We Have to Stop Talking About “Having It All”

The phrase sells magazines, but Anne-Marie Slaughter deserves to be taken a lot more seriously

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Princeton University / AP

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Why have we spent so much time recently debating the tired old question of whether women can or can’t “have it all”?

That’s the big follow-up line of inquiry, eight days into the brouhaha generated by The Atlantic’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, described her decision to return home to New Jersey  — and to her highly prestigious tenured teaching job — after two years as director of policy planning in Hillary Clinton’s State Department because she felt she couldn’t balance the crazy hours that her “dream job” required with her desire to be present for her family, particularly at a time when her 14-year-old son was having difficulties.

(MORE: Men Never “Had It All”)

Slaughter’s piece began with a personal focus but expanded to talk about the structural limitations of the American workplace and concluded with a number of concrete recommendations for adapting it to the needs of contemporary families. But that’s not the angle The Atlantic played up, with its eye-catching headline and cover photo of an adorable baby rising irrepressibly out of a mother’s briefcase — a “packaging” that the commentator Rebecca Traister rightly identified as a prime example of the most cynical sort of “backlash politics.” And that was, of course, no accident.

(Video: 10 Questions for Anne-Marie Slaughter)

Would a discussion of workplace policy have earned the magazine more than a million hits?  Would it have warranted voluminous print coverage, blogger frenzy, piggybacking radio and TV attention?

Of course not. No more than a focus on the working class and poor women that people love to blame “elite” women like Slaughter for forgetting would have done. The easily caricatured specter of an upper middle class, highly educated and successful woman old enough to have risen high in her career yet young enough to have not yet been defanged into grandmotherliness is irresistible.

(MORE: Can’t Have It All? Blame Our Extreme Work Culture)

And so, as the week wore on, Slaughter became the object of attack— not her ideas, and certainly not the society around us that she critiqued. Also slammed, by extension, were women like her who use their brain power to question the status quo (i.e., “privileged” women who “whine”).

Had it been possible to focus on the larger points Slaughter was making, instead of reflexively allowing our public discussions to run along the well-worn conceptual grooves of Feminism and Its Discontents, it would have quickly become clear that the very meaningful demand for social change contained in her argument (and in the arguments of all the writers and thinkers these days who are calling for the creation of meaningful work/family policies in America) is perfectly of a piece with the social goals contained in President Obama’s long-embattled health care reform law, which the Supreme Court, near-miraculously, voted to keep alive this week.

(MORE: How The Supreme Court Rose Above Partisan Politics)

The vision for an updated, more family-friendly work culture and the goal of affordable health care for all is one that seeks to radically recenter America’s moral compass, moving us away from the extreme individualism of the past few decades and back to the greater spirit of solidarity and  ethic of care that brought us the great social programs — and American successes — of the mid 20th century.

This moral vision and ethical system has taken an all but fatal pounding since the early 1980s. Its antithesis — radical individualism — has proven the most tenacious enemy of women’s achieving economic equity and of families’ achieving a widely-shared and sustainable level of well-being. But this collectively-minded, forward-looking, moral focus of feminism has always been ignored by the media, which has forever packaged the movement for women’s rights as one focused on individual women’s self-contained goals, their private concerns with reproductive freedom, relationship equality and career success, personal fulfillment and the like. These individualistic goals — dismissed by the same media as markers of “privilege” — were never the main focus of actual feminist activism. The “Superwoman” ideal was always viewed as a threat, not a form of heroics. (“We have to kill off superwoman,” Gloria Steinem told the Today show in 1992, looking back on 20 years of Ms. Magazine and the changing society it charted. “It was not invented by the women’s movement. It was invented by the adversaries of the women’s movement.”)

So very many women, from upper middle class high-achievers like Slaughter all the way down the income ladder, are today hitting a wall of frustration after years of trying individually to make all the contradictory demands, pressures and duties of their lives seamlessly work themselves out. Some of these difficulties are part and parcel of the complexities of being human, and particularly, perhaps, of being “fully human,” as Betty Friedan once labeled her goal for women. But many of them have been greatly worsened by the way we live now: in families where both parents often must work around the clock, bearing sick-making levels of stress, and worrying incessantly—not about having it all, but about losing it all, or, at the very least, seriously backsliding.

It’s time to drop sterile clichés like “having it all” and take women’s voices seriously enough that when they open their mouths, or take to their keyboards, we don’t instantly bury their words in a mocking mountain of sludge. “Elite” women like Slaughter aren’t out of touch; they’re in a position to be at the vanguard for change.

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