Princeton professor’s new take on old feminism debate

Have you all read this article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, published Wednesday night in The Atlantic? The author, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is our old pal, the former Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, who just finished a two-year stint under Hillary Clinton in the State Department.

This article is at the same time super lengthy and impossible to skim, so just getting through it might challenge your work-life balance–maybe try it with a glass of red wine tonight after the kids are in bed!

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with … because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation,” Ms. Slaughter wrote. “But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.

I never admired Dean Slaughter as a woman, but now I do. And while career is more important to her than it is to most of us, I think her piece is insightful, honest, and extremely thorough. She is frank about the fact that her domestic life in Princeton fell apart over the last two years as she commuted to back and forth to D.C. every day, even with a perfectly supportive husband and community, two teen-aged boys, and everything else in place. She validates all the reasons women choose to stay home–because they can’t easily shake maternal instinct, because they believe in it, because many of life’s simple joys like waffle breakfasts and family traditions are found in family life. She insists that women not blame their own lack of commitment to feminism, or those pesky hormones that make it hard to leave our babies, when we find that it cannot be done.

The second half of her piece suggests the practical ways that the American work culture needs to change in order to accommodate mothers. Her policy analyst side shines here. Her suggestions are incremental, reasonable, and very possible, like matching work schedules to school schedules and increasing work-from-home opportunities (both of which are shown to increase productivity), as well as much longer leaves and even decades-long career breaks during child-rearing years.

Overall, her piece is gentle, honest, practical… and, refreshingly, lacks the screeching, finger-pointing feminist tone that normally characterizes her generation’s take on this question.

The career women of our generation have observed the generation before us, and we’re learning from their mistakes. Slaughter’s piece brings out the simple fact that women are different from men, and in order to truly accommodate women, the work culture has to create space for the unique gifts and geniuses of femininity.  Slaughter quotes our peers, the authors of the book “Midlife Crisis at 30: How the Stakes Have Changed for a New Generation–And What to Do about It”:

If we didn’t start to learn how to integrate our personal, social, and professional lives, we were about five years away from morphing into the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.

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  • Kellie “Red”

    I’m glad you blogged about this b/c I was going to do so tomorrow! Like you, I was rather shocked to read her positions. I think this is really interesting, and I agree wholeheartedly that the workplace needs to be more family friendly. Both corporate and governmental policies should encourage better work/life balance and realize that a majority of women nowadays do work to support their family. But I think I disagree with Slaughter’s seemingly underlying assumption that if enough things “changed” then we could “have it all.” Working in a career has its upsides and downsides, and sacrifices in family life have to made regardless of one’s gender. Ross Douthat makes this point nicely in an excellent commentary on and criticism of Slaughter’s article, see I highly recommend his piece!

  • Thank you for recommending this piece – I’ll be glad to read it when I get the chance. I’m especially interested by the policy analysis, how workplace practices need to change to promote healther work/life balance. I’ve long thought that if more companies could craft positions that women could do from home, they would find themselves with an intensely loyal employee base. So many mothers I know who stay home with their child speak wistfully of wanting to find some part-time work they could do from home, whether to help with the family budget while still being present to the daily needs of their children, or because they want different intellectual stimulation/the sense they’re contributing their gifts in another way. If only more companies would catch up with the changing shape of family life today, I think they might be surprised at how it could help their bottom line, too.

  • Kellie “Red”

    I also wanted to point out this one part of Slaughter’s piece because it refers to Bonnie Ware and her study regarding the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. The number 2 regret is “I wish I didn’t work so hard (And) This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.” Something for our working husbands to always keep in mind!

    So it seems the work/life balance issue is never easy, even for men. I don’t think it will ever be easy, especially if work isn’t about pleasure or self-advancement, but about providing for our family and serving God with our talents. Our time is limited, after all, and the choice to pursue one thing in life will usually be done at the exclusion of other equally good things. That’s the nature of time…

  • Juris Mater

    Kellie, I really like Ross Douthat’s piece, his points are very important to consider in tandem with Slaughter’s article. Here is his final paragraph:

    “Our politics and our culture can make these choices easier, but neither a more generous child tax credit nor a more supportive work environment can make them go away. The best way to live with them, then, and to make them as wisely as possible, is to be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing — rather than holding out hope that we, alone out of all the generations of humanity, are about to find a way to have everything we want.”

    I think this highlights the thing I love most about Slaughter’s article and our own generation’s take on work-family balancing–we are finally, thank God, acknowledging that motherhood, including significant time spent with our little ones, is extremely desirable, happy, something we want. I get so sick of the horribly pernicious cultural attitude that we inherited that says motherhood is forced on us through socialization, religion, patriarchy, guilt, all those other external forces that seek to dehumanize women through the shackles of motherhood. I am happy for this outcome of the feminist experiment: now that women are mostly freed from their chains : ), it turns out that those weren’t chains at all. We want to be mothers, and more than just biological moms who birth children then hand them over to caregivers–we want to be mothers who are present to their children, who get to savor the small and big joys of family life.

  • Kathleen

    I read the article and very much appreciated her honesty! She makes the point that having children in your twenties allows one to finish raising the kids before the peak years of a career hit, namely the 40s and 50s. I like the fact that the retirement age of 63 seems too young for Slaughter and that a woman in good health could work into her 70s. I most definitely plan on pursuing a career after when my kids get older. Many people switch careers midlife and I know many women who stayed home to raise sometimes rather large families that then entered the workforce in their 40s.

  • Helen

    Ok, I’ll be reading this. It sounds like a refreshing, honest take on the whole issue. Haha, it will probably have to be with a glass of wine tonight, as recommended, since we’ve got a ‘sick day’ here…which always seems to happen on the days I try to get my other work (‘meaningful’ work, according to our feminist friends) done! I like Kathleen’s comment (above mine), about mothers having the opportunity to return to the workforce after their children have grown up. I mean, even it you did it at age 50, and looked at offering another 20 years of service to your career or in some voluntary capacity, you’d be contributing an awful lot. (On top of your earlier career and the Cathedral you Built during your years raising your children, of course!) My mum started up a pregnancy centre after raising 8 children and being at home for most of that. I am so proud that she did that because she’s making excellent use of her comparatively freer time and supporting girls and women to welcome their unborn children and giving them emotional, spiritual and material support during and after the pregnancy. That’s what I call value adding, and I hope that when my children are grown up I can do something selfless like Mum. In the meantime, I’m working at being selfless with my littlies, and though it’s FAR harder than my old job, it’s so much more rewarding! Thanks for letting us know about the article, JM!

  • My immediate response to the article was that men also can’t “have it all.” Among our husbands, some have sacrificed career ambitions or more lucrative opportunities because of the needs of the family, others have stuck to a more intense work track and longer hours, either way, almost all are less present within the family than they would like to be. My husband went to a lunch recently where someone asked him if it bothered him that he is not home for dinner most nights — his answer was simple, of course it does! We have made the decision that we think is best for our family, for now, which doesn’t have much work life balance, but he does all the work and I do almost all the life.
    He works long hours, but he could be home for dinner more often if we lived closer to his work. We have known people who live literally in the same building complex as the office, and if you did that you could pop in to congratulate your child on a lost tooth or check his math homework, but we chose to live someplace less expensive and have more space. Life requires a lot of compromises, which is a big part of why the idea of “having it all” just leaves you feeling cheated. I frequently go back to the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” Frankly, the truth of this, in this country, is a tremendous blessing, because there are plenty of places in this world where families can’t even get what they need.

  • Juris Mater

    Helen and Kathleen, I’m glad you brought out that point that there are plenty of years for a full career after having kids young and spending two+ decades at home with them. This is true in many kinds of work, and so hopeful. But in many of the professional spheres and high-level positions, it’s not. I think of our dear sister Queen B who literally cannot take one year off in her medical track–between medical school, residency, fellowship, and then eventually practice (10+ years)–without being considered so obsolete that she is effectively of the profession. She chose to hit pause between medical school and residency, after her third child was born, and just hope for the best in the future. Her aspirations as a pro-life OBGYN are unique and amazing, and she has the ability to do it like nobody else I know, but she’s legitimately concerned now that she’ll never be able to reenter the profession. It seems reasonable for these professions to be open to part-time completion of requirements or refresher years for those who have been out raising children. I think so much of the rigor and “face-time” are cultural–hazing and weeding out, to see if you’re man enough to survive 36 hours of call or whatever–and worth reconsidering. (I wonder if I’d want to be operated on by a doctor who hadn’t slept in 3 days.)

  • Elle

    Ok, I’m going to go ahead and go out on a super controversial limb, but it is keeping with the theme of the article, “You can’t have it all” and I’d be interested to see others thoughts on this. I think there are certain careers that are just not compatible with motherhood, especially during those early years. I am going to tell my daughters that God has a plan for their lives and they can work hard to be anything they want to be, but that can’t be EVERYTHING they want to be. Yes women, can do amazing things in Government, Science, etc, but if the nature of the career requires long inflexible hours and schedules, I think a woman should either think twice about entering that field or discern that perhaps the single life would better suit their ability to pursuit some very noble cause. No matter how noble a career, your kids shouldn’t suffer because of it. I have friends whose mothers were doing very good noble work, but they wished their mother was there more and the nanny there less. As an example, balancing motherhood and a military career is very difficult and children suffer as a result of, not only deployments and out of town training, but also very long hours. A friend of mine had to drop her kids off at childcare at 6 am to make it to PT (physical training) that is required of everyone in her unit. I think if a woman wants to pursue a career in one of these more rigorous professions, she needs to discern whether that career is truly compatible with her desire for motherhood. I know that is not a popular answer, but I think kids have a right to a present mother. Young kids do better the more time they spend with their mothers.
    I definitely like that Slaughter mentions changing the workplace ethos to be more family friendly, removing the stigma of part time work from mothers, and also allowing more opportunities to work from home. It’s certainly one way to help strike the healthy work balance.

  • I was intrigued by this article in many ways. I like the idea of working late into life. We always joke that whatever I do when the kids grow up is a major part of the retirement plan. But at the same time I have to realize that by the time my kids are grown I might be looking at elder care issues or even grandkids that need help. I would rather skip a career and babysit than have my grandkids in daycare (assuming my kids wanted that help.)
    A couple things struck me in the article- she declared at one point that the 1 income family was a thing of the past- that 2 incomes were indispensable. I can see someone from NY or DC or LA saying that because it is so expensive there. But in the rest of America….I don’t think I agree, at least not right now (in 20 years probably). I sometimes think the big movers and shakers (who she admittedly seems to be targeting as her audience) don’t realize that the rest of America beats to the tune of different drummer in a sense. Another thing I kept noticing is how she talks about spouses that “parent equally”. What is that? A man who changes diapers or one that supports a wife’s career? Is a sole breadwinner (mutally agreed upon by the spouses) an unequal parent? She doesn’t see that as being a sacrifice for the family. Something about the article doesn’t sit well with me…I think it is because there is very little mention of what’s best for children. One of her parting thoughts was “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men.” But what about the social implications for kids? I feel like its the elephant in the room no one wants to discuss because then it is the mommy wars all over again. It also seems like her focus is wrongly placed. Maybe policies that help the “women working at walmart” she mentions would be a better place to start. Children of academics are going to be better off than the kids that have to placed in group day care from the time they are 6 weeks old. I believe strongly that women can do just about everything…but that what they do is going to have consequences. Wasn’t it Jack Welch who said, “there is no work life balance, just work life choices that have consequences.” I guess I fall more in line with him (and I heard he’s a bit of jerk..not condoning that btw). I have 3 daughters and I believe that they can do anything they want…but I would really want them to think about what they thought their vocation was going to be before they embarked on a career path that would, by its very nature, make mothering difficult. If they go to grad school and take out loans..they are going to have to pay those back which might mean less time with kids etc.

  • I just read Douhat’s piece…he summed up a lot of my criticisms.

  • Lisa

    I did find the article interesting. Now expecting my fourth, the thought of having it all seems utterly exhausting. I sincerely think it would kill me.

    JurisMater>>I am happy for this outcome of the feminist experiment: now that women are mostly freed from their chains : ), it turns out that those weren’t chains at all. We want to be mothers, and more than just biological moms who birth children then hand them over to caregivers–we want to be mothers who are present to their children, who get to savor the small and big joys of family life.

    I appreciate the above point made in response. As it turns out, my chains have proven to be the most effective sources of my santification 🙂 and fonts of Eternal and True joy. They keep me close to home and limit me in ways that force fruit I would rather have passed on when juggling aspirations of career and home life. My hope is that in my later yrs (barring financial need which dictates quite a bit in this broken world) my job will be caregiving of my elders and all those grandbabies with whom I pray to blessed! God willing, I’ll also have more time for serving funeral luncheons and making new-mom casseroles for those sharing this heavy baton. As for my husband – the balance between work and home is hard for him. But his livelihood will be made by the sweat of his brow – no less was promised in Scripture. So, at this point I figure he gets to be preoccupied and I get to suffer childbirth (and sometimes problematic) nursing. It makes us long for Eternity and the joys to be had therein all the more.

  • I know a Princeton educated mom with great work-life balance in her medical practice, and she mentioned recently that she has a mom-returning-to-the-workforce helping out in her practice. I have hope that it is going to be possible, in particular if women give each other a hand up when they need it on re-entry.

    My OB also mentioned that none of the women in his practice are full time — that makes for an interesting dynamic, so many people prefer a female OB, but the two males in the practice have most of the “on call” days. That particular male has delivered all of my Princeton babies, even though he is not my doctor.

  • Mama Turtle

    I just read an article this morning that touched on this idea:

    While it’s great that she was able to work from home that day, I do think it’s a shame that the young lawyer in the article had been with the firm for FIVE years and felt like she couldn’t “afford” to take a day off because of the firm’s billable hours requirement.

  • JMB

    Thanks for linking this piece. I just sent it to my friend who holds a “work/life balance” position in human resources at a major publishing company. It will be interesting to hear her thoughts from the front lines so to speak.
    My story is a little different than most of yours because I’m older and worked full time on Wall Street for 8 years before I left to have my first child. I held successive jobs on the derivative trading floors of brokerage companies and later moved on to a large bank. It didn’t occur to me until after I had my first child that my female superiors rarely saw their own children. It was not uncommon for them to have two full time nannies, one for the week and one for the weekend. Or one to come in at night to relieve the first one. When you need to be at the office by 7 am and your day doesn’t end until after a dinner with a client, you most likely will not see your children awake. This was my reality and I didn’t want any part of it after my son was born.
    So I’ve been home for close to 17 years now. My youngest will be in 5th grade next year. My options for employment are pretty grim. I could substitute teach in our town school system, which provides this type of “job” for 2nd income stay at home moms. Or I could try to get a government job in town hall which would guarantee that I could be home by 4 or 5 at the latest. My other option would be to get a job at any of the major department stores in our area, but that would mean that I would have to put in nights or weekends. I suppose I could also get a job at doctor’s office and be a medical receptionist – this is a popular job for people like me.
    So I agree with Slaughter’s opinion that it is nearly impossible to leave the work force for 17 years and then return in a “good position”. The problem is that I don’t want a difficult or challenging job. I already have one with managing my house and children, and helping my husband run his company. The other problem is that due to our tax bracket, it doesn’t really make sense for me to have a low paying job. My friend told me the other night that she and her husband had to pay an additional 3K to the feds because she made 20K a year as a receptionist. So then you need to ask yourself is it worth it to disrupt my home life to bring in a measly 5 bucks an hour after taxes?

  • Kellie “Red”

    I do agree with much of what you said here, but I think this is also true for men, although perhaps to a lesser degree. I think there are certain professions that are so intense, they do not work well with fatherhood. Dad not seeing his children for days or weeks at a time because he is working/traveling, etc., isn’t great for the kids either. I think Dad’s presence is often really important, and while Dad’s absence can be handled well by the kids and mom, it is definitely a loss that needs to be balanced and hard choices need to be made about whether it is worth it. In some cases Dad’s absence (or mom’s!) cannot be avoided, but if we are talking about planning ahead when choosing professions and our vocation, I think men need to keep fatherhood in mind as well. It is not something that is often discussed when men are deciding what career they will pursue. But if a man wants to pursue a really intense career that will require extensive travel and extremely long hours, perhaps he should also consider a single vocation? We often assume kids will be just fine even if Dad is only present for brief periods of time, but I always wonder if that is the case? Especially during the teenage years, studies show that a Father becomes the most important parental figure. Hard choices all around, but I’m going to try to be careful to make these sorts of limitations known to both my daughters and my sons!

  • BAL

    There are so many thoughtful and interesting comments here. I have not read the article, but heard Anne Marie Slaughter being interviewed on NPR in regards to her article. I think that there are two important things to keep in mind in regards to her situation. Few of us are quite as high as high powered as she is. She seemed to do just fine as Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School. It was only in her position at the State Department that the work life balance just became too much. Also, as has already been pointed out, many people don’t have the option of whether or not they earn an income, in order to make ends meet and provide opportunities for their family.
    I do feel fortunate in that I have been able to combine a medical practice with raising a family. I think it is one of the few professions where working part time can make sense financially and which is professionally and personally rewarding (at least to me, which is why I chose it!). However, having children during medical school and residency would almost have been imporssible for me – at least if I had wanted to spend meaningful time with them.
    Also, as the mother of 4 children ages 9 to 11 months, I am finding it increasingly hard to keep up at home and at work. My children are involved in many activities (perhaps a little over-commited) and a baby is always labor intensive. It is exhausting – though probably more exhausting if I were home full time! Though I enjoy my professional life, I cherish and love my time with my family even more.

  • We are truly blessed if we can do anything we want in life. But if you can do anything, you can’t do everything. I appreciated Slaughter’s article because she admits that feminism has been selling women a lie for decades and is encouraging open, honest conversations by example. This is such an important conversation to have.

  • Juris Mater

    Mama Turtle, I read the article you linked with interest. As a lawyer practicing very part-time from home, I glamorize the fast-and-furious law firm pace and billable hour requirements in my mind on the hard days at home. This article does a good job breaking apart what that really looks like–a finite amount of hours in a day, ALL of which could be billable, so you’re left almost obsessively quantifying the value of every minute in terms of money not earned/hours not billed, including the precious minutes spent with family. That’s a lot of pressure 24/7/365!

  • We know some wonderful military doctors, all women, who feel like they have been “sold a bad bill of goods”. They really thought it would be good to try and do it all and once they started having kids they realize they would like to be home with them more and can’t because they are committed to the military for a long time in order to pay for medical school, residency. I think you hit it on the head, they’ve been “selling a lie.” I truly believe women can do anything intellectually equal to men (sorry, not on a brute strength physical level though) and I plan on teaching that to my girls and boys. But I also need to teach them about limits and priorities too- particularly the priority of family life if that is their vocation!

  • Ladies — thanks for the conversation — here’s my take:

  • Laura Kasemervisz

    Thanks for this very interesting post and comment thread. I have one specific comment. Among other suggestions, Slaughter promotes making school schedules match work schedules. I’m not entirely sure what this would mean, but given that most full-time folks work 40+ (often much more) hours per week, year-round, I cannot imagine that this would be good for kids. First and foremost, schools need to be developmentally appropriate for the children they serve. It scares me to think that longer school hours and the erosion of summer/school holiday time in general is on the horizon for our children.

  • maryalice

    I feel like so many children I know are actually in institutionalized care for 40 hours a week, beginning with day care and continuing to school plus an after care program and all day camps in the summer. However, these seem to work out better than one would think — for example, the after care at our local public school involves playground time, structured time to do homework and some arts enrichment, so over all it is a pretty good use of the extra hours, the time is, perhaps, actually better spent than it would be at home. On the other hand, temperament also comes in to it, because all of that in a social setting with high behavior expectations is a lot to ask of a little person who may need some more downtime.