Of all my female friends only one is a stay-at-home mom and that’s probably because she has a twin. A significant majority are single (well, those living in New York City anyway) and most are elite school grads too busy kicking ass in their respective careers to play the e-mail forwarding game. However, one rising star at Popular Brand Name Organization recently made time to e-mail Anne-Marie Slaughter’s, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,”to a shortlist of friends, with a sweet note: “…and you ladies make it seem (almost) effortless.” For the aspirational set, real girlfriends are a precious commodity and time with them, a meticulously planned thing. It struck me that Slaughter’s article had become a Hallmark card for the corner office-bound. “Just thinking of you,” it says. Hugs.
I’m not mad at love notes between girlfriends. No one else understands my career, love and family options better. I can’t help, however, but view the current fawning over Slaughter’s revelations as yet another pass given to the musings of one of the nation’s super elite women. They get the platform, a bullhorn, a standing army of microphones and zero critical resistance–especially if opining on “safe” women’s issues. Low expectations are at work on Olympus but here comes a reality check from the cheap seats.
Slaughter is the first female director of policy and planning at the State Department and under none other than my generation’s idea of the baddest B, Hillary Clinton. She is the first female dean of Princeton University’s preeminent school of public administration and foreign affairs. But only now has a social scientist of Slaughter’s caliber and training realized that the structure of work in the US economy–and the social norms produced and reinforced by same–prevents women, particularly mothers, from advancing en masse to Davos-level leadership positions.
My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged—and quickly changed.
Word? Slaughter is no naïve Eve charmed by the pretty snake much less some bright-eyed 20-something starting out on the management track. This is a woman with significant experience and understanding of economic and social policy and its impact on people’s lives. So the story isn’t that women “still can’t have it all,”–the Atlantic’s too-cute-by-half shorthand for qualified women’s inability to penetrate the gilded glass ceiling–nor, an elite woman saying it after having pushed her chair back from the boardroom table. The story is Slaughter’s longstanding silence on that fact. Because of course she had to have known all along. Such an educated woman couldn’t have just woken up from some kinda Sleeping Beauty coma.
I won’t apologize for having high expectations of Slaughter; she’s worked hard enough for them. To be sure, she deserves praise for ‘coming out.’ And while I don’t know why she or women of similar or greater influence are deafeningly silent on economic issues that fundamentally reorder ‘work’ to improve all women’s lives, I’ll hazard a guess.
A few months ago I attended a ProPublica-sponsored panel on women in the newsroom where the most memorable comment came from the floor during audience Q&A. The speaker was 70-something Rita Henley Jensen, founding editor of Women’s eNews and, full disclosure, my one-time boss. Over a long career she noticed that as many women climb the corporate (academic or government) ladder, they tend to stop identifying their concerns with the group and embrace their success as individual, exceptional and based on merit. The latter is hardly a course with which to disagree; most people want to be acknowledged for their talent, alone. But it’s also a stance that ignores structural gender inequities, blames individual women for their inability to rise in the status quo and strips whatever remains of a women’s movement of influential advocates. The ‘first female’-anythings are rarely feminists in the union-joining sense of the word. They’re feminists in the ‘I’, ‘me’ and limited-’we’ sense. These two factions explain why there are a million personal causes for and by women but no longer anything that collectively looks like a women’s movement.
Slaughter should be called out on her recent awakening. The notion that you need to have catapulted yourself to the top of the United States Department of State before you recognize that women “still can’t have it all” is the most absurd retelling of lived experience I’ve seen in a long while. Most working mothers understand that the deck is stacked and the choices between career and family, impossible. Many of them, with their lack of elite credentials and therefore lack of access to media, will never get the chance to ask Slaughter what took her so long. Instead they'll get to watch yet another unfolding of a conversation that happened 20 years ago. Way to push the needle forward.
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