Anne Marie Slaughter: I wrote this article as the next step towards equality

Anne Marie Slaughter is, of course, the author of that now famous (or infamous, depending who you talk to) article  “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” published in the Atlantic a few months ago to great hullabaloo.

If you’re a follower of online feminism, you’re most likely familiar with the conversation around the article. It dominated conversations both online and off for weeks, sparking debate and dialogue about a number of issues including work-life balance, maternity and paternity leave, privilege in feminism, and the direction of our movement for equality. If you need a refresher, you can read a roundup of responses to the article here.

This weekend I attended the Women in Enterprise Symposium, where I was privileged to hear Slaughter address an intimate crowd on a number of issues related to her article. Hearing her speak about the article and its fallout, I was struck by how bright, passionate, committed, and down to earth she came off. It occurred to me that while online spaces are crucially important to raising consciousness and sharing ideas, nothing can quite take the place of face-to-face interactions. It reminded me that behind this much-talked-about article that had made such a big splash and become almost bigger than the sum of its parts in the Internet consciousness, there was one woman who was thoughtful and committed and trying. It humanized her for me.

Opening the interview by laughing about how “distressing” it felt for her to have worked 20 years in foreign policy and find that google results for her name show she is known almost exclusively for writing about work-family balance, she went on to delve right into one of the most contentious and provocative parts of the article: its title. Slaughter:

“I went back and forth with the Atlantic about the title. I originally wanted ‘Why Women Can’t Have it All Yet’ but there was some push back on that.”

She also elaborated on what the nebulous ‘having it all’ means to her:

“Having it all means having the same work and family choices that men do. It doesn’t mean having everything you want- no one has that…But I wanted to say that this is really hard and here’s what has to change so we can change that. I did not realize that ‘having it all’ to a younger generation wouldn’t mean the same thing as it does to me.”

On the reactions to the piece, Slaughter said that they fall into three main categories:

“Many women have reached out to me to say they cried when they read the article, that it meant a lot to them. They describe what a day is like for them – maybe if I wake up at 4am instead of 5am I’ll have time to get everything done—and say that if they have to compromise on something they end up feeling like they’ve failed.”

A second category was criticism. Mentioning Rebecca Traister’s piece in Salon by name, she acknowledged that work-life balance could be considered an issue of privilege, but sort of hedged the question and didn’t delve into some of the ways she could work for a more intersectional and inclusive approach into her analysis of the issue as much as I would have hoped.

The third category of criticism Slaughter named could be summed up thusly: what about teh menZ?! She said that she’s heard from countless men who’ve faced taunts, criticism, or even retaliation for taking paternity leave or other measures to be good, involved fathers. They need a change in how the world views them as well, she argued.

Slaughter wants to write a book focusing on the actual solutions she started to outline in her article. She also plans to use the book to do a better job of telling these men’s stories and how they fit into the equation, as well as bringing in her foreign policy experience to tie the conversation to a larger one on America’s place in the world. In the midst of all this, she has a day job teaching and writing about foreign policy in the US, and is, of course, raising her children.

Perhaps most personally exciting were Slaughter’s views on feminism. When I asked if she identified as feminist, she answered in the most swoon-worthy way possible.

“I am so glad you asked this. I am a proud card carrying feminist,” she said with a wide smile.

“We’ve come a long way but that’s precisely it- we have come so far we have to keep going.”

She also acknowledged that she has only seen success because of the work of feminists that came before her, and that she “stands on their shoulders”.

“We haven’t gotten to the place that having a family is the same for a woman as it is for a man,” she said. “I saw writing this article as a deeply feminist move….I wrote this article as the next step towards equality.”

One of the most enjoyable parts of the interview was how candid she was about her own hesitations and insecurities, even as she was embarking on this brave and bold mission.

Speaking out on a topic that was so explicitly personal and feminist and apparently provocative, “I was worried I destroyed my professional identity,” she confessed. And so was her mom! “My mom’s upbringing was that women don’t put themselves forward. The sense that I was out there, exposed, was controversial. So some of her reaction was what we have to fight against even though she is 100% supportive.”

In closing, Slaughter declared that “being a mother for me is the most important thing in my life” even as she acknowledged this was not a popular thing for a high-powered feminist woman to say. She nevertheless maintained “ That’s my real life. And there’s something wrong when somehow that’s less valued. I am a much better leader because I’m a mother.  We have tipped maybe too far in the direction of career as the source of value – and that’s for both men and women.”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    Wait – we can get a card to carry?! Why did nobody tell me this before!

  • http://feministing.com/members/adamssa/ Sara Adams

    The last few lines of her article were really troubling

    “We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart.”

    What is this? Trickle down feminism?

    I think we need to be talking about the working conditions for the women at Wal-Mart NOW. I think we should be talking about raising the minimum wage NOW. I want a female president as much as she does, I’m sure. But I’m deeply unsettled by the idea of waiting to fight for low income women until there is more equality among privileged. elite, and upper class women.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sapadu/ Jacqueline Hentzen

      I think her point was it’s not gonna happen as long as men are running the country. And, really, honestly, she has a point — because having all or mostly men in the government has gotten us, oh… the Senators who voted against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay act, Reps who voted against health care reforms, Presidents who dismissed childcare and reproductive rights as ‘Women’s issues’ that weren’t important enough for the big important men to worry about.

      Or, in other words, she’s saying women need to have more representation before any change will happen. Ideally, we shouldn’t, but realistically, we WILL.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lifetimestudent/ Adrienne

      I 100% agree with the above sentiment. Improving the conditions for working women is going to reach a lot more people and have a much bigger effect than focusing on the rarefied upper echelon.

    • http://feministing.com/members/scarlett/ scarlett

      Absolutely agree! Well said!

  • http://feministing.com/members/ritafantastic/ Rita Carlin

    I read the original article, and I agree that it was problematic. But Slaughter seemed (1) genuinely interested in helping women, (2) aware of her own elite bias, and (3) made a good point, that for a multitude of psychological and physical reasons women are hard-pressed to “compete” at the level that men do in high-level business and politics. If there are fewer women in high level business and politics, that does have an impact on middle-class and poor women. I don’t think you should write this off as “trickle down” feminism, Sara Adams–if we had more women in state and national congresses, do you think the War on Women would be as threatening as it is? If we had more women running businesses, wouldn’t they be more likely to create programs to help their female employees juggle work and family, like in-house babysitting or maternity/paternity leave?

    Should the plights of elite women be the focus of feminist efforts? No. But at the heart of Slaughter’s argument was a problem common to ALL Americans. NO Americans have enough free time with their families. All of us are expected to work too hard, and take too few vacation, sick, and family care days. This is not a feminist problem, this is a civil rights issue, and it leads us to weight problems, drug abuse, and mental health problems.

    I do hope that, before writing her book, Slaughter researches things from viewpoints across the economic spectrum. She needs to interview a lot of poor and middle-class women, and perhaps even try living with the kind of wage restrictions that the poorest women have to deal with and still feed their families.

  • http://feministing.com/members/virginiaftw/ Monica

    Can I ask you something? Was it possible for you to ask a follow-up question? Because I for one would like to know what it means for Anne Marie Slaughter to be a feminist. Every movement has its contradictions and different views coexist under the same big umbrella. But in many points of her article I, a proud-carrying card feminist, felt insulted and angry. So I am very curious to know what she means when she says she is a feminist. Does it mean fighting for equality with men or does it mean fighting to let the world accept that as she says in her article “choice is reflexive” for women and will always go towards family and hence the world must revolve around this imperative? It seems to me that the two objectives are quite different and if the objective is the latter then maybe I am not a feminist after all.