The most provocative piece of journalism that I read over the summer was the cover story of the July/Aug. issue of The Atlantic. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter is 14 pages best described by this mission statement: “It’s time to stop fooling ourselves…the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed. If we truly believe in equal opportunity for all women, here’s what has to change.”
Slaughter is the former first female Director of Policy at the U.S. State Department (working for Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration). It was her dream job, but she resigned after two years because having any kind of home life was impossible with that job—and she was going to miss the last years of her kids living at home. The article is a riveting, important read for young women embarking on careers—and can be found on the Atlantic website.
Slaughter wrote the piece intending it as a launching point for a discussion (in the U.S. and the rest of the world—while her examples are American, they translate) about how we look at the home/work life balance, and why so few women can hold down high-profile government and legal jobs. What makes this piece different from the glut of other writing on the subject is Slaughter’s professionalism and how she coherently lays out her argument and recommendations for how women’s needs can be accommodated in the workplace without losing productivity. Losing female employees and what they have to offer would be a detriment to all of us, she argues. That’s what’s at stake.
The problem? The article frustrated, pleased, and inspired me, but is this really a subject that will make significant waves any time in the near future? Slaughter suggests that it may take a female president to even get close—and also explains why, with the current job structure in the White House, this is unlikely to happen.
In a larger context, the most discouraging thing is that public debate on issues regarding women can’t move past the dreaded A-word. Bodily autonomy and access to contraception are the only women’s issues receiving star attention during the lead-up to the Nov. election. Yes, those are essential rights to secure, but it’s disheartening that when it comes to popular debate our gender is reduced to our sexual organs.
Worse still, is the other most talked about female-centric news story of the past month: the infidelity of Kristen Stewart—and the ensuing tsunami of slut-shaming.
Girls growing up in North America see this argument over rights to their bodies: they’re not trusted to make decisions for themselves. Then they see further shaming involving a mistake made—again in the bodily realm. The message: it is not okay to make mistakes, but it is okay to tear a young women down over what should be a very private matter. The third message is the expectation to “have it all”: successful career and family—and be perfect at all of it. And that, too, is potentially damaging. On the other hand, perhaps that “having it all” fantasy is a good thing. After all, positive change starts with idealistic dreams.
One argument made against Slaughter’s article is that the solution theoretically only applies to a selection of high-up professional women—but do we want young girls to continue to grow up where the prominent female examples are Hollywood actresses and the most publicized stories are their sexual indiscretions? Or do we want to see women in our courts, political offices, and so on, making tough decisions (and mistakes, of course) knowing that female interests will not be ignored and we will not be marginalized. This will be positive for all women (and men) as these women will be in place to implement policy that will aid single mothers and poorer women who aren’t in a position to make these changes themselves.
Of course, no-one is perfect—and there are plenty of female politicians out there who leave me scratching my head, wondering if they have any notion at all of our gender’s concerns. But that’s how it works. When we have equal opportunity I expect to see admirable women, and women that infuriate me, all with the same opportunities that men have.
Idealistic dream? You bet. But nothing positive ever resulted from an aloof resignation to reality.