Features

What stops women from having it all

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

You can’t accuse the redoubtable Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation think tank, of giving up easily: she has arrived in London fresh from the World Economic Forum at Davos, where she slipped on the ice and broke her wrist, spending two days in a Swiss hospital. One arm is therefore out of action, and her voice is hoarse, but she is soldiering on through a dense thicket of meetings and interviews to talk about her new book Unfinished Business, on how the work-life balance is broken and how to fix it.

The trigger for the book was a rare, traumatic moment when Slaughter was stopped in her tracks, back in 2011. She was at her professional peak, in her dream role as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton. The job required her to be in Washington during the week while her husband Andrew, a professor of politics at Princeton, gamely held the fort back in New Jersey with their two sons. Her boys weren’t so stoic: her ten-year-old used to cry on Sunday nights before she went away. Later, when her eldest was 14, he began disrupting classes, skipping school, and becoming known to the local police.

It became painfully clear that her weekday presence was required at home. She left the State Department, returned to teaching at Princeton, and in 2012 wrote an impassioned article entitled: ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, one of the most-read pieces in the history of the Atlantic magazine. Her book, on similar territory, represents the evolution of Slaughter’s thinking.

I ask Slaughter about the phrase ‘having it all’, which was popularised in 1982 by Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan magazine’s high priestess of glamorous self-improvement. By ‘it all’, Gurley Brown meant love, sex, money and success: she seemed vaguely repelled by motherhood. Today the term applies almost exclusively to combining children with a career. ‘It’s a lightning rod,’ says Slaughter. ‘Now I really avoid it. You don’t hear me saying it. I talk about equality, because that’s what we’re talking about.’

One of the biggest surprises in the book, for those outside the US, is how unsympathetic its work culture is to new mothers. The US doesn’t offer mandatory paid maternity leave: the only two countries with a similar policy are Papua New Guinea and Oman. Women at the bottom of the US social heap can be put in dire straits by motherhood. Those at the top, says Slaughter, ‘typically work for companies that are enlightened enough to provide paid maternity leave’. How much? ‘The longest I’ve ever heard of is three to six months. And for most places it’s more like six weeks, which is still really tough.’


Slaughter says: ‘In Washington DC it is mandatory to have a ‘pumping room’ [for breast milk]. So the assumption is that all mothers will be pumping because nobody’s going to stay at home until the child is weaned.’ Add to that the US’s meagre holidays and rigid work schedules, and you have a recipe for working parent burnout. Still, there’s a batsqueak of truth in the observation that Americans think Europeans are lazy while we think Americans are crazy.

Part of me admires the way that high–flying American women such as Slaughter can discuss working motherhood with such earnestness, deploying terms such as ‘care-giving’ and ‘parenting’ and having grown-up discussions with their partners about gender expectations. British mothers in a similar boat tend instead to anaesthetise their frustrations with wine and therapeutic griping on sites like Mums-net. Yet even though the US has many of the most vocal and influential feminists in the world, British working mothers have ended up with the better deal. What happened?

Part of the US problem has been with the religious right, Slaughter says, which historically opposed paid maternity leave and childcare as interfering with women’s role as stay-at-home mothers. Also, feminist campaigners put what she calls ‘care feminism’ too far down their to-do list. Babies became the elephant in the policy room: ‘Women themselves wanted to break the stereotypes of us as mothers, understandably, so instead of fighting for day care, we fought against discrimination in the workplace.’

Slaughter writes eloquently about the grim choices faced by low-wage US workers such as Rhiannon Broschat, a single mother fired from a supermarket job in 2014 because her son’s school was closed during freezing weather and she had to stay off work. Yet Slaughter herself admits that she had everything in place for her Washington job, including a housekeeper, her willing husband as ‘lead parent’ and a ‘tremendously supportive boss’ in Hillary Clinton.

Yet although Slaughter argues convincingly that workplaces must become more flexible, didn’t her own Washington tipping-point simply fall into the category of ‘stuff happens’? Her son needed her, just as he would have needed his father if the positions were reversed. She readily agrees: ‘I was hired for a job that depended on world events which are incredibly unpredictable. There are a whole class of jobs — and that was one — where there’s nothing you can do about that. That part of my story was that, with every advantage in the world, I still had to make a choice. What is it like for women who don’t have every advantage?’

The book openly reveals Slaughter arguing with her own prejudices, as she adjusts to her main message that we need to value caring just as much as lucrative, high-octane careers. She reminds herself that the banker or businessperson is no more important in the room than the teacher or the nurse. At the same time she herself is hungry for stellar professional advancement. Britain’s year-long maternity leave (which I confess to having taken twice) makes her anxious: ‘If I went away for a year I would worry that I’d lost my edge.’ In terms of an appetite for Scandi-style social policy, I think she would like a bite of a Danish, but she couldn’t swallow a whole one. Yet Slaughter is also honest in raising tricky questions around family expectations and female domestic perfectionism that others prefer to gloss over, at least until it hits them in the face. It’s not so much ‘lean in’ as ‘think it through’.

I ask her to put her foreign policy hat back on. In the State Department, she was an advocate for the 2011 US intervention against Gaddafi in Libya, a country which is now a dangerously volatile mess. Did US policy-makers, herself included, underestimate the swift, brutal rise of Islamism there? No, she says, but at the time ‘I thought we were stopping a Rwanda-type massacre’ in Benghazi and ‘What happened was that Nato then turned that into “this is an intervention to unseat this guy’’.’ She has long called for a humanitarian intervention in Syria to stop Assad dropping bombs on his own people and bring him to the negotiating table.

Her older son’s in college now and doing well, having unintentionally bounced his mother into a whole new area of policy expertise. Would she go back into government? ‘You know, I wouldn’t rule it out,’ she says. I think maybe Washington should get ready for the return of Slaughter.

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Show comments
  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    None of us can have it all, and then we die. C’est la vie. I say this with sorrow in my heart.

    • polidorisghost

      Cheer up Rose.
      Buy a little sportscar and fix yourself a martini.

    • Hamburger

      Why sorrow? It is part of the human condition. Even those men and women who think that they have it all are deluding themselves.

      • Miss Floribunda Rose

        Sorrow and delusion are part of the human condition as well, my dear……

        • Hamburger

          True enough, baut we should be thankful that we cannot have it all, not sorrowful.

  • polidorisghost

    ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’

    Neither can most men, which is why it’s called success when they do “Have it all”

  • Jonathan Tedd

    Equality will be the death of us.

  • DellerboyNZ

    It depends on how much intrinsic value you place on childbearing.
    If you start from the premise that it is an incredible privilege to have the ability to perpetuate the race, then ‘having it all’ takes on a new hue.
    Trouble is, women have allowed themselves to devalue that privilege and encouraged others to see it as an impost to be legislated and negotiated away.
    As a recruitment consultant I spoke to many young professional women (lawyers, accountants, IT people) who didn’t want to rejoin the race to partnership or whatever, after taking 6m off to have a child.
    As one memorably said: ‘When I’m an old fart sitting on a commode in a resthome I want to be thinking of the great times I had with my kids and not the never ending drinks and general schmoozing with clients’.

    • cmflynn

      Not to mention the fact that if she brings her children up well, to respect the ten commandments including, Honour thy father and thy mother, she probably won’t have to end up in a rest home.

      • DellerboyNZ

        Exactly 🙂

    • Mary Ann

      I stayed at home with my children, loved it, I feel sorry for young women these days having all this pressure on them to go back to paid employment.

  • Frank

    Mildly astonishing that she only worked out what she had to do when her son was in police trouble – did she suffer from bad parenting as a child?

  • cmflynn

    Our culture has become exceedingly silly and this woman is among the silliest to have taken so long to work things out. In our ‘multicultural’ society we will inevitably be steadily replaced by a culture which values the traditional role of women.

  • Tickertapeguy

    Humans cannot “have it all” for the our definition of “all” keeps changing. that includes both genders.

    • Hamburger

      For which we should be eternally thankful.

      • Tickertapeguy

        True, but it should not stop us from striving for that cherished goal

        • Hamburger

          The meaning of life!

          • Tickertapeguy

            Actually I was referring to the nature of the human race
            The meaning of life is death. Life consumes life in order to live.

          • Hamburger

            You are right. I missed the question mark and hit the exclamation mark by mistake.

          • Tickertapeguy

            Got comment. Pondered on it and realized what a difference a single mark makes

  • davidshort10

    Not exactly a grilling, is it? Just a tale of an immensely privileged woman who worked for a very stupid and dangerous so one. She is an advocate of putting other people’s lives at risk for no good reason. if America still had the draft these crazy people would be faced with peace marches and they would be fearful of their own sons’ lives.

    • Bram

      Indeed. What went before that last paragraph is veritably frivolous compared to the last. The havoc this ill thought out, dangerous and downright stupid intervention in Libya has brought to a region the size of the entire United States, from Tripoli to Niamey, is astonishing. And worse, the US is about to put the prime responsible (‘We came, we saw, he died’) in the White House. Despair is in order.

      • Pioneer

        If the Clinton creature gets in, it is all over for “Western civilization”.

        • Mary Ann

          If Trump gets in expect WW3

  • davidshort10

    The writer was obviously told by someone high up in the Spectator to write a lovefest piece so that the high up person could get on Slaughter’s good side.

  • James Chilton

    If enough women get it all, there’d be nothing left for men…… Hang on, isn’t that the general idea?

    • cartimandua

      No men then get to have a better work life balance too.

    • Sue Smith

      I don’t think so, really. I have 3 adult sons and one is enduring a horrific divorce from a woman who has accused him of ‘abusing the children – beatings etc.” Just yesterday the school bus driver was telling that same son how beautiful his children are and that he’s a model father. And the letter from the solicitor today was a complete shocker. Never mind, women now have control of the divorce agenda and their accusations can fly thick, fast and unchallenged. It’s the new world order. And you wonder why they’re grasping their ‘rights’ about careers.

      I’m very old-fashioned, over 60 and have been in the same relationship 43 years with a husband with whom we share an equal relationship.

      There’s nothing whatsoever to be gained by emasculating generations of men. It’s the road to perdition, IMO.

      • James Chilton

        I believe you’ll forgive me for saying that women like you are dying out. Your values and attitudes aren’t shared by the XX generation of women who if they can’t “have it all” are determined to get as much as they can. Your son’s ordeal, caused by a malicious woman, seems to be a case in point.

        I agree that the road to perdition is lined with emasculated men and ‘liberated’ women. It may be that a social catastrophe will persuade the feminists to seek the protection of the patriarchy they despise. Perhaps when Sharia law is about to be imposed?

        My original comment was meant to be facetious, but there are serious questions which the “have it all” idea encapsulates, and which it seems too late to address now.

        • Sue Smith

          It has taken “my three sons” to show me the real workings of our modern world. The impact on children is really the one which interests me most, and I saw enough as a teacher. Sure, men aren’t perfect – nobody ever said they were. But is the ‘answer’ to treat all of them like potential criminals? My sons aren’t criminals or wife-beaters – they want partners who share their values and who split the work-load and drive towards the same goals. We’re all human beings trying the best we can to negotiate a (very often) tough world out there. At the moment it’s an ongoing, needless battle between the sexes.

          I’ve always been independently-minded and vehemently individualistic. I used to ask this question 30 plus years ago and I ask it again, having never had a satisfactory answer: Who will take the moral high ground and advocate for children if women reserve the right to think and behave just as men do?

  • StrategyKing

    An embarrassing article on so many levels and the woman being interviewed seems truly awful. Not even the slightest concern for having helped turn Libya into a jihadi hellhole. She plumbs even more depths with the last bit, calling for a ‘humanitarian’ (sic) intervention to ‘force Assad to the negotiating table’. Hey Mrs Slaughter, and Jenny McCarthy and the rest of the spectator editorial staff as well, in case you haven’t noticed Assad is already at the negotiating table and has been there for a long time, it is your interference that keeps any kind of deal from being reached.

    You here at the spectator keep blathering on about personal responsibility. Try actually taking some. Wow, the establishment in Washington and the media are corruptvile beyond redemption. Anybody but you awful people. Anybody.

    • cartimandua

      It would not have been better to let Daffy murder millions as he promised to do.

      • StrategyKing

        More of our enabling fantasies, to indulge our fetish of king-making. Call it what it is, the whole humanitarian schtick is all a lie, this is what we really want, to boss the wogs around and decide who should be their king.

    • Sue Smith

      Thanks for that vote of confidence and kindness!!

  • Mary Ann

    As she was in such a high power job why didn’t her husband give up his job and bring the family to Washington, it’s what women used to do in the past. I’m sure she was paid enough to support her family.

    • StrategyKing

      Because he didn’t want to.

    • Sue Smith

      Mary Ann, you really did come down in the last shower. We’re living in the brave new world of entitlement. Everybody is ENTITLED and those who miss out are invariably the kids. That’s why they’re all so miserably unhappy, body dymorphic, depressed, addicted to Ecstasy or Ice and cutting themselves. When you’ve got a ‘stellar career’ the last thing you want to hear is all about this.

      I saw plenty of ‘victims’ of the ‘stellar career syndrome’ when I was teaching. It ain’t pretty.

  • Giuseppe Cappa

    So this privileged woman, who probably had a facilitated career just because she is a woman, is whining about the lack of support for women at the workplace. Frankly this is ridiculous. Plus, reading the idiotic pol. corr. term “businessperson” on the Spectator makes me think that this magazine is going downhill.

  • Tom Cullem

    Maybe “all” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  • red2black

    ‘Slaughter writes eloquently about the grim choices faced by low-wage US workers such as Rhiannon Broschat, a single mother fired from a supermarket job in 2014 because her son’s school was closed during freezing weather and she had to stay off work…
    …although Slaughter argues convincingly that workplaces must become more flexible…’
    http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/02/06/3257031/mother-fired-foods/

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