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"It’s not a women’s problem, it’s a workplace problem": Anne-Marie Slaughter on the crisis at the heart of the "having it all" problem

Salon talks to Anne-Marie Slaughter about what we need to change about the path to a career, family and good life


Kate Tuttle
September 27, 2015 10:00PM (UTC)

Anne-Marie Slaughter was a big name in the field of public policy – former head of the International Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and the first women to hold the position of director of policy planning when she was appointed to that position at the State Department in 2009.

Yet most of the rest of us hadn’t heard of her until her 2012 article in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” That article, in which Slaughter wrote about the difficulty of balancing a high-powered political job with caring for her two sons, reignited a debate about just how far women’s current lives still were from whatever feminist dreams many of us had grown up with. In her new book, “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family,” Slaughter expands the conversation to look at gender roles, the work world generally, and how public policy might help us reframe the issue around care – for children, for the elderly, and for the larger community.

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I spoke with Slaughter by phone, asking up front for her understanding if the two 9-year-old boys playing Super Mario on Wii in the basement interrupted us. “Well, if I don’t understand that, you’re sunk,” she laughed.

Your book begins when you decided to leave your position at Princeton and take this position on the staff of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What were the challenges you faced when you took that job working far from home, and how did you make the decision to return home from Washington?

Well, it took me about three minutes to decide to take the job! That was not really an issue. I had always wanted to be in government. I tell people now, when your party is in power and you’re free, do it. Because when Bill Clinton won, I was getting tenure and when we won again I had a 2-month-old; in 2000 and 2004 my party didn’t win. So it’s like, if I’m ever gonna go, I’ve gotta go.

We decided, as I wrote in the book, that [my husband and sons] should stay [in Princeton]. They had no interest in moving. We had just come back from a year in Shanghai, so they’d already been moved for a year. And both Andy and I thought that would be really bad for them, to put them in a strange town with him commuting back to Princeton and me trying to get used to a very high-pressure job.

And so you made the decision that you would commute and go to Washington every week during the work week and come home on the weekends. Obviously, that’s a grueling schedule for anybody, but it sounds like in the book you sort of anticipated it was going to be hard on you, and maybe didn’t anticipate quite how hard it would be on your kids.

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I think that’s true. Part of it was, my kids were then 10 and 12; we had not been through the teenage years. Maybe now I would have a different view, but also teenage-hood is different for everybody. Basically, my older son had hit middle school. He’d been in middle school three months when I left. That was a big change. He’d gone from a small elementary school to a much bigger middle school, and he was 12, and it’s a difficult time.

I was always traveling, even when I was a dean, so I though this wasn’t going to be that different. I had been working, but I’d been working down the street, so I could be pretty fully involved in their lives – I could go to teacher meetings and sports games and that sort of thing. Maybe I should have anticipated it, but I’d always managed to make it work, and I just assumed we would make it work this time.

And it was of that experience – of realizing how hard it was to make it work – you wrote an article that appeared in The Atlantic in 2012. Were you surprised at how much conversation and debate it sparked?

Absolutely. And I don’t think I said anything that other people hadn’t said before. It made an impact in part because I wasn’t writing in a women’s journal or a feminist journal, I was writing in The Atlantic, and I’m a foreign policy person and I’d had a successful career.

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But I think mostly it was that I’d caught a generational wave. Mothers and daughters have been debating exactly these issues. And a lot of young women were saying to their mothers, “hey, I don’t want to have to do what you did.” Or, “it’s just harder than it looks. And I’m not sure how I’m going to do this.” And a lot of mothers were saying, as I said in the book, “well, of course you can do it. This is what we fought for.”

So this is the interesting question – that generational issue within feminism. You write about growing up imbued with this feminist promise that women could and should have it all. Do you think that feminism needs to – not that feminism is some monolith –

I was going to say!

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But how do you think that women, feminism, all of us, should reframe the conversation in order to get the next generation better prepared to face the challenge of trying to have a family, trying to have a career? Do we need to reset expectations?

Yes. That’s really the heart of the book, the hope of the book. Which is that we are at a point, in the second wave feminist movement, 50 years on, where it is now time to make this a conversation between mothers and fathers and daughters and sons, in which both the parents and all the children say, look, to have the best of what life has to offer, to have a fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful life, there are two sides to that.

There’s the striving to pursue your own goals and invest in yourself. And then there is the love and connection to others, and investing in them and watching them grow, or caring for those you love. A good life – let’s not talk about having it all – a good life has both. But it is hard to combine them, and if one person has a really big job, the other person is going to have to be the anchor in any relationship. I’m not saying nobody can do it – sure, there are people who can do everything for their kids and have a high-powered job. They have, typically, tons of help.

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My husband says to our sons, “Look, having you has been incredibly important, we think it’s the greatest achievement of our lives, we would not have missed it; if you want this, then you’re going to have to figure out, with your partner, how, over time, you make room for both.” And only when men start thinking about that the same way that women think about it, are we going to get to any kind of equality.

There’s a passage in the book where you’re talking to a young women shortly after the Atlantic article came out. You’re talking with her about equality in the home and being an equal partner, and she sort of wrinkles her nose at the idea of a house husband. Are we still too entrenched in gender roles to have equal partnerships on the home front?

I’d say we are entrenched in gender roles more on the male side than the female side. We have changed dramatically the choices open to women – dramatically. But we have not changed the choices open to men. So a man who is the lead parent is still looked at not all that differently than he was looked at in the ’50s and ’60s. Even though "Kramer vs. Kramer" came out in 1979, here’s this hard-charging guy whose wife leaves, and he’s totally incompetent as a parent, and he learns how to be competent, and he’s actually a better father in many ways than she is a mother. And that’s emasculating? Really?

There have been some very brave men who’ve said, "I want to have a different life than my father. I want to be with my children. I want to be a central figure in their lives." I see the men who have the guts to do that as the same kind of pioneers as the original women who went into offices and were called every sort of name, none of which are printable in Salon –

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I think everything is printable in Salon.

Well, they were called ballbusters. They were attacked for being masculine. And they said no. I can be a woman and I can be a CEO.

And the other issue is female sexism, or female insistence on these gender roles as much as men, and that’s the point of my husband’s piece. [Slaughter’s husband, Andrew Moravcsik, has an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I Put My Wife’s Job First.”] We are buying into this idea, too. What I’ve discovered is that my husband parents really differently than I do, and I don’t really love it a lot of the time.

And also, gender roles aside, even in a same-sex marriage, if you’re raising a child with another adult person, you’re going to have differences.

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Yes. Right at the heart of the book is these two friends of mine who are a lesbian couple, and I write about the criteria they use [to decide who is lead parent] – who earns more money, who has a bigger career, who’s more ambitious, who wants to be more engaged with the kids, what are their temperaments, all those questions. Same-sex couples are actually leading the way to how all couples should think about these issues.

You had an essay recently in the New York Times, drawn from the book, in which you talk about a work world that is toxic for everybody, and almost impossible to manage for workers who aren’t young, healthy, childless, unencumbered by any outside needs or demands. Is that a new thing?

Yes. This is not just me saying this. The number of hours that white-collar workers work has steadily climbed. And that’s due to globalization and competition, there are a million reasons why.

The point is about focusing on care rather than women – when we focus on women, we just count. And the question is, how many women do you have? When we focus on care, you see something quite different. We used to have a workplace where only guys could work, and now we have a workplace where there are men and women and they’re both working full-out, but there's no room for care. That just logically can’t work. You’d never have expected the "Mad Men" to be simultaneously getting clients and running home and picking up their kids from school, so how on earth do we essentially liberate women to be in the workplace without recognizing that that work still has to get done? It’s not a women’s problem, it’s a workplace problem.

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Right. Even on "Mad Men," whenever Don’s daughter inconveniently drops by, he pawns her off on the secretaries. They find a mom substitute right in the office.

Exactly! Exactly.

Speaking of the care economy, as a public policy expert you see a role outside of the family, a larger role of government or business, a societal role to help solve these issues. There’s a section in your book about what you call the infrastructure of care – childcare, eldercare and so on. These things all sound terrific, but they also seem highly unlikely in our current political climate to ever happen.

I agree they feel highly unlikely, but I felt very strongly two things. Of the key messages in the book, one is around care, and one is around men, and the third message really is, we can’t do this alone. And I really feel this strongly. And that’s part of my issue with focusing on women’s confidence, or on what women can do – that’s great, I’m all for it. But that is never going to fix the system.

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I guess I’m also saying, enough with “we can’t do it.” We could do it, if every woman in this country, and a lot of men, said, Look, we cannot be working, although we'd like to be, many of us want to be – I’m not advocating going back to the 1950s – but we can’t do it without the same kind of infrastructure other developed countries have.

One last question. Some of the reactions after the Atlantic piece noted that you’re educated, privileged, professional and in a very high-power position and you’re talking about people in high-powered, white-collar jobs. How much do your ideas translate into a blue-collar, working-class context?

That is the biggest difference between the article and the book. In the article I said, point blank, I am a privileged, educated woman writing for other privileged, educated women, in a privileged, educated magazine. I heard from lots of women, women who wrote to me and many of the women I addressed in all these speeches I’ve been giving, and I really started thinking about how the early feminist movement was always more upper-middle class – I mean, that was the critique of  “The Feminine Mystique,” too. But Gloria Steinem, at the time she was first speaking, it was a time of social revolution and so she talked about solidarity with unions, and with civil rights there was a more unified sense. And all women had had the common experience of being sex objects. You could be on the factory floor or you could be a secretary, you know, you’ve been pinched or groped or whatever else. So there was more unity than there is now.

And that is, again, why I think it’s so much more important to focus on care than to focus on women. As I said, when we focus on women, we start counting. And most of the things we can count are the women at the top: how many CEOs, how many surgeons, how many professors?

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Yet the majority of minimum-wage workers are women, and two thirds of shift workers are women. So If we’re really going to help women, my point is, when you focus on care then you actually do see links – because you see that high-powered lawyer who decided to go part-time to be home with her kids and is knocked off the track for partnership or managing partner, and you see much more, as I wrote in the Times, far more dramatically, the woman who has to stay home because her kid is sick, and then loses her job. And so this is the frame that I do think makes sense. All these policy solutions will help poor women much more than rich women, because rich women can buy their way out of it.


Kate Tuttle

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