The Conversation

Responses and reverberations
More

CAN WOMEN HAVE IT ALL?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s July/August cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” broke every online-readership record for the magazine: most readers (more than 1.2 million in the first two weeks alone), most Facebook likes (nearly 200,000), most comments (more than 2,400). The New York Times called it “that rare essay that stopped the American chattering class in its tracks.” It prompted hundreds of responses via The Atlantic (see theatlantic.com/debates/women-workplace), other magazines, newspapers, blogs, and radio and TV shows, addressing such issues as feminism, work-life balance, and gender equality. Readers also questioned The Atlantic’s framing of the story, as well as the wisdom of the author and other women in leadership roles, including Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s appointment as Facebook’s first female board member, and then newly named Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy announcement, renewed the debate. As The Washington Post noted, this article “struck a deep societal chord.”

If feminism is supposed to provide women with complete fulfillment, and allow them to have it all, then anyone who’s less than fully pleased by her lot—who works long hours, struggles to pay bills, spends more hours over dirty dishes than her mate, who’s guilty about missing her kid’s play or her business partner’s PowerPoint, who feels tugged in ways that she perceives her husband does not—is not simply experiencing firsthand the ways in which sexism, the economic divide, the wage gap, and patriarchal models for public and personal life persist. She’s not even simply experiencing the human condition of dissatisfaction and yearning.

No. Thanks to the “have it all” phantom, she’s experiencing betrayal at the hands of feminism itself … [which] takes the blame because thousands of years of sexual inequity have not been reversed fully in the past 50 years.

We don’t lay the same booby traps for men … If we did, we might find out that they … also feel stressed, guilty, anxiety-stricken, unfulfilled, questioning. But it’s not likely that we would then use their admissions of discontent to diagnose a larger male inability to balance effectively, or conclude that they are not realistically able to maintain the dominance they’ve enjoyed for millennia because having so much power is (a) bad for them, (b) unnatural, or (c) impossible. We’d probably just blame their dissatisfaction on feminism …

The Atlantic has made a damaging and dishonest error in selling [this] piece … not as a specific personal critique and a rallying cry, but as a broad statement of feminist futility … It’s particularly galling, since Slaughter, whom I admire deeply, admits in the piece that she has a career … that is emblematic of the possibilities that feminism has wrought …

There are miles to go before feminism sleeps. But part of the point is: Look how many miles we’ve come, in such a short amount of time! We are still very much in the midst of reversing eons of gendered injustice, overheated headlines (from the, uh, Atlantic) about contemporary female dominance to the contrary. Brains are still getting rewired, systems are still being reworked to accommodate evolving roles. Backlash politics (like the packaging of this article, if not the article itself) pushes back against every female stride, every achievement, and there’s still enormous effort to put into righting gender (and racial, and sexual, and economic) injustices that make true equality elusive. A document like Slaughter’s offers a valuable testament to these remaining challenges. But its presentation as a deadening diagnosis of insurmountability is antifeminist, anti-woman, cheap, and reactionary.

Rebecca Traister
Excerpt from a Salon article

The idea that there is one homogeneous definition of “it all” that all women are supposed to desire is painfully reductive. “Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness,” Slaughter says, “and let us start at home.” That’s the most presumptuous line in the whole article. Maybe some women don’t find happiness at home. Maybe some women do find happiness in their careers … Or in being alone. There isn’t a singular goal for any person—man or woman—and yet feminism has sold us this prepackaged notion of success that, when you open it up, is totally undefined … [Slaughter] seems to think that this nebulous goal, “having it all,” … is a damaging one, yet she legiti­mizes it by writing about it so reverently.

Lindy West
Excerpt from a Jezebel blog post

Let’s implement all Ms. Slaughter’s suggestions before I graduate from law school in 2015 so I can have a hand in raising my son while managing a successful legal career. I gave up my first career to be with him, because I just couldn’t handle being away so much, and he was more important. This time around, with Ms. Slaughter’s help, hopefully it won’t be quite so challenging.

Oh, I’m a guy, by the way. Men in my generation strive to have it all, too.

Michael Gosling
Encinitas, Calif.

I love Anne-Marie’s article. It caused this “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment—the educated class admitting in public what is so true but usually only talked about in private: it’s hard to get an A in parenting when you’re balancing your career and your family. I was so impressed that she opened up and put her power and prestige on the line to show that a lot of our assumptions are outdated. Her eloquence and honesty have forced a real conversation about these issues.

Karen Kornbluh
Then–U.S. Ambassador to the OECD
Excerpt from a
Current Mom interview

When I carry a naked baby in my briefcase, I get in trouble. But it’s okay for a woman to do it. That’s something you have that men don’t have.

Stephen Colbert
The Colbert Report with Anne-Marie Slaughter, July 16

It was a great victory for gender equality when people finally stopped routinely saying “She’s awfully good at her job—for a woman.” The next big step forward will be when people stop saying, “It’s awfully tough to balance work and family—for a woman.” It’s tough for men and women. We need to push for work-family practices and policies that allow individuals to customize their work lives according to their changing individual preferences and family obligations, not just their traditional gender roles.

Stephanie Coontz
Co-chair, Council on Contemporary Families Excerpt from a CNN blog post

Women like Slaughter are welcome to do what many high-­achieving men have always done: marry a partner who will stay home to take on the burdens—and the joys—of family life. Climbing the ladder has always required sacrifice. Now that it is women who are making those sacrifices, there are demands that the system change to better meet their needs and desires. And this is sexist against whom, exactly?

Tom Paynter
TheAtlantic.com comment

While I too dream of a society where women, and men, can have it all, I see nothing unjust about conferring the top jobs on those willing to sacrifice parenting, hobbies, and other pursuits to attain their goal. The notion that women and men fail when they moderate their careers to spend more time parenting is the saddest and most preposterous premise occupying this whole debate.

Richard Hetke
Hinsdale, Ill.

Maybe I’m naive to think that if more women were in positions of power, there’d be a wave of family-friendly policy following—maybe the kinds of women who are gonna make it into the absolute highest positions of power and stick there are, by definition, high achievers who don’t give a shit about anyone’s family. But it couldn’t hurt!

Dan Kois
Excerpt from a Slate roundtable

I am in my late 20s and am the daughter of a high-powered woman who was in the Clinton administration. The story hit close to home. My mother exemplified the idea that a woman can do anything she sets her mind to, even in a field dominated by men. When I was younger, I struggled with the fact that work was my mother’s first priority. But now that I am embarking on my own career, I realize that I could never have asked for a better role model. Work was the norm for my parents (particularly my mother), and I have ended up stronger for it. I couldn’t be prouder that I am my mother’s daughter.

Mari Cohen
Washington, D.C.

Being able to ask if “you’re having it all” comes from such a place of middle-class privilege it makes my head spin. It presumes that you have the choice not to work. That you have the choice to stay at home with your kids instead of going to the office if you simply can’t hack the dual pressures. And it presumes that you have a partner that is willing to (a) pick up the slack if you choose motherhood over a career, and (b) be emotionally and financially supportive of your desire to have both. The vast majority of working women aren’t Anne-Marie Slaughter—a highly educated, well-employed woman with an extremely supportive husband in academia—and she readily admits that. But for most of us, working is a necessity—and for those of us who want to have kids, there will be no debate about “having it all”—because it’s a foregone conclusion that work is part of our personal and financial equation.

Julie Gerstein
Excerpt from a TheFrisky.com blog post

My solution for the author: raise a better generation of men. You have two sons. Think of the impact you can have on society.

Carol Levin
Boston, Mass.

#HAVINGITALL

The Twitterverse exploded with conversations about @SlaughterAM’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Shed a tear of frustration & one of relief while reading @SlaughterAM’s #HavingItAll piece in @TheAtlantic. Feeling new hope for my future. @MelodyRowell

reading people’s thoughts on @SlaughterAM’s piece, amused that many echo same sentiments but frame it in a neg attack first. #havingitall @Semhar

Thx @SlaughterAM for #havingitall piece in @TheAtlantic. 1st work/life balance piece I’ve seen that addresses tradeoffs. Also only one I like. @SamanthaLasky

Can there be two Career Type AAA in one family? Someone has to give, right? #havingitall @stevebeste

Can’t stop thinking about @SlaughterAM article. Do men ever think about the work/family/kids balance as much? #havingitall @RashaKash

Talking #havingitall with my mom & our perspectives are almost identical. Wonder how much your take on it ties into generational values. @meghan_frick

What @SlaughterAM’s piece really shows is that we have normalized an unhealthy way of living & wanting, in our quest for #havingitall @AmeenaGK

They should just retitle The Atlantic as The Magazine From Which Your Mother Sends Articles To Scare You. @rachsyme

The real question is not whether “women can have it all.” Rather, it is how a sophisticated foreign-policy professional can write as if countries like Canada and the Netherlands simply did not exist.

In Canada, couples with a baby may sequence six-month leaves of absence at up to 90 percent pay. In the Netherlands—the best scenario I have seen yet—families can take a day off each week, and the government subsidizes full-time day care. This solution was not framed as a “women’s issue,” but as a family benefit. And Dutch women have simply moved on, focusing on other interesting goals in their personal and family lives.

In America, by contrast, the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests lobby hard to keep politicians from ever proposing such solutions. They know that billions of dollars are made from hiring women at lower income levels than men, and then ensuring that a work-family conflict derails women’s careers before they become too expensive to compensate fairly.

Naomi Wolf
Excerpt from a New Europe blog post

While family life has been completely revolutionized by women’s entry into the workforce over the past half century, our economy hasn’t done the same …

While it’s become increasingly acceptable for women to work, it still hasn’t become acceptable for them to step back from motherhood. And that battle over what takes precedence plays out in women’s lives in harmful ways. Women are often putting in more hours than men: a recent survey of over 5,000 full-time professionals found that more than half of women work nine or more hours a day compared to just 41 percent of men, plus 11 percent of women work six to seven days a week while only 7 percent of men do. One would hope that as women dial up the time they spend working, they could dial down the time they spend on parenting and home labor by off-loading some of it to dad. Yet that’s not happening. Insure.com calculated that the value of what a father contributes to his household in labor, if paid at the going rate for outsourcing those tasks to someone else, would come to $20,248 this year—actually down since 10 years ago, adjusted for inflation. When it did the same analysis for what a mother contributes, it found [her work to be worth] $60,182.

Bryce Covert
Excerpt from a Forbes blog post

I knew early on that the workplace was not structured as I needed. When I was in my late 20s, I decided to stay home to raise my children. This was not an easy decision, and I often felt as if I had betrayed all of my feminist heroes. I actually canceled my subscription to Ms. magazine because I couldn’t take the derision routinely heaped on women who chose to stay home with their children. I returned to my career when my kids were in middle school, and finally reached what I really wanted this past year: I became a principal. If you looked at my career path, you would see many twists and turns, but I have no regrets. No career attainment could replace the years I spent with my children. Thank you, Ms. Slaughter, for having the courage to say what I recognized 30 years ago.

Georgia Becker
Milwaukee, Wis.

The Atlantic has made this 27-year-old woman depressed about her lot in life. First you tell me that my generation is at a permanent disadvantage from entering the workforce during the recession. Then it’s that there are no quality men for educated, ambitious women, and I should kiss my hopes for getting married goodbye. Now it’s that even if I can move ahead in my career and find a decent guy to marry, I’m going to be strung out and unfulfilled.

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate Slaughter’s article. But I give up! I’m going to start a lady commune on a remote desert island where we can just drink rosé and lie in the sun. Why bother competing when the odds are so stacked against us?

chickpeaz
TheAtlantic.com comment

The thing that I ultimately know is that I can’t do everything I’m doing, well. I can just try and juggle. And everybody in my family pays a price for my job. Nobody in my family pays a price for my husband’s job.

Mika Brzezinski
MSNBC’s Morning Joe with Anne-Marie Slaughter, June 25


Anne-Marie Slaughter replies:

In an article on women in Washington, responding in part to my own article, National Journal observed that although women in the U.S. capital have come a long way, “they still face career barriers, and often the biggest one is having a family.”

That, in a nutshell, is why I wrote my article—to identify this problem and launch a conversation about it. It’s an empirical fact: having a family is a career barrier for women in a way that it is not for men. Notwithstanding the tremendous progress women have made, thanks to generations of feminist women and men, we need another round of deep social, economic, political, and cultural change to achieve real equality and to be able to draw on the full talents of both halves of our society. Stephanie Coontz and Bryce Covert highlight both the numbers and the attitudes that need to change.

As I wrote in a response at TheAtlantic.com, I agree with Rebecca Traister that the phrase having it all obscures and distorts this basic point, at least for this generation. As I tried to make clear in my article and countless times since, “having it all” for the women of my generation meant having the same things men have: a career and a family too. But in the era of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, in a time of desperate economic hardship for so many, the phrase itself has become a lightning rod for debates about privilege, perfectionism, and greed. The problem of inequality in the United States is huge and vital; it is a canker destroying our society and our values from the inside out. But I was writing about a different kind of inequality: persistent inequality between men and women, a problem that far too many people, particularly in elite circles, want to believe has been solved.

A number of the responses here proceed from the same basic assumption that a former high-government official recently expressed to me in a conversation about my article. “We’re ready for a post-feminist age,” he said, “because now it is clear that women can do anything that men can do.” Umm … not quite: we still haven’t had a woman president, secretary of defense, or secretary of the treasury, although here’s hoping that President Obama can rectify the latter two in a second term.

But the deeper problem is the idea that women now enjoy equal opportunity to pursue any career they want; it’s simply up to them to take it. That’s exactly the assumption that makes so many women, hundreds of whom have written me directly, feel that they have failed when they can’t be Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, or countless other terrific women who have, with the aid of money, luck, supportive spouses, and superhuman effort, made it to the top. I applaud all those women and, for the record, count myself among them. But the success of the few cannot be the answer to the problems of the many, any more than the election of Barack Obama means that the problems of race in American society are solved.

But, chickpeaz, here’s the good news. I have received a number of e-mails from women telling me that their bosses read my article and called a meeting to discuss concrete changes. And I have received many e-mails from men who are determined to be part of the change, taking the same position as Michael Gosling. Indeed, the very scale of the reaction and ongoing discussion, around dinner tables as well as in new and mainstream media, both confirms my view that change is needed and convinces me that American society is ready for it.

And yes, Naomi Wolf, the United States has much to learn from other societies, but I suspect that as with so many issues, change here will come as much from the bottom up as from the top down. I will do everything I can to be a part of it.


The Conversation At Aspen

Earlier this summer, in conjunction with its annual Ideas Issue, The Atlantic co-hosted the Aspen Ideas Festival with the Aspen Institute. Here are some of the highlights from the yearly gathering in Colorado.

In the midst of the media frenzy surrounding her July/August cover story, Anne-Marie Slaughter sat down with Katie Couric to delve further into the issues she raised in her cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

On the “ambition gap” noted by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her famous Barnard commencement speech: I see lots and lots and lots of women who have plenty of ambition. What they don’t have is accommodation—accommodation for letting them have more flexible space … Yes, there may be an ambition gap—I know there’s some research that shows it. What I see is much more an accommodation gap.

On high-powered jobs: If you [had said to] me when I was 30 or 35, “You’re going to get the job of your dreams, and then you’re going to have the chance to be promoted and stay on,” I would have said there is nothing that would stop me from [staying on]. But where I sit now, I say to younger women: “Yes, you can do it, and I want you to do it. But be aware that it’s going to take a huge toll, and you may well do it for two years—not four, six, or eight … Plan for it. Expect it. Understand these trade-offs are there” … When you’re ready to go back in—this is critical—what most women say to me is, “I can’t go back in, because there’s this blank spot on my résumé of three or four years where I worked from home or I didn’t work, and then I’m not eligible.” And I want to say, “Those three or four years—let’s call those ‘living up to your responsibilities.’ Let’s call those ‘being a national-security mom and investing in the next generation.’ ”

On maternal instinct: When I felt that [my son] was making life choices that were very bad life choices, and they were going to affect the rest of his life, I felt, you know—he didn’t ask to be born, I brought him into the world … it is my responsibility to him. And even if I’m in a job that’s affecting possibly millions of people around the world, as I wrote, there’s lots of people who could be in that job. There is only one person who could be [his] mother … It didn’t even feel like a choice. In the end, this is something I have to do … If you feel that, act on it and feel good about it. Yet so many women are made to feel bad about those choices.


Dele Olojede, a Nigerian Pulitzer Prize–winning newspaper editor, questioned universal suffrage.

Hard experience shows that if you have a large number of citizens who do not yet fully grasp even the concept of the state, who are largely very poor and un­educated, who struggle daily to survive and [are] susceptible to a $5 bribe, democracy sometimes seems like a sham. And we have to think about if there are other ways. In a society, some will be more ready than others. I cannot think of an example of a reasonably successful democracy that started out with universal franchise. What I haven’t figured out yet is what should be the criteria for the franchise.


Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, discussed the country’s founding principle of balance and its continued importance today.

It’s not simply that you have to find compromise or middle values. You have to figure out a way to weave them together. [Alexis de Tocque­ville] says that America has two different strands—a strand of individualism and a strand of working together as communities—and that these two strands are in conflict. Actually, these two strands aren’t. There’s something magical about the American system, that those strands become the warp and woof of the fabric of what we do in America … [Balance] was the great original idea of the United States—that people of different faiths and different backgrounds, ethnicities, and tribes could all work together in a cohesive fashion. The opposite of balance, of course, is the great scourge of the world today, which is fanaticism and fundamentalism. That will be the great struggle of this coming century … The question is whether we as a nation, we as a world, can remain the types of societies that look for balance rather than those who seek to win arguments.


Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, elucidated the problem of mis­information in a non-fact-checked era.

All of us grew up with an assumption that what we were seeing on television, especially in legitimate news, was edited and properly vetted. That’s no longer the case. Furthermore, you can anticipate [that] very powerful forces will attempt to do misinformation campaigns to you, for one business objective or another. That it will be worth it to them to spend millions of dollars to create fake Web sites and so forth, to convince you that something that is really bad for you is really good for you. Because they have a business interest to do so, and the Internet allows that. We have to rank against [false information]. But you all have to be aware that searching for something doesn’t mean you have to believe it.


In an impromptu panel discussion after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, parsed John Roberts’s actions.

Clearly, he didn’t want to provoke an institutional crisis. He’s the chief justice. He didn’t want to go to war … This is entirely consistent with his record. This Court has been generally very modest. The Rehnquist Court and the Warren Court overturned, on average, eight laws a year; this Court has overturned, on average, three laws a year … It’s much, much less likely to assert itself to overturn precedent. It’s also been a relatively non–ideologically divided Court, at least not more than previous Courts … There’s been a lot of overwrought coverage of this Court, as if it’s some really aggressive, activist Court. It’s just not.


Alexis Madrigal, an Atlantic senior editor, expanded upon the idea of the “quantified self,” explained by David H. Freedman in his June cover story.

Thanks to the glories of science, we now know many strange things about how human beings work … And yet, all this knowledge about how to improve our bank accounts and bodies is locked away in scientific journals or deployed by marketers and advertisers. I contend that a change is sneaking up on us that’s going to allow us to take control of how we prime ourselves to live better lives … what I call “the programmable self” … New sensors that constantly measure your heart rate and skin conductance within your environment will be able to tell you that your sense of well-being is correlated with your living room but not your dining room, your kitchen but not your den. All the thoughts we’ve had about ourselves, all our intuitions, will be subject to the rigors of data-driven decision-making … Self-improvement meets cybernetics; behavioral psychology meets machine learning; the soft, warm body meets cold, hard data. If the 20th century was spent looking for the soul in the machine, the 21st might be [spent] discovering the machine in the soul.


Robert Putnam, a Harvard public-policy professor, urged people to shift their focus when discussing demographics.

Relatively speaking, racial differences, controlling for class, are decreasing, while class differences, controlling for race, are increasing in America. Nonwhite folks with a college education are looking more and more like white folks with a college education, and white folks who haven’t gotten beyond high school are looking more and more like nonwhite folks who haven’t finished high school.


Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the stresses endured by soldiers and their families since 9/11.

If I’m a 5-year-old boy or girl in the family of one of these deploying units for the Army whose average deployment was 12 months at a time, and my dad or mom … has deployed at this pace, I’m now 15 or 16 years old, and my dad has been gone three, four, or five times … My whole conscious life has been at war. The United States has never, never experienced that before. And we see incredible stresses on families … Now we are coming home. By no means are we home. We still have 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. And I believe we’re going to see a couple decades of challenges associated with the stresses we’ve not been dealing with and the issues we’ve been packing away. Indicative of that is the incredible suicide rate we have on the active side, which—even despite all the efforts of leadership to contain it—is, in the Army this year, higher now than it was a year ago. And … we’ve got 18 vets a day who are killing themselves in the United States.


CORRECTION

July/August’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” cited a study by Michelle Arthur of the University of Mexico. Arthur is affiliated with the University of New Mexico.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In