The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

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 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, 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.

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