What with the crisis in Syria consigning to the dustbin the responsibility to protect doctrine, the failure of Rio+20 to do anything but advance an environmental wasteland, and the slow yet inexorable unravelling of the eurozone – effectively a world gone to hell in a handbasket – you’d think women might be spared yet another invitation for agonising introspection at the peculiarities of the female condition in the 21st century.
But no. This month, the influential US publication The Atlantic leads with “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, accompanied by a cover shot of a woman in business attire toting a cute but seemingly squirmy toddler in her briefcase.
You’d think the market for this type of storyline might have exhausted itself. The only reason to pay any attention, in fact, is that it’s written by Anne-Marie Slaughter. By many reckonings, she does in fact have it all. One of the foremost voices on US foreign policy, a highly influential legal scholar, a long-time dean of Princeton’s distinguished Woodrow Wilson School, appointed the first woman director of policy planning in Obama’s State Department, Slaughter has a stellar career trajectory.
She is also a mother to teenage sons, and the piece is inspired by the inevitable tensions that arise in seeking to balance ambitions for her professional life against those for her family – tensions which resulted in her giving up her State Department post. Slaughter is far more thoughtful and less judgmental in her diagnosis than, say, Caitlin Flanagan, who similarly scooped the cover of the Atlantic some years back with the controversially titled “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” – a pean to stay-at-home mothers – and much less didactic than Linda Hirshman, whose book Get to Work advised women that for the sake of their careers, if they wanted to be mothers, they should have only one child, not two.
Instead, Slaughter offers carefully calibrated policy proposals intended to assist women in better combining high-powered jobs with engaged parenting – arguing, for instance, that modern-day technology should allow much more of modern-day work to be performed from home.
Slaughter is not unconscious that her challenges are ones many women can only dream of, insisting that “I am writing for my demographic – highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.” But if she writes for a small slice of American women (it is nonetheless the most read piece in the Atlantic’s history), her observation that it is in the corporate world that these adjustments are needed most – government and the NGO sector being more easily accessible to women – means her piece, in the South African context, has a potential reach of possibly only three beneficiaries: Cynthia Carroll, Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita and Maria Ramos.
But it isn’t the rarefied reach of the article, or that it may (as some US critics have maintained) unwittingly play into a false conception that feminism is somehow to blame for an unrealisable expectation that women “can have it all”, that I’d take issue with. Slaughter is in fact adamant that her view is meant as a corrective to the message society sends out to women that if they don’t have it all, there’s something wrong with them. Yet even as she insists that society must change to accommodate women’s choices, Slaughter’s corrective posits a type of woman who seems frighteningly unfamiliar to me.
It is a necessary but insufficient condition, so the piece goes, that women choose mates willing to shoulder equal responsibility for childcare, and Slaughter recommends “establishing yourself in your career first, but still trying to have kids before you are 35 – or else freeze your eggs, whether you are married or not.” All of this, of course, assumes that our personal lives can be run according to a rigorous schedule; that we are generally sufficiently level-headed enough to make our romantic decisions on the basis of our potential mate’s ability to sterilise bottles and change nappies; that we undertake harvesting our eggs with the same pragmatism that we might take out insurance.
But life, particularly our personal lives, generally can’t be approached as if it were an exam for which there is a model answer – as if sufficient planning and preparation will guarantee flying colours. It is so much more haphazard: relationships end, illness intervenes. Life puts paid to the best laid plans. And even if our personal lives could be ruthlessly scheduled, would we want to inculcate such an approach? Slaughter tells of a high-achieving acquaintance so efficiently organised that she “keyed in 1:11 or 2:22 or 3:33 on the microwave rather than 1:00, 2:00, or 3:00, because hitting the same number three times took less time.” That acquaintance sounds genuinely terrifying.
Slaughter’s piece also, albeit unintentionally, contributes to, rather than questions, assumptions about the centrality of motherhood to women’s experience. In her telling, women know they want to be mothers, and plan for it in the same way that they know they want, and can plan for, professional achievement. For some it is exactly so. Just as some women will know that they do not want to be mothers. But for many, I would bet that the desire for motherhood is contextually conditioned – a combination of the right time, place and person.
Biology is a bitch. For all the narrowing of the inequality gap, men get the better deal biologically. They have decades in which to weigh their options on parenthood – time enough to do a complete reversal if they choose. Slaughter writes that a better work-life balance would be to men’s benefit too, citing the research of a hospice nurse who noted that every male patient she nursed regretted having worked so hard. “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship,” she wrote. But here’s the societal advantage that accompanies the biological benefit: to the extent that men are childless, there is not the same assumption that their lives are pitiable.
I confess some surprise at learning, from Phillip Tobias’ recent obituaries, that he had no wife or children. Such is the prevalence of heteronormativity. But no one is likely to assume he lived a thwarted life, or a life that was anything other than deeply fulfilling and engaging. A woman so professionally accomplished, so personally unencumbered, would not invite similar assessment.
Slaughter is right to assert that if “women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behaviour and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices too.” But to frame the choice of many women – for motherhood – as the default and the ideal for all women is just as assuredly likely to result in fewer, not more, women “having it all”. DM
Nicole Fritz is a lawyer. She runs an NGO. In a perfect world, she’s do human rights work and wear haute couture. Right now she has to pass up on the haute couture. She likes to write and one day hopes to do more of it. Sadly, that too is unlikely to make her a much valued client of Karl Lagerfeld.
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky