Women Having It All: The Debate So Far

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The Atlantic's recent cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," has torn up the Internet since going live Wednesday night. With 777,751 unique visits as of this morning and counting, and with over 1,500 comments, 126,000 Facebook "likes," and countless Twitter debates, readers are taking the debate to a new level. Formal media has weighed in as well. Here's a summary of where the discussion is so far.

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At Slate's XXfactor, Hanna Rosin says that, in response to the article, she has changed her behavior:

I try now to be honest about what I have to do during the day. I try to be honest with female and male colleagues. I've also done another thing Slaughter suggests--when I am speaking on a panel, I ask to have listed among my accomplishments "mother of three children." After so many decades of mothers working, maybe it's time to end the collective American fiction that toddlers take themselves to the doctor or that they get sick only on weekends.

What's With the Baby in the Briefcase? What Does 'Having It All' Mean?

Even before the piece dropped, the cover was getting attention. "[F]or all I know [it's] a scorchingly awesome piece of feminist writing," wrote Feministing founder Jessica Valenti. "But the headline/art/cover is just too awful and (knowingly) plays into the anti-feminist cliche the search for work/life balance is greedily trying to have 'it all.'" Graff at The American Prospect puts the cover in the context of some of The Atlantic's previous pieces on single women and working ones:

Someone [at The Atlantic] doesn't like us, except when we're agonizingly single, or home with our babies, or killing off men's careers. Someone there got stuck on some 1980s Time magazine misinterpretation of feminism as exhorting us all to be "career women" (does anyone really use that term?) in shoulder pads and sad little bowties, leaving our babies home alone, refrigerator open, to fend for themselves while we try to Have It All and Reach The Top.

Rebecca Traister at Salon has a more far-reaching reaction to the provocative cover: "We should immediately strike the phrase 'have it all' from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again." The phrase "is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall. Irresponsibly conflating liberation with satisfaction, the 'have it all' formulation sets an impossible bar for female success and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it's feminism--as opposed to persistent gender inequity--that's to blame."

Meanwhile, Mother Jones's Kevin Drum adds his two cents while summarizing the spirit of the reaction: "I agree with the near-universal consensus that (a) the title of the piece is grating, (b) the framing of the piece is grating, (c) the cover photo is grating, but (d) the substance of the piece is worthwhile."

Not Feminist Enough

"Women have to overachieve just to reach par with men," writes Bryce Covert at The Nation. "They are also penalized for having families in ways that men are not. What this adds up to is discrimination, pure and simple. Yet Slaughter shies away from calling out the political and corporate structures that keep women out."


Lauren Sandler at Slate would also liked to have heard more of a feminist call to arms. Instead, she feels Slaughter winds up blaming feminism for holding out a false promise. Slaughter, Sandler points out, "has done meaningful work, raised her children, and helped to shape a conversation about how we could better live. Princeton, the State Department, a marriage, motherhood, and a crucial cover piece like this one in the Atlantic--man, what she's done within the limitations of the 24-hour day. I wish she'd more boldly encourage the rest of us to do the same."

The Sandberg-Slaughter Divide

It's hard to talk about this topic and not bring up Sheryl Sandberg. Accordingly, Sandberg gets a big place in Slaughter's story. The New York Times offers a summary of the difference between Slaughter's take on the issue of women at the top and Sandberg's, which focuses on getting women to stop sabotaging themselves--to reach for ever-higher opportunities instead of shrinking back in anticipation of future child-bearing.

What About Men? And What About Syria?

Joshua Gans at Forbes finds Slaughter's piece spot-on, and discusses his own challenges trying to square his academic career with being a father. He offers a few suggestions for "broader changes" in the workplace. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat takes a different lesson from men's similar conundrum in their careers: that no one has ever "had it all."

Did the male breadwinners of yore, with their wives and kids waiting at home after a long day at the factory or the office, "have it all" in anything like the sense that today's wistful working mothers seem to mean by the phrase? No, they did not: Most of them worked longer hours and spent less time with their families than today's ideals of fatherhood would permit; many of them no doubt retired and died wishing that it could have been otherwise.

Nothing will take our hard choices away, says Douthat, though "our politics and our culture can make these choices easier."

Finally, The Washington Post's story on this ends with an anecdote putting the "demographic" argument as well as the feminist one into perspective. Slaughter, the Post recalls, has a day job, and it's not writing provocative cover stories on the modern woman:

Slaughter is well aware of her demographic, but she's also hyperaware that her elite, sympathetic audience, one that champions global issues of vast importance in boardrooms and courthouses by day, "liked" her article on "having it all" more than they've shared stories on Syrian bloodshed, the Dream Act or poverty in America.

Is that embarrassing?

"At one point, I tweeted, 'Why can't I make people this passionate about foreign policy?' Slaughter said, laughing.

The story, by Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, had a deeply personal side: Dr. Slaughter wrote of becoming the State Department's Director of Policy Planning in 2009. Used to having control of her schedule as an academic, Slaughter wrote that "the minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), [...] I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be." She left the job after two years. It is time, Slaughter says, for us to acknowledge the conflict between personal and professional life, for parents to admit plainly when they are leaving work to pick up their kids, and for workplaces to use technology to bring their schedules into the twenty-first century. It's time for women to stop blaming themselves when they can't do "it all."

A debate on career and family See full coverage

In the ensuing maelstrom, it's clear that there is plenty of area for agreement and disagreement. The Washington Post has a good summary of reader reaction. "Professional women of all types--bankers and lawyers and bureaucrats--are taking to the Internet to freak out, or at the very least, ponder the dreaded third rail of feminism, thanks to a viral story in the Atlantic that dredged up the classic, woman-baiting query," the Post's Katherine Boyle writes. The response "has posed further questions surrounding that elusive phrase 'it all': Didn't we almost have it all? Just how much can we have? And how guilty should we feel that most Americans have none of it?"

The 'Demographic' Issue

It's this last question--"how guilty should we feel that most Americans have none of it?"--that several dissenters take up. At Commentary, Naomi Decter emphasizes that Dr. Slaughter doesn't speak for most women, having had "a really, really high-powered job [...] working for a feminist icon, in what is arguably the most aggressively woman-friendly presidential administration ever." Decter points out that Slaughter "acknowledges that she is writing, as she puts it, to her 'demographic' (i.e., privileged, educated women who have considerate husbands and household help) and that the women stocking the shelves or ringing up on the cash register at Walmart might have a somewhat different notion of work-life balance from hers." Yet to Decter there is still something slightly unsavory about the magnitude of the ensuing debate. On MSNBC talk show Morning Joe, Financial Times U.S. managing editor Gillian Tett pointed out that all the choices Slaughter describes are "choices born out of luxury." She recalls her experiences in Pakistan, among "millions of women who don't have these choices." The American educated upper-class glass, she says, is "half full rather than half empty."="#47945801">

'Close to the Bone'

Yet for those in Slaughter's demographic, this piece resonated. E.J. Graff at The American Prospect, while taking issue with the story's framing and The Atlantic's dubious relationship with feminism, wrote that one paragraph in particular of Slaughter's piece "brings me near tears; that's how close to the bone her insight cuts. She's right about this core truth: Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems. When I talk to friends who've just had children, here's what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible. It can't be done right, so don't blame yourself when you're failing."

On Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski also said she "cried" in recognition. "I grapple with it every day," Brzezinski said. "Everybody in my family pays a price for my job. No one pays a price for my husband's job."

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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