Anne-Marie Slaughter: A New Feminist?

Marjorie Murphy Campbell

Progressive feminism had a hard week.

An online article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” – by the successful academic and State Department professional Anne-Marie Slaughter – blew the leotard off Superwoman.  Slaughter’s widely read piece soundly exposes the professional woman/wonder wife/marvelous mother as the exhausted and conflicted real person so many of us know through personal and vicarious experience.  Slaughter slays the myth of progressive feminism that women “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)” and blames, instead, the chimera progressive feminism crafted at the expense of my generation of women.  Remarkably, Slaughter attributes her conversion in perspective to a realization that she could not hawk this fundamentally flawed feminist image to the next generation of women.

Slaughter left her power position in DC because of “my desire to be with my family and my conclusion that juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”  “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” is a loving – though still confused – lament over changes that might make work and family easier to juggle for women in elite leadership positions.  Unwittingly, Slaughter actually explains why no set of changes will alleviate the conflict.  Indeed, of the many changes Slaughter tosses about – work from home, irregular “stair steps” as career path, matching work and school schedules and freezing eggs as a protection against declining fertility – none would have derailed her decision to go home.

In real life today, women have choices that men simply don’t have.  Having more choices means having to make choices that men do not have to make, choices that arise solely from our gender based differences.   Slaughter gives voice to the New Feminist assertion that gender equality means respecting and supporting women’s feminine reality, not re-engineering women in the mold of men or pretending that women’s life choices mirror those of men.   Slaughter’s explanation of her decision to “go home” is so beautifully, uniquely feminine, it’s worth quoting:

But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.  I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults.  But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.  My older son is doing very well these days, but even when he gives us a hard time, as all teenagers do, being home to shape his choices and help him make good decisions is deeply satisfying.

Even as Slaughter testily pokes ideas that might ease the balance of work and family, she recognizes the fundamental flaw in setting as ideal work-family combinations men favor – a flaw that academics like Elizabeth Fox-Genovese identified as New Feminism developed.  Namely, women are fundamentally different than men in their orientation to family and children and the human person.  These differences reflect a natural, gender-based concern for human well-being that often conflicts and most certainly contrasts with the male model of measuring success through individual ambition and pursuit.   Indeed, Slaughter points out the much higher frequency of women leaders who forego having families compared to their male colleagues.  As many of us know firsthand, this choice often does not signify that women in consuming leadership roles don’t want families but, rather, they embrace the human component of their office and profession (as well as friends and relatives) as their family.  Slaughter’s description is, again, so feminine in tone, it is worth quoting.

Still, the proposition that women can have high-powered careers as long as their husbands or partners are willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately) assumes that most women will feel as comfortable as men do about being away from their children, as long as their partner is home with them.  In my experience, that is simply not the case.

Here I step onto treacherous ground, mined with stereotypes.  From years of conversations and observations, however, I’ve come to believe that men and women respond quite differently when problems at home force them to recognize that their absence is hurting a child, or at least that their presence would likely help.  I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.

When I described the choice between my children and my job to Senator Jeanne Shaheen, she said exactly what I felt: “There’s really no choice.”  She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative felt so deeply that the “choice” is reflexive.

It is that “maternal imperative” – which Betty Friedan cavalierly dismissed when she called women the persons who happen to bear children – that “sameness” feminists deny, decry and demand destroyed that women might better measure up to male-defined success.  As predictably responded to Slaughter’s article:

We are still very much in the midst of reversing eons of gendered injustice . . . Backlash politics . . . pushes back against every female stride, every achievement, and there’s still enormous effort to put into righting gender . . . injustices that make true equality elusive. A document like Slaughter’s offers a valuable testament to these remaining challenges. But its presentation as a deadening diagnosis of insurmountability is antifeminist, anti-woman, cheap and reactionary.

And that sucks.

Well, yes, I suppose from the progressive feminist point of view, Slaughter’s very real description of women as female beings, deeply and differently moved in relation to the human person than male beings, “sucks” – the way my sons say losing a ballgame or getting a “C” sucks.  New Feminists don’t see it that way.  New Feminism rejects the assertion that gender equality requires socially engineering our young women into the life styles, measurements and values used by men.  New Feminism rather embraces our “maternal imperative” and the feminine values that flow from that imperative as a “deeply satisfying” pursuit for women, a badly needed benefit to humankind. welcomes the discussion initiated by Slaughter as a long overdue affirmation of the feminine as truly equal.

2 thoughts on “Anne-Marie Slaughter: A New Feminist?

  1. This is a great springboard to further push the Feminist conversation, as it as shifted from the old Feminist question of whether or not we are able to do everything to “Why should we feel like we have to do everything??”

    We are not debating whether women should be in the home or the workplace. We are more so saying that matter where we end up in our careers or vocations, we are not exempt from our obligation to express our feminine gifts. The world needs our femininity, not our impressive resumes.

  2. Marjorie’s Campbell’s article points out the that the feminest movement was all about women stepping away from their identity as female and making it a study in the woman making a study of herself, but robbing her of the experience of being who she is. Talk about a wild goose chase, that is where the women finds herself when she must finally realize, “I am not doing what I want to do.” In this perverse intra-dialectic search, women have allowed the various aspects in their roles as wives and mothers to be described in terms of commodities. The argument has then been taken so far as to say a man can make a good mother or a mother can make a good father. One of the saddest examples I personally observed was a small 4 year old with his sibling coming out of an airport security area that was unbelievably busy, He had two daddies. They were two parents who were men, rushing him without taking the time to put his shoe back on and wipe his nose. The mom in me could only endure the situation pulling my heart back in and putting away the intense mom desire to pick him up, comfort him and tell him everything was going to be alright. How can we as women do that everyday to our own children to pursue the job at the top? I really do not want to make that study everyday. I, like Marie Slaughter, don’t think it is worth pursuing.