Responding to Anne-Marie Slaughter on “Having it All”

by Nicole Hardin

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department and current Princeton University professor, wrote an article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  

Her personal testimony sparked facebook comments and blog responses all over the internet. Redstockings consulting member, Nicole Hardin, shares a response she wrote after she put her kids to bed:

I don't have much time to respond since I am a single parent tonight. But here are some of my reactions. I liked the beginning of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article.  I was glad to hear someone from a (former) position of power saying that the idea you can have it all is complete BS; and that if women can’t find a work-family balance today, it is not a personal failing or because they just don't want it enough.

However, the article disappointed me by calling for personal solutions: change your expectations, plan career peaks later, etc. There wasn’t much mention of the two reasons we are making these Hobson’s choices: men, who do not sacrifice as much as us; and our current economic system that screws all of us.**

Instead of suggesting a shorter workweek for all workers, she suggested we change workplace norms so women can work from home when our kids are asleep. This assumes we want a world where we spend all our time at our jobs. I do not want this. I wish she had tried to tackle having a work life that you love with kids and having a life.  Personal time—to reflect, be with friends, read, exercise—is entirely absent from her article. Perhaps it takes far more bravery than I think to say this, but I do not want all my non-working and non-sleeping hours to be family. This presupposes that I have nothing I want to do like read, do political work, take walks, drink wine, and see friends. Our productivity has doubled since the 1950s. Why are we working even longer hours and making less real money? Because corporations are taking all the profits.


She did make a change-the-system suggestion that I loved and have been saying for years: make school schedules match work schedules. She writes, “The present system is based on a society that no longer exists—one in which farming was a major occupation and stay at home moms were the norm. Yet the system hasn’t changed.”

And now we get to men. While Slaughter spent most of the article mentioning husbands that made their wives’ careers possible by spending more time with the children, this simply is not the norm. I wish she would have said that, and demanded that men do at least half of the work raising children and taking care of the home. The reality is that if women want a family and a career, they end up doing much more of the work. Men simply do not make as many sacrifices as us or we wouldn’t have the situation she so eloquently points out here:

“Among those who have made it to the top, a balanced life is more elusive for women than it is for men. A simple measure is how many women in top positions have children, compared with their male colleagues. Every male Supreme Court justice has a family.  Two of the three female justices are single with no children. And the third, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, began her career as a judge only when her younger child was almost grown. The pattern is the same at the National Security Council: Condoleezza Rice, the first and only woman national-security adviser is the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.”

She did make an interesting point about the way family policies are implemented in the workplace, and making them mandatory for men and women could lessen the discriminatory effects on women for taking them:

"In 1970, Princeton established a tenure-extension policy that allowed female assistant professors expecting a child to request a one-year extension on their tenure clocks. This policy was later extended to men, and broadened to include adoptions. In the early 2000s, two reports on the status of female faculty discovered that only about 3 percent of assistant professors requested tenure extensions in a given year. And in response to a survey question, women were much more likely than men to think that a tenure extension would be detrimental to an assistant professor’s career.  So in 2005, under President Shirley Tilghman, Princeton changed the default rule. The administration announced that all assistant professors, female and male, who had a new child would automatically receive a one-year extension on the tenure clock, with no opt-outs allowed. Instead, assistant professors could request early consideration for tenure if they wished. The number of assistant professors who receive a tenure extension has tripled since the change."

This example reminded me of paid parental leave in Sweden where both parents must take the leave in order for the family to get the full leave time. This pushes men to take the leave too –which is good in its own right, men doing more child-rearing work, but also means women aren’t singled out in the workforce as the only ones who may leave to take care of a child.

Slaughter’s article has been re-posted by many women I know - clearly, it is striking a chord. I’m glad people are talking about it and finally saying its a myth that women can have it all under the present conditions. We need to break through that myth to get somewhere. But we have to talk about the work week demands of our jobs in a capitalist system and call on men to do more at home. It seems that there is a rising tide among women having kids who recognize the blatant flaws of trying to have a career and family. I hope they join the feminist movement, and together we can steer that tide toward some real concrete changes.


* Read the Atlantic Monthly article here
**For more on this topic, check out Redstockings packet, “Women's Liberation & National Health Care: Confronting the Myth of America” at www.redstockings.org