Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

Really interesting article in this month’s Atlantic magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter. I look forward to hearing our readers’ thoughts. Here’s a quick excerpt:

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.

19 thoughts on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All

  1. Slaughter is also interviewed today by Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.
    Thanks for the link to the article.

  2. I set aside some of my negative feelings about the piece long enough to say that I appreciate the important points she makes. And it is a cautionary tale as to how women and feminists can do wrong even as we think we’re doing right by others.

    However, I cannot help considering it slightly less than excellent writing to fail to observe that, by the way, feminism is not, and as far as I can discern never has been, a movement that says you can have everything imaginable at the same time in some cloudless heaven lacking any material conditions, without compromising or finding anything difficult. That seems the sort of b.s. sentiment of American capitalism and advertising, not feminism. Further, it strikes me that to the extent she is, admirably, taking responsibility for having previously, herself, shoveled the cliche to others that you can have everything, whatever that means, she is not making it clear that she’s confusing her personal smugness and, now, the personal smugness of acquaintances (who “regularly” tell her “I’ve never compromised”? Really? She knows a lot of real jerks at Princeton!) with feminism.

    Let’s face it, a lot of us can be judgmental asses and use whatever -ism comes to hand to think well of ourselves and meanly of others. But that’s not a reflection of any -ism. It’s just morally irresponsible behavior on our parts.

  3. It is an interesting read! What I found so frustrating, however, were passages such as “Sheryl Sandberg recently acknowledged not only that she leaves work at 5:30 to have dinner, but also that for many years she did not dare make this admission, even though she would of course make up the work time later in the evening” Notice the presumption that any successful person must work way more than 40 or 50 hours a week. And that none of the changes she suggests really amount to fundamentally changing corporate/governmental culture. So, she leaves unaddressed how extant sexism still helps explain why the 50-50% female/male graduate school population ends up becoming 2% women 98% men at the top. The last paragraph’s “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…” That’s just false…what we needed was a Supreme Court that recognized the truth that women as a class have been systematically discriminated against. She kept calling herself a “feminist”, but I wondered why?

  4. Fabulous, and I share your sympathy with it, Laurie! Thanks for posting the link!

  5. L.A. Paul– thanks for that. That paragraph about men and women and the ‘maternal imperative’ is the Atlantic article is appalling. What does she think an internalized social expectation looks/feels like? As though it’s immediately introspectively discernable that *that’s* what it is? Were it only so. oy.

  6. the men I now who are very sucessfull do work 40/60 hours a week. women, my lawyer, who has two houses and a big boat, also works almost non stop. she is on her phone or computer even on the boat, never stops working. right now thats reality. thats what is expected of you for a three figure salary

  7. True, but I take Slaughter’s point that the way things are set up, that’s also what is expected of many for a five-figure salary. At my last job I really WAS the job, never off, always working, for half what I make now. I agree with Slaughter that it’s not good for any wage-earners to be expected to have families that don’t need us, servant-spouses and invulnerabilities to luck or change.

  8. Wow, thanks for posting this! It resonates with me so much more than the Atlantic article did. My embodied experience is different — skinny white northern body instead of “fat, black, southern” body — but like her, my parents came from poverty and never told me I was gonna “have it all.” That plaint early and often in Slaughter’s article absolutely set my teeth on edge, and I really thought Slaughter misrepresented feminism even as she represented herself. Social justice movements, I thought, are not individual all-having movements. “The article seemed to not only take for granted that all women have been told that they should have it all but that all women have, if not an intimate, then definitely not an adversarial relationship with power. ” That’s fabulous, I love this!

  9. Rachel and Prof, i’d like to blog about this bringing together a couple of themes. Let me know, big, if you are thinking of doing something on it.

  10. Like a further post on related themes? I hadn’t planned a post on it in the near future, no. But feel free to email me any draft thoughts if you’d like me to kibbitz!

  11. The work-family balance issue is responsible in large part for the enormous rise in contingent faculty. Contingent faculty now account for 64% of faculty in American universities, and women account for 73% of that rise over the last two decades. Women opt for contingent positions when their children are young, then can’t get off the “mommy track” when their children are older. This is true even if they start off in tenure-track positions. The proportion of female full professors has remained steady over two decades at about 20% of faculty. Here are my blogs on this issue, which present the full picture.



  12. “Having it all” was always the key to human happiness, not just women’s happiness. The workplace today is a jealous mistress that demands workers sacrifice their personal lives, their reproductive efforts, and most particularly, their children’s early childhoods just in order to remain employed. It has gotten much, much worst than it was even just ten years ago. Now it is not just people who want to be CEO or provost who must choose between having a life and having a job, even middle managers and clerks must make that draconian choice. No one is asking whether the 19th century rules of the workplace should be changed in order to realistically accommodate reproductive effort. Having children has now become a “personal choice”, a privilege of the wealthy.

    But getting any real dialog on this is turning out to be impossible. Every time a woman raises her hand and asks why people are required to sacrifice their reproductive effort just to keep their jobs, she is shouted down by women who fear she wants to push us all back into the 1950’s. Where are all the feminists who believed it was necessary to change the rules of the workplace to be more family-friendly? They were everywhere in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Now all young women seem to want one thing and one thing only: To become a stereotypical 1950’s man, marrying the job, behaving fecklessly, and always, always putting their personal lives and families second to the almighty job. Even leaving the workplace at 5 pm is frowned upon. Someone who is serious about their careers will work and work and work until their employers decide they have been used up.

    One of my favorite shows is The Good Wife about a Georgetown trained lawyer who re-enters the law profession after having spent 13 years raising her children (although the show slants it more towards her having sacrificed her career for her husband). The assumption is that a woman who has been “wasting her time” raising her children could not possibly be competitive with the young bucks and fillies fresh out of law school. She is able to get a job only because she has a friend at a particular law firm to gives her a chance. Of course, all of the fear that this 30-something or 40-something woman will be more of a liability than an asset turns out to be nonsense.

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