“We had an appointment,” she said brightly. “I thought you were going to call me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I thought you were going to call me.”
And off we went:
“As a card-carrying member of the high feminist tribe, I spent my life trying to break barriers,” she says. “I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, where there was no room for a woman who had a mind, much less one who wanted to speak her mind.”
In her piece, she mentions that she insists that when being introduced at speeches and so forth she be identified both her professional credentials and also as the mother of two adolescent boys. It’s a point of pride as much as a part of the revolution that she is trying to foment in the way the culture perceives — and values — a balanced life.
“Try reading any Secretary of State’s memoirs. Then read Madeline’s book,” she says. (Madeline being Madeline Albright.) “It’s a completely different job. Madeline talks about how you get your hair done when traveling around the world. And she does it deliberately, because she wants to humanize the job, she wants to connect. Women are more inclined to process things personally, and it is how they connect to others.”
I mention that her essay has a few personal details but is not really a personal essay.
“The piece is personal because it’s personally motivated,” she responds. “I am not Ellen Gainsay, an expert of work/family balance. I didn’t want to opine on the state of male-female relations or work family perspective. I do lay out things I think will work. Based on my experience of what I have implemented as a leader, and also as a working woman who has watched countless working women …”
She trails off.
“In so many ways I felt I was betraying something in writing this piece. For my generation to show anything that could be perceived as weakness, or even as feminine difference, was to betray the cause.”
“That is exactly why all these women who worked in law firms in the 1980s have told me that they would never admit they were going home to their kids. Denying professionally that they had a personal side. The irony is [the phrase] ‘the personal is political,’ was initially about trying to tell women that depression was a political matter, not just a personal one. So it is ironic that in trying to break down those barriers, they were proving they could do it just like men. They didn’t want to admit any difference. I know lots of men who do want flexibility in their own careers. I see this as the next stage of equality: I am claiming that women have gotten to a place that they can acknowledge what they want.”
I ask her, as politely as possible, about how things like sex, desire, all the unspoken and impolite thoughts that go unexpressed but are nevertheless present, play into this.
“The women politicians will tell you immediately that they walk such a fine line,” she says. “If you are too feminine you can’t possibly be taken seriously, but if you are too much like a man then you are a bitch.
“I personally feel far more comfortable asserting myself as a woman than as a mother, in terms of being taken seriously professionally. Celebrities, beautiful women being in roles of power, are taken seriously. Madonna is taken seriously as a business woman. That seems to be easier, even though it’s been it’s own trajectory, than taking a mother seriously. That’s why I insist that when I am being introduced, it is said I am a mother of two.”
She has a very enjoyable riff on the frustrations she encountered when she told people in Washington that she was leaving to spend time with her family.
“When you tell someone in Washington that you are leaving to spend more time with my family, no one believes it! What does that say about us?”
Her essay ends with a scene of her strolling through the campus of Vassar College, which, I mention, is where I went to school.
“It was this beautiful afternoon, and I had a sense that this institution, having gone from being all female to co-ed, had charted its own path, which was different than Princeton, which went from all male to female. And I thought that was powerful and good. It was less pressured. The point of departure [in discussing co-education] was still the male schools and how they have gone co-ed.
“My mothers and mentors warned me: ‘Hey babe, it’s a man’s world.’ They were saying, ‘It’s a man’s world and don’t forget it. Do not be fooled. However many women may seem to be out there, the men are still in charge, in power.’”
She turns back to the subject of taking a different path than the traditional “time macho” ethos that is favored in America.
“I’m half-European, I believe strongly that as a creative person, if I don’t have sufficient down time I cannot create. I don’t believe that human beings produce as well when they are working that hard without time for reflection. Also, in developed countries, we need to nurture creativity. The mantra of innovation isn’t going to happen just because you say it. It’s a kind of macho I have participated in when I was in law school. Though in some jobs you have to be less flexible.”
The words “billable hour” are uttered. A fact of life, her tone suggests, but not a pretty one.
She talks about her Twitter feed, and calls herself a “foreign policy curator.”
“If you follow my feed, it’s Syria, Iran, China, but it is also always about empowering women, about development, about tech. I do that because the work we did with Hillary Clinton was about expanding the guns and bombs aspect of foreign policy to include a whole range of development issues: health education, livelihood, women’s rights. I use my foreign policy position to legitimize the scope of what foreign policy is. It’s an attempt to move the needle.
I peered at a photo of the women I had just spoken to, wondering in what country she spends part of each year. Judging from the scarf, I guess France. Second choice: Italy.
I also mulled over our exchange on the subject of Caitlin Flanagan, the wonderful prose stylist who is astonishingly perceptive about everything but herself who has built an entire career of bashing the habits (of thought and lifestyle) of women like Anne-Marie Slaughter in the pages of The Atlantic. Part of what animates Flanagan’s prose is her intense channeling of the work of Mary McCarthy, a Vassar grad. Slaughter ends her piece on a ruminative walk through the Vassar campus. When I asked Slaughter what she thought of Flanagan’s work, she said she was not familiar with it. Slaughter said she hadn’t heard of her.
David Bradley’s vision for The Atlantic, when he bought it, was to make it a kind of hub for the intellectual and power elite, a place of conversation, and his innovations towards that end, beyond moving the magazine from sleepy, erudite Boston to Washington, D.C., include an avid online voice, sponsored events, parties, forums. He should get Anne-Marie Slaughter and Caitlin Flanagan on the same stage to debate and discuss, and stream it live.
Meanwhile, I was left to ponder Slaughter claiming to have never heard of Caitlin Flanagan– who, by coincidence, has a fascinating article about the very woman I had been thinking of before speaking to Slaughter, Jackie Kennedy, in the same issue of the Atlantic. I was convinced of the truth of the statement when she said it. I remain convinced. Yet on further examination I began to wonder. You don’t become Under Secretary of State without being a little savvy, and she spent two years in the State Department where she presumably learned a bit on the job. DC is a tough town, after all, even if you go home on weekends.
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