Why Can’t We All Have It All?

22 Jun

Anne-Marie Slaughter Anne-Marie Slaughter, former professor, dean, and U.S. State Department chief, and easily a Top Five candidate for my short list of favorite International Relations theorists/practitioners, has written an amazing cri de coeur about the travails of family, career, and personal happiness. “Amazing” might be an overused word, but it’s only because professional writers of Slaughter’s caliber rarely use their skill to address issues that are both personal and public.

I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women-to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.

We’ll create a better society in the process, for all women. 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. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek.

But, what really dismayed me were the responses I’ve read to Slaughter’s remarkable essay is, because both respondents viewed Slaughter’s attempt at addressing these intractable problems pessimistically. Firstly, Deborah Pearlstein concludes that:

There’s a personal cost to writing from one’s personal experience. There’s a risk in engaging the personal as political. Anne-Marie Slaughter didn’t need to write a piece like this. But I’m grateful that she did.

If someone with a curriculum vitae like Slaughter’s can’t broach these issues safely and with authority, who can? Who’s going to undermine her accomplishments and future work?

Next, PM views the suggestions Slaughter offers in a context where “…as outcomes become more zero-sum, compromises grow less likely.” He attacks academia frontally.

There is a creeping sense, occasionally publicly broached by commentators like Matt Yglesias (see Tim Burke here), that academia is too comfortable, too cosseted, and altogether too flexible–that we must all begin to work like Stakhanovites to fulfill our quotas of instruction and research at lower wages and with less well prepared students.

This is similar to the neo-liberal argument, that, since the number of persons enjoying the fruits of union organization are too few, unions should be eviscerated for the immiseration of the majority of non-union workers. Like unions, innovations in academic life point to reforms throughout all sectors of professional life.

Which is to say, that I don’t think Slaughter’s assault on complacency is just a feminist rant. It’s a plea for more depth in the workplace roster, so that there are fewer big egos with star complexes. It’s a plea for innovations about scheduling, that take into account the 21st Century evolution of society, from agriculture to whatever this is now. It’s a plea for measuring a woman as a person capable of so much more than, even in addition to, as a baby factory and cheap teacher. It’s a plea, to accept that education is more than sitting in a box for eight hours, and that children need much more than testing and books, to become a professional like Slaughter. It’s a plea for fulfillment, not competition at all costs. It”s personal in the human sense, not just as an academic exercise in gender relations. It’s very democratic.

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