What is “It All” That Slaughter Says Women Can’t Have?

Part 3 in a series on Women at Work.

Anne Marie Slaugther’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” begs the question what is “It All?” Although most of her article discusses women having it all (or not having it all) with regards to family and careers, older generations of women were taught that a woman’s place was in the home; a woman couldn’t both have a big career and raise a family. Slaughter’s generation set out to break barriers, reach top posts in universities, law firms and public office, and also have fulfilling family lives.

So, does a big career and a happy family life = “It All”? There is no doubt that many women want a career and family, especially the college-educated women, women with law degrees and women with Ph.D.s, that Slaughter was primarily addressing. My field, sociology, dedicates pages and pages of our publications to studying occupational attainment, educational attainment, family formation and family disruption. We know from the data that not nearly as many people have “It All” as Slaughter defines it as those who would like it.

That said, would those who have “It All” (defined as career + family) be fulfilled? I’m not sure. Wealth, success, and a spouse and kids at home may certainly fulfill many aspirations, but does it fulfill them all? I think not.

My research and teaching recently led me to read work, mostly from philosophy and psychology, that has broadened my definition of what “It All” is. In an advanced social theory class I taught last year, I introduced students to philosopher Martha Nussbaum and her important book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.  Cambridge University Press summarizes the objective of her book, in the following way:

“In this major book Martha Nussbaum, one of the most innovative and influential philosophical voices of our time, proposes a new kind of feminism that is genuinely international, argues for an ethical underpinning to all thought about development planning and public policy, and dramatically moves beyond the abstractions of economists and philosophers to embed thought about justice in the concrete reality of the struggles of poor women. Nussbaum argues that international political and economic thought must be sensitive to gender difference as a problem of justice, and that feminist thought must begin to focus on the problems of women in the third world. Taking as her point of departure the predicament of poor women in India, she shows how philosophy should undergird basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by all governments, and used as a comparative measure of quality of life across nations.”

Whereas Slaughter was writing to women at the top of the economic ladder, Nussbaum addresses a similar question but for poor women around the world. Do women at the top of the economic ladder and women at the bottom want fundamentally different things? I think not. Nussbaum makes a great contribution in enumerating the list of fundamental capabilities that are universal–they cross class, race, and ethnicity. She rejects moral and ethical relativism, arguing forcefully that a just society can’t be relativistic about the goods people want or deserve. For Nussbaum, a feminist, moral relativism too often is used to justify why women not only don’t have “It All” by saying they simply don’t want “It All.” For example, Nussbaum argues that even if poor women don’t know that an education would be good for them, society is obligated to educate women. I couldn’t agree more.

Nussbaum and Slaughter’s works both harken back to an ages-old question addressed by Aristotle: what is the greatest good for human persons? What constitutes flourishing, a full life? Aristotle was clear that material things are necessary but not sufficient for flourishing. For Aristotle, the question is: what would people do as a good in and of itself, not just as a means to another end? In the answer to that question lies a deep truth about human persons.

Although it is certainly true that people strive for material or external things, for Aristotle, those things are really means to the end of eudaimonia, normally translated as flourishing. How does one acquire this end of flourishing? Through the rather difficult process of aligning ones internal motivations and one’s actions. Hence, for Aristotle, eudemonia is found in cultivating virtues, understood as ways of being that lead to ways of acting. He also thus breaks down a bit the means-ends disntiction in action: if the end is a virtuous life, the means must be enacting virtues.


Does that sound too lofty and philosophical, too hard to understand enough to live? If so, don’t worry. I often wonder how to translate good philosophical ideas into good social science. Thankfully, my search has turned up a few tips. The former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, published an important theoretically-grounded, empirically-based, book called Flourish that is written to be accessible to all readers and practical. As described in an excellent article about Flourish the New York Times, Seligman laments that many psychologists equate flourishing with happiness, understood as feeling good.

Seligman explains how his decades of research led him to define flourishing, or well-being, in 5 dimensions, which he calls PERMA: a) Positive emotions; b) Engagement; c) Meaning; d) Positive Relationships and e) Accomplishment.

How does this line up with Slaughter’s definition of “It All”? Slaughter seems to be focusing on positive relationships and accomplishment. Seligman’s definition of well-being comes much closer to Aristotle’s understanding of flourishing, though Seligman is clear to state that Aristotle is just one of many influences on his definition. Seligman and Nussbaum, in my view, bring back into focus the big picture: having “It All” must be much more than achievement, marriage and kids. Those things–which are undoubtedly very important–must be embedded in a meaningful life where one’s individual accomplishments are seen as part of a greater whole. Our lives need enjoyment and awe, something we can lose sight of in the quest for the perfect career and perfect family.

One virtue we can all start living is gratitude. Seligman found that people who were grateful to others, grateful to God, felt more positive emotions and had stronger relationships. I fully support those who want to strive to have “It All”, however you may define it, but along the way, let’s not forget to stop and give thanks for what we do have, right now, today, in this moment.

As my work on human flourishing and virtues continues, I hope to share more reflections from philosophy and social science to deepen our understanding of how to have “It All”, or perhaps more importantly, how to be thankful for all we have at this very moment.




Women Can’t Have it All, and It’s Better That Way

Part 2 in a series on Women at Work, in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic about careers and family.


When I was in graduate school, I played in Princeton University’s summer softball league for a team named “Leviathan.” I was one of very few women regulars on any team in the league, a league of not necessarily highly athletic but nonetheless ferociously competitive graduate students. At one game, hot tempers started flaring over someone heckling my team’s pitcher, and a fight was about to break out. I ran over to the two guys about to come to blows and jumped in the middle. I figured if they had to punch each other around me—a woman—they might walk away from the fight. I grabbed my teammate by the shirt and yelled, “Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!” The gamble worked: the fight never happened, and we returned to the sidelines.

When I went up to bat a few innings later, suddenly the same teammate had I pulled out of the fight yelled, “Go Mighty M!” Energized, I smashed a line drive right over the head of the left fielder who, seeing a woman at the plate, had mistakenly come in too close. My teammates cheered loudly and the nickname stuck. On the field, I often did seem mighty. I wasn’t afraid of breaking up a fight, colliding while trying to catch a fly ball, tagging someone out who is sliding, or barking at any guy who said anything improper to me. Having played high school softball, I also hit the ball harder and threw the ball harder than almost any woman in the league, earning me the respect of all the men. I proudly wore my league shirt with “Leviathan” on front and “Mighty M” on the back for many years, and enjoyed many glorious wins with my teammates followed by pizza and beer at Conti’s.

In my academic work, I often act like “Mighty M.” I’m not afraid of jumping into the middle of a passionate argument, calling someone out when they can’t support their argument, or defending myself against unfair questions or critiques. In academic sports leagues and academic conference rooms, “Mighty M” has succeeded because of her self-confidence, backed up by not so shabby amounts of knowledge and athleticism.

The hard part for me was learning that “Mighty M” is not “Almighty M.” Despite the fact that in the creed I pronounce every Sunday at Mass, I state, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” I mistakenly thought I was almighty for quite some time. I got degrees from two Ivy League schools, my early publications landed in good journals, I got an advance contract on my first book from the University of California Press, I got a great post-doc right out of grad school, and then landed a job in a top sociology department in the country.

But my academic life, my personal life, and even my physical health, have had many ups and downs. My outlook on life—my self-conception and reputation as “Mighty M”—was much more comfortable in the ups than in the downs. If we’ve been taught to think we can have it all (or we can have it all, but not at the same time) then those times when we patently don’t have it all (i.e., a publication we worked on for a year gets rejected by 2 journals, we suffer a major disappointment in our families, or we have a health problem that forces us to lie in bed for days or weeks), we will be quite miserable. Occupational success, personal happiness, and good health are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong.

But not having some of those things some of the times undoubtedly makes me a better person. Why? Acknowledging I don’t have it all makes me humble. By worldly standards, I do have more of “it all” than many people. Clearly, so does Slaughter (and I admit she has more of “it all” than I do or probably ever will). I admire Slaughter for acknowledging that when she realized she can’t have it all she also realized that for many years she felt a sense of superiority over other women who complained they can’t have it all.

Similarly, for me, thinking I had “it all” made me feel like I deserved to have it all, like I earned it all. Therefore, if someone didn’t have it all (or didn’t have what I have), they didn’t deserve it or work hard enough for it. Your article didn’t get accepted? You probably didn’t write clearly. Your relationship ended? You probably didn’t try hard enough to be understanding. You got sick? You probably didn’t eat healthy and exercise. This is precisely the mentality Slaughter criticizes, a mentality she laments in herself and many other successful women (like yours truly).

Not only is it easy for Might M to look down on others, what happens when Mighty M has downs? I take it very personally and find it hard to be happy.

It is only more recently that I’ve come to see my losses as equally important as my successes. My losses have taught me that I may indeed be Mighty M but I most definitely am not Almighty M. No matter how might we are, no mortal is almighty—maybe the reason we say God is Almighty in the Apostle’s Creed is that we need to remind ourselves constantly of it.

At the end, I’ve learned that it’s just as much a part of the human condition to want it all as it is not to get it all. The highest human virtue, the true human happiness, comes in finding happiness by striving for it all while being grateful for whatever comes and does not come. It’s often in not having it all that we come to see the value of what we do have.

Looking back on my life, there were things I wanted that I didn’t get and was terribly disappointed but later on realized that what I wanted at that moment would not have been best for me. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want things, or want them ardently, but the trick is knowing how to want things ardently yet be happy either if we get them or we don’t get them. This is what Saint Ignatius of Loyola called holy indifference. It’s not complete indifference, because we must cultivate our desires, do our best to achieve them, and then let things evolve. We are not Almighty, and our vision of what is good for us at any point in time is limited. Not getting things is often part of a much bigger and a much better plan.

That’s why even if I don’t have it all, it’s better that way. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Women Can’t Have it All, but We Could Have it Better

I congratulate Princeton Professor and former Dean Anne Marie Slaughter for her frank piece published in the Atlantic entitled “Why Women Can’t Have it All.” Talking about what keeps people from realizing their dreams of successful careers and joyful families is often taboo (see my previous post on women’s vocation in the world), but Slaughter provides an important personal and sociological reflection on what influenced her to want to spend more time with her family. She also provides useful advice for the generation of women behind her facing similar challenges.Though I don’t have time here to review everything she wrote, as I pondered her piece, I sketched this chart showing things we should not do if we want to have a good work family balance and this we should do.

Of course, Slaughter’s article is much more complex than this chart shows, and I recommend you read it in full. But I have found that making charts like this help me organize ideas, and can serve as handy reminders for my resolutions. So here you go.

In the near future, I hope to post my own reflections on Slaughter’s piece. Those responses would tentatively be entitled “Women Still Can’t Have it All, And It’s Better that Way”. I don’t have it all in my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As I complete yet another marathon of weekend and weeknight hours working on top of my regular schedule (this time preparing my tenure file), I’ll just end this by saying, “Women Still Can’t Have it All, But this Life Probably Isn’t so Bad.”  When I hand in my tenure file later this week, I leave for a two-week research trip to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Giving up a weekend and a couple of weeknights to be able to go to beautiful places and do fascinating research on migration, tourism and the environment probably isn’t such a bad tradeoff.

Here’s to My Students: You Make Teaching a Joy

Part 5 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Yesterday I finished teaching a 5-week online course in sociology of religion. As I remarked in earlier posts in this series, there were many ups and downs. A few things yesterday reminded me that whether I’m teaching online, in the classroom, or a hybrid, my focus needs to be the students. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I’ve taught some amazing students who make everything worth it–all the effort, all the struggles, and even the victories–they are meaningful because of the people I’m serving.

One of the best undergraduate students I have ever taught, Samantha, has been my research assistant for the last 12 months. In the past 2 months, I asked her to meet with me regularly to help me think about how to deliver my material online. As a former student in the classroom version of this class, and a current undergraduate at UNC, I thought she could help me with the course design. She had such amazing ideas that I must say I could not have done it without her help.

Yesterday, when I found out that the water was being repaired in my office building, I thought “Great excuse to meet Samantha at Starbucks.” We exchanged texts, and I told her the coffee would be on me. But she beat me to it. She sat in the window at Starbucks on Franklin Street, and when she saw me waiting to cross the street, ran up to the counter and ordered men a double espresso (which she knows is my favorite drink at Starbucks and that I drink it only if it is very hot). When I walked it, she was sitting at a table with my hot espresso and splenda. I was speechless. What a beautiful person and a kind act.

After Samantha and I met, I wrote a personal note to each student in my summer class with their final paper grades and final course grades. The two heartfelt replies I got were both rom non-traditional/transfer students, who had really done the most work out of anyone in the class. One of them, Angelique, sent me this video interview with her about her experiences being a single mom and going back to college:

Listening to her story made me cry. Despite all the difficulties she encounters being a mom and a student, she keeps going because she wants to give her daughter a better life. She admits she wasn’t ready for college when she was 18. The difficulties she has had in life have made her more focused and more motivated now that she is in college.

I can attest to her motivation, as Angelique completed every single assignment thoroughly, and with gusto and creativity. She was a big fan of the hybrid online/in-person teaching format since day one, likely because she has to balance so many responsibilities. The day of our final online test, for example, she and her daughter had the flu. Not having to trek to campus to take the test, and find a babysitter for her daughter who can’t go to the daycare center with the flu, certainly was an advantage for Angelique.

In her email to me today, Angelique wrote, “I really enjoyed your class, it was not at all what I expected when I enrolled for this summer course.  I learned so much in such a short time.” Indeed, she did. In her final paper, an observation of Faith Harbor Methodist church, she made the funniest and most insightful comment about Emile Durkehim’s theories about ritual and collective effervescence I have ever read:

“What Durkheim is saying is that to everything in the social world there is an order. When we use symbols (totems) to remind us of this order something simple and mundane can be a sacred reminder and in turn become a real sacred thing. Perhaps at home when making a sandwich for lunch a member of the Faith Harbor church would be reminded of the collective effervescence felt during the communion ritual and would be automatically reabsorbed into that religious moment reaffirming her faith.”

Reading this comment, I felt like such  proud professor. Having grown up receiving communion weekly, and being taught about how sacred the ritual is, I would never have likened taking communion to eating a sandwich. But, in thinking about the history of the communion ritual, Angelique is probably right: using a profane element–the bread–in a sacred ritual is intended precisely as a way to break the boundaries between the sacred and the profane. As one friend commented about this statement on Facebook, “that is a liturgist’s dream!”

Angelique’s email reminded that no matter what format I teach in, motivated students can run with it. She wrote:

“I was amazed by your research, your book, and your overall knowledge of religion and society.  Your passion for the topic is contagious. I listened to your whole podcast interview too, and I was amazed at how you never missed a beat and just answered every question so eloquently.  It was amazing!  You are really an inspirational woman (and I already saw my grade so I’m saying this out of honesty, I’m not really one to fluff egos anyway ;) )  I was so glad that you took the time to let us rewrite our papers too, and I had never used the writing center until I took this class and I have found it to be such a valuable resource that I’m going to use it for all of my papers in the future.”

I admit that such kind words touch my heart. How could they not? But I’m not posting this for you to think my students adore me. I’m posting this because it answers the question I asked myself when I started this experiment teaching online:  Will students be as motivated as in the traditional format? Will students be able to draw connections between theory and rituals they observe? Will they become better writers? To the extent that my personality and teaching style is engaging, will students get a sense of who I am?

Angelique’s email is a resounding “yes” to all those questions. Thanks to Angelique, to Samantha, and to all my students who make me happy every morning to get up and go to work.