Thursday, June 21, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter Looks at the Real (and Messy) Balance Between Feminism and Motherhood

Right after I posted my last post where I rant about that Wurtzel piece, I read "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" from Anne-Marie Slaugther.

I think that a lot of the debate over feminism and motherhood (even when it's wrapped up as a stab at the 1%), is a generational shift, and Slaughter gets right to the heart of it:
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
I find it a little ironic that part of the debate about whether you can mother and be feminist is stemming from an older generation of women attempting to shape, nurture, and grow a new generation of feminists--you know, kind of like mothering.

She talks about how her belief in the ability to "have it all" was shaken to the core when she moved from jobs in academia (demanding, but on her own schedule) into a high-power job in Washington (exactly the type of job that Feministe's Jill was saying women need to be working towards in her response to Wurtzel) where the schedule was rigid:
In short, the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be
And I know that so much of that earlier debate focused on how women's "choices" can't be at the heart of feminism, but I just don't buy it. I think that it's valid to want to be a valuable professional, and I think that it's valid to want to be a competent parent. I don't think that those choices and wants are somehow outside of the debate of feminism. I think that they are at the very core of that debate.

I also think it's very important to pay attention to the way that Slaughter frames the importance of role models. Jill's comment on Feministe was largely about how women need to be in those high-profile jobs to pave the way for the young feminists coming up behind them. But Slaughter's experience suggest that simply being present in those jobs is not enough. The young women coming up behind her have, time and time again, expressed that they have no interest in following her unless there is a path that allows them a balance between family and work:
I sat across from two vibrant women, one of whom worked at the UN and the other at a big New York law firm. As nearly always happens in these situations, they soon began asking me about work-life balance. When I told them I was writing this article, the lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize … They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.” Her friend nodded, mentioning the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.
So, I have to ask, when do you move from being a role model to being a cautionary tale? In order to be a role model for young women, you have to model a role in which they can actually see themselves. That means that we have to tackle this conflict between motherhood and parenting head-on. We can't--as Wurtzel tries to do--call issues with parenting a distraction from the "real" work of life. Parenting is part of that real life, and if feminism is going to be a part of women's real lives, it has to address that.

And Slaughter's article is a good example of a piece that does address that in real--and messy--ways. She doesn't have all the answers, and she is fully aware (and admits) that in places her observations don't jive with feminist ideals (for instance, she recognizes that women feel differently about leaving their children at home than men). But this is a conversation that, to me, has much more applicability to real lives because ideals are just that: ideal. We can use them to inform our decisions, but we cannot use them to mirror our lives.

Have you read this article yet? What do you think?


  1. My oldest daughter works in foreign policy, though not as a superstar like Slaughter. She feels this is absolutely the best article she has read on the conflicts she and her colleagues face.

    I have always advocated for the nonviolent revolution for a family friendly society to make it possible for women and men to have it all. The problems of balancing family and work become even more impossible when you are caring for aging parents rather than for your children.

  2. I liked Slaughter's article so much more than Wurtzel's, but I have to ask, why is it FEMINISM'S fault that the work-life balance problem remains? I simply don't understand why women are so mad at feminists for making us all want more, when it's the system that refuses to change and offer the flexibility in professional that will accomodate the legitimate demands of family life, for all of us? The system continually forces us to make a choice. The system continually benefits from the individualization of these choices, so that women will be blamed when they can't reconcile a full-time career with the demands of life outside that profession. Yet feminism is taking the blame for this. It really irritates me.

    1. I agree, and I find that really irritating as well.

      Sometimes, though, I think that feminism becomes something of a scapegoat for this debate simply because it is an intersection that many, many women find themselves trapped within. Work/life balance and gender equality impacts so many women, whether they consciously consider themselves feminist or not, so I think that this debate provides us with a lot of access points through personal experience that brings many different voices to the table.

      Once we're all there, feminism becomes something of a rallying point, a space to gel as much as it is a space to debate. If that's true, it also means that this gives us a place to make feminism tangible and meaningful in real women's lives, which adds legitimacy and substance to the movement in places where it might not have been seen before.

      So maybe blaming feminism for this problem could actually strengthen it? Is that too optimistic? (It probably is, isn't it?)

  3. My GAWD that was a long article. It really grated on me that she gave lip service to "all people" but actually just went on (and on and on) about women and the changes they need to make happen.

    Nothing will change until men (or even just fathers, would be a good start) start standing up in large numbers and saying, no, we will not work 80 hours a week. We will not miss every dinner and every sports game, it's not ok. Until that happens, any action women take will be pretty pointless.

    1. Thanks for posting this article after your last one. Was definately in need of a palate cleanser.

      I totally agree with Kat though. Wanting a reasonable schedule that accomodates family and work is not something women need and want, but something *people* need and want. I didn't marry my husband just to send him off to work every day and never see him. I want our kids to spend time with both of us, not just me.