When I told my wife I was going to talk to Anne-Marie Slaughter about her Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Can’t Have it All,” she said, “Who thinks they can have it all?”
Slaughter’s essay starts off with an evocation of a glamorous party hosted by president Obama and his wife at the Museum of Natural History in New York. She is, at the time, Under Secretary of State. At this point in her career she should be feeling on top of the world but instead has difficulty enjoying the party, or even noticing it. As she says in the piece:
I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other — or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me.
It becomes apparent that she is up against an unidentified cultural taboo when she tells a friend, another high-powered woman who moved her children to DC and made the husband commute, that the idea women can have it all is a myth one she wants to expose. The friend is mortified and says it will be a major step backwards in the fight towards equality for women in the workplace.
Slaughter was trained as a lawyer and is a policy wonk. Like all politicians and policy people she writes in a Freud-free zone where sex, anxiety, and genuine personal experience are not discussed. But she is also a high achiever and understands that if she is going to talk generally about women’s lives today, she has to start by saying something about her own. The information about her troubled teenage son and her anxiety about what role her work habits might play in his behavior are gestures to the form — the long, reported personal essay.
Slaughter’s essay doesn’t belong in the ever-enlarging pantheon of sensationally confessional essays by women in mainstream magazines, a genre that Virginia Heffernan identified as the “Just Yikes.” But the self-dramatizing mode is always more complicated for the A students than it is for the screw-ups and/or artists. So to quote from Erica Jong’s famous line from Fear of Flying, the personal stuff in Slaughter’s piece is a bit of a “zippless f@*!,” existing merely for its own sake, something to be dispatched with before returning to her business-class seat to get down to precedent and policy.
But why would I quote, or even think of, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying? Once a cultural sensation (when I was about five years old, but I have it on good authority), it is now rather obscure. I think it came to mind because much of Slaughter’s piece is in dialogue with that first and second wave of feminists (Ms. Magazine, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Germain Greer, maybe even Jane Fonda) who paved the way for the career she now has — a woman who can move in and out of the spheres of power academia and government with forays, past or future, into various corporate and non-profit boardrooms.
This first generation – while thrilled, at least in part, by Fear of Flying‘s abandon and the implied emancipation – was quite disciplined and on-message about what women’s liberation would look like in the halls of power. It would look like equality.
But there is a fine line between equality of rights and the presumption of sameness. Slaughter argues in her piece that women have gone too far to submerge their natural instincts, not to mention biological clocks, in the interest of fitting into the structures of power, and in particular the rituals and schedules of the the world of work.
Her mockery of these rituals — the culture of “time macho,” or the ethos that the more hours worked, the better — is a high point of her piece. She calls out the famously assholic Richard Darman for being so invested in the theater of putting in time at the office that, while working in the Reagan administration, he would often leave his jacket on his chair and his office light on to give the impression that he was still at work, even after he left.
She is also quite funny and astute about the fact that in politics, business and (especially) sports, the phrase, “Quitting to spend more time with his/her family,” is seen as a transparent cover for having been fired. No one actually believes someone would quit a major position to spend time with their family. It’s seen as absurd. She is among those who felt this way, and her change of heart is the central drama of her piece.
Later in the piece we are told in passing that her son is doing much better. He is pictured in the article with his brother and father. The father looks a bit frayed but composed in his “dad at home” mode, as one might expect of a guy taking care of two boys throughout the work/school week. He can do this in part because he is a professor who can adjust his more flexible schedule to the needs of his wife, though it should be noted that he is the kind of professor whose career involves deciding to leave Harvard for Princeton. In the photograph, the troubled son is holding drumsticks, which I loved. I took them to be a sign that the anti-Princeton energy was alive and well, though maybe now he generally enjoys things more. Maybe he is in a band. At the least, he presumably talks.
Is the son doing better because Mom is home? We don’t get to find out. But at the time of his troubles, his mother was working in Washington D.C. during the week and commuting to Princeton for family time on weekends. It has been pointed out to me that the article’s conflation of a career with living in a different city from your family is perhaps its most dishonest sleight of hand.
“It seemed totally old-fashioned to me, and thus disingenuous, for her to say it’s easier for a man to move his family to another city than it is for a woman,” remarked Elaina Richardson, who edited ELLE before leaving to run Yaddo, the famous artists colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. Richardson wondered why the husband and sons couldn’t come to DC for the long summer break, and pointed out that many other working mothers have managed the difficult task of integrating a career and a family.
“Nan Talese has managed to run an imprint and raise two daughters and go out to dinners/events most nights with her husband. She told me years ago when I was pregnant that the secret was not to ask permission for things that you were going to do anyway — if you want to be home to bathe your child/do homework with her/attend a recital, just do it and then if you work till 2 am that’s the trade-off you make. If Slaughter’s family had been in DC, she could have done that.”
Slaughter is in her mid-50s. She grew up in a world where women did have a choice, literally and figuratively, about the shape and trajectory of their lives. And yet the answer to my wife’s question is that there was a generation who came into the world of law, finance, and government in the ’70s and ’80s, for whom it was important to maintain the myth that a career and family were things that were not mutually exclusive.
At some point after my wife remarking, “Who thinks they can have it all?” and before my conversation with Slaughter, I saw a photograph of Jackie Kennedy that fascinated me. The picture was from a state visit to the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1967. She is pictured in an evening gown the color of a Tiffany box. She is wearing jewels and white gloves. It’s an action shot: King Sihanouk is showing her some national treasure. Queen Monique is shooting her a very intense, ambiguous look. Jackie is both impressed, impressive, and … there is something else.
The image lingered in my mind for some time, and gradually it occurred to me that part of its poignancy, beyond the ambiguous expression on Jackie Kennedy’s face, was the way she embodied a feminine ideal from an era that was already over by 1967 — the era now memorialized by Mad Men.
My wife, the realist, is a big fan of Mad Men. Every Sunday night she allows herself to be transported to a dreamy confection of female impotence, or trophy-ness, and the spectacle of men adrift in the sea of their own prerogative. I’m not a close watcher of the show but I feel safe in saying Mad Men conveys the worldview against which the first wave of feminists had to contend, the world into which they had to assert the idea that female talent was as abundant and valid as male talent. The world of Camelot was succeeded by modern feminism, of which Jackie O. was something of an emblem, too, which in turn beget the working woman, corporate and otherwise. Anne-Marie Slaughter has some ideas for the next phase.
Hear what Slaughter has to say on the impossibility of “having it all” as a mother and a career-minded person.
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