Anne-Marie Slaughter on “Having It All”: Some Thoughts

I suppose I should weigh in, albeit belatedly, on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover article on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Some thoughts:

1. First of all, what Rebecca Traister said: “We should immediately strike the phrase ‘have it all’ from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again.”

2. Secondly, no more articles about feminism illustrated with white women in suits with briefcases and/or sad babies, thankyouverymuch.

3. Re: #s 1 and 2 above: the feminist-baiting nature of the article’s title and illustration actually badly misrepresent its message, which is a pro-feminist call to arms to reform the American workplace to be more adaptive to modern family life in general and to women’s lives in particular. But the Atlantic, home of the hateful misogynist concern troll Caitlin Flanagan, has a long history of obnoxious anti-feminism, so their unfortunate framing of the piece is par for the course.

4. So far as Slaughter’s personal experience at the State Department goes, she doesn’t give a lot of detail about why it was so difficult to combine work and family while she had that job. But presumably, a position with the State Department would involve a lot of travel. Moreover, she notes that the job was based in DC and her family remained in Princeton, so it’s not exactly surprising that conflicts came up. Slaughter freely admits that she is far more privileged that most working women, but she doesn’t really deal with the way particular aspects of her job and living situation make her case somewhat atypical.

5. It seems to me that, over the past couple of decades, work and family conflicts have become exacerbated for several reasons. One reason, obviously, is that single parent families and families where both parents work have increasingly become the norm, so there are growing numbers of families with no full-time at-home caregiver. Another reason is that cell phones, computers, and email have made employees ever more accessible, so for growing numbers of employees, the work day no longer ends when they walk out the office door. A third reason is that our epically crap economy has made employers reluctant to hire new employers, so they are trying to squeeze out everything they can from the workers they already have. Many employees are taking on larger workloads, and because it’s a dire labor market they can’t afford to say no to the boss. So juggling more responsibilities at work with family responsibilities at home is becoming increasingly stressful.

In this as in any context, part of the answer to workers’ declining power in the workplace has got to be labor unions. Getting workers organized in the current extraordinarily hostile legal and political climate is a huge problem, but it’s remarkable that Slaughter doesn’t mention the word “union,” not even once. Of course, she’s addressing herself to professional class women who likely would not be eligible for union membership, but even so, unions support a family friendly workplace for all workers. Increasing union density is crucial to achieving the kind of society Slaughter envisions.

6. The other thing Slaughter, amazingly, does not call for is child care. It’s all too typical that she seems to support privatized, personal solutions — there’s a whole section on how important it is for women to choose the right partner, and she’s never clear whether she believes family-friendly workplace policies should be voluntary on the part of the employer or mandated by law. Of all the public policies I could possibly imagine that would most enable women to achieve work-family balance, universal, affordable, publicly subsidized child care would be at the top of my list. I think child care should be every bit as universal and accessible as public education is. Practically every other industrialized country has it, why don’t we? It’s long past time we put child care back on the public policy agenda.

I know, I know, we live in an age of austerity, and anyone calling for a big new universal government program is going to sound like a voice in the wilderness. But someone has to get that conversation started. It’s a pity that in an article that has gotten so much attention and that makes so many salient points, Ann Marie Slaughter passed up the opportunity.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee