The 'Having-It-All' Crisis Isn't About Women, It's About the 1%

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We're minimizing the staggering speedup of jobs at the top by labeling it "a woman's problem." Rather, it's the predictable and unavoidable result of the increasing inequality of the American economy.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and, more recently, first female director of policy planning at the United States Department of State, has written an article called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" for this issue of the Atlantic. "Why Women Can't" seems, at first, to be just the latest in the Atlantic's bottomless supply of articles about the toll of modern feminism. (See also: "All the Single Ladies," "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement,"and "The End of Men.")

Unlike the other critics, Slaughter is neither a stay-at-home mom nor a professional critic, which makes her piece more interesting than the usual self-justifying offerings. She actually held jobs, used her skills and education to get ahead, took opportunities when they arose, and ascended to a very high position indeed. It is fair to ask, then, why she is complaining. The precipitating event is not the usual decision to quit all gainful employment and stay home with her babies (despite the deceptive illustration that accompanies the article), but rather, her decision to leave State and return to the self-described easier, more forgiving world of academic life.

A debate on career and family See full coverage

Having finally had a job in the hard-charging world of high careerism, however, Slaughter has seen the light about why women, especially mothers, want to opt out: The demands, especially the hours, are just too great. But Slaughter is wrong. Despite her extraordinary confession that her "further government service would be very unlikely while my [teenage] sons were still at home," what she saw was not a woman's problem. She saw a problem with the entire structure of American working life. And it's misleading and destructive to portray it as something particular to women.

It's misleading because there are many women -- including Slaughter's own boss, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who have managed to work and raise good kids at the most demanding levels of the career ladder. Slaughter's professed embarrassment at the stereotyped sociobiology of her mothers-care-more-about-their-children argument does not obviate the weakness of the claim. Examples like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius are just the most obvious. Just because Slaughter and the other women she mentions (but mostly does not identify) did not find the rewards of power and success worth the sacrifice does not mean the decision is inscribed on the X chromosome. And yet it's a claim central to her gender-based argument.

It's destructive because she legitimates a lot of behaviors and attitudes that make the gender claim a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mothers care more about their children's needs than fathers do, she seems to claim. Children need their mothers uniquely at each stage of the child's development experienced by the writer. (Most of the earlier Atlantic pieces by women with small children made a toddler-based claim; Slaughter, mother of teens, makes a teenager-based claim. What next? Slacker boomerangs need mamma most?) Women care more about waffle breakfasts than men do.

But most destructive of all is that the problem she's identified -- the staggering speedup of jobs at the top -- is not a woman's problem. It's the predictable and unavoidable result of the increasing inequality of the American economy. The chasm between the 1 percent and the rest is so deep and so life-defining that people will do anything to stay in the 1 percent. Even in government jobs, where raw salaries are not the issue, the competition for positions at the tip of the power economy -- with the predictable ensuing financial or status payoff -- mimic the culture of the sharply unequal private sector. And the people who benefit from the surplus created at the top are not hesitant to use their power to extract the last billable hour from the desperate individuals competing for the scarce opportunities of the winner take all economy.

At the end of the day, it's the economy, stupid. Until the cost of getting a B, or being a B-type or even embracing a B-grade lifestyle for a time stops being a life-altering event, everyone, male and female, with a shot at the gold ring, is going to race around the carousel, dodging horses and missing the scenery spinning by. Hillary Clinton's State Department was considered humane for requiring its executives to be at the office "only" eleven hours a day? That would be close to three thousand hours a year, not counting weekends. It's Dickensian.

It may be that men, socialized as they are to value power and money and status, find the speedup less harrowing than women do. But to write men out of the argument is historically illiterate. Working men have been fighting against eleven-hour days since the 18th century (In the United States, Philadelphia carpenters went on strike in 1791 for the 10-hour day.) When ordinary working men got the chance to fight for a 40 hour week, they fought, in many days, to the death. The murderous police attack on labor we call the Haymarket was a response to a rally for an eight-hour day! When did this become a woman's problem? Calling it one only means it will never get addressed. Just like every other problem assigned to women.

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Linda Hirshman is the author of Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution.

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