Hillary Clinton Wants None of Your 'Whining' About Having It All

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The secretary of state blasts Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article about women in the workplace.

HRCThe Texts from Hillary meme was based on the idea that no one can mess with her. (Texts from Hillary)

It is a truism about the contemporary workplace that women, even feminists, who are bosses may not be any more sympathetic to their female employees' concerns for work-life balance than men because they have had to work so hard to get and stay where they are, and they hold their own capacity to burn the candle at both ends as the standard. It's also a truism that high-powered U.S. government jobs are burn-out positions that men frequently leave after two years, and that few save those with extraordinary physical constitutions and a great deal of personal help on the home front can manage some of the toughest of them for much longer.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has finally weighed in publicly on Anne-Marie Slaughter's July/August Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," and in the process reminded me of both understandings of Washington life. Slaughter's article detailed how she found "juggling high-level governmental work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible" and stepped down from her role as Clinton's director of policy planning in order to save her family. After leaving State, Slaughter wrote, she realized her complicity in the system that makes it so hard for other women to succeed:

All my life, I'd been on the other side of this exchange. I'd been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I'd been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I'd been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I'd been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

In a long article by Ayelet Waldman for Marie Claire posted online today, Clinton spoke frankly about her thoughts on Slaughter's piece:

She reminded me that she has spent her career advocating on behalf of women, that she is committed to the idea that "it's important for our workplaces ... to be more flexible and creative in enabling women to continue to do high-stress jobs while caring for not only children, but [also] aging parents." But, she said, Slaughter's problems were her own.

"Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs .... Other women don't break a sweat. They have four or five, six kids. They're highly organized, they have very supportive networks." By all accounts, this was precisely the kind of mother Clinton was to Chelsea -- hands-on, prioritizing her child, and yet ever committed to work.

Clinton has very little patience for those whose privilege offers them a myriad of choices but who fail to take advantage of them. "I can't stand whining," she says. "I can't stand the kind of paralysis that some people fall into because they're not happy with the choices they've made. You live in a time when there are endless choices .... Money certainly helps, and having that kind of financial privilege goes a long way, but you don't even have to have money for it. But you have to work on yourself .... Do something!"

Certainly Clinton has had occasion to whine if she wanted to, and faced a great deal of pressure to stop pushing herself forward professionally from the moment she became first lady all the way through her failed 2008 presidential primary campaign. But she didn't whine; she went on and kept going. One can see the personal necessity of the philosophy she outlines, even if she sounds dismissive of the important structural constraints on women's success that Slaughter outlined.

Update 6:03 p.m. Slaughter tweets:

Stay tuned, she says.

Update 10/19/12, 10:38 a.m. Clinton's spokesman Philippe Reines points out that Clinton was not actually speaking specifically about Slaughter in her "whining" comments, but about the character of Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye. Marie Claire is sticking with its story though, saying the quote was "part of a larger conversation about women in the workplace and striking a work-life balance."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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