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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.

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