working too much.”? Why do we do this to ourselves, mothers? Why do we assume that an issue in our family life is somehow caused by our pursuit of a career? And why do we assume that scaling back would fix it? I’m not saying that the presence of a mother (or father) isn’t valuable to a child — it certainly is. But, it’s also not a guarantee that one’s child will progress through life without rough patches.
Women is not synonymous with mothers. The title of Slaughter’s piece is "Why Women Still Can’t Have It All" which, as written, presumes that until a woman has children, she hasn’t achieved it "all." The subtext being, "Working women, you haven’t achieved it all unless you also have a child. Mothers, you haven’t achieved it all if you don’t also have a career.
Women, Humans, or Parents?
I dislike that this argument is presented as a “woman” thing. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” would be better titled, “Why Any Human Being Could Never Have It All, And Still Can’t.” That this is directed specifically at women is telling; it’s because this concept of working AND being a good parent is still seen as primarily a “woman’s issue.” It assumes that a woman’s default role must be as primary caregiver, and that in order to pursue a demanding and/or time-consuming career is an “extra.” And that’s because this is still a prevailing cultural norm that women and men have internalized despite decades spent fighting against it. If a kid gets sick, everyone assumes that it’s mom that will go home from work to care for him. We don’t need to think that way anymore.
More importantly, this article is not about women not being able to have it all — it is about mothers not being able to have it all. That’s a subtle, but important, difference. The title, as written, presumes that until a woman has children, she hasn’t achieved it “all.” The subtext being, “Women, you haven’t achieved it all until you’ve had a child. Mothers, you haven’t achieved it all if you don’t have a career.” That sentiment chills me. And it’s why I return to my first point: “having it all” is about choosing what “all” means to YOU. Everyone else, and their opinions about it, can sod off.
I do agree that society needs to change. We need to redefine what it means to “have it all.” We need to start expecting more out of fathers. We need, as women, to stop taking on such a disproportionate amount of the physical and psychological burdens of parenting. And employers need to think in radical new ways about how to create environments that support people — not just parents, but people. We have the technology! There’s no reason why we can’t think more creatively about how and when we work. We don’t all have to be in a cubicle from 8am-6pm. We can work remotely, we can video conference, we can do a million things that help people pursue their careers on a more irregular, personalized schedule that doesn’t sacrifice the quantity or quality of their work, and integrates with whatever other life goals they have, whether it’s traveling around the world, having kids, or training for a marathon.
That being said, as James Joyner pointed out in his blog post, “Why Men Can’t Have It All, Either”:
“All things being equal, those willing to put 90 hours a week into their careers are going to get ahead of those willing to put in 60, much less 40. While there is any number of studies showing that working too many hours is actually counterproductive from an efficiency standpoint, there nonetheless is a rare breed of cat who can keep up a frenetic work schedule for years on end. And those workaholics are simply more valuable to the company, agency, or organization than those who clock out at 5. That means that those of us who choose to prioritize our children are going to get out-hustled by those without children, or those willing to let their children spend longer hours with a partner or childcare provider.”
That’s never going to change. Sorry. So, yeah — if you want to excel a job that requires (or encourages) 90-hour workweeks, and you also want to have kids, you’re going to have problems — probably personal, familial, and professional. That’s not a flaw in feminism or in you — it’s just a basic limitation of the 24-hour day.