The current issue of The Atlantic has an interesting article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and most recently director of policy planning at the State Department.
Her title, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” pretty much says it all. Slaughter recently left the State Department to return to Princeton. The University has rules about giving up tenure if away for more than two years, but as Slaughter admits, that wasn’t her main concern. She wanted to get back home, because she felt that she was short-changing her twelve and fourteen-year-old sons.
Her honesty about her motives has sparked a great deal of appreciation from younger women she has talked to. They don’t believe the “women can have it all” line that they have been fed by feminists of an older generation. Climbing the greasy pole to the top of competitive professions conflicts with having a family and being a mother. Slaughter’s article itemizes the many dimensions of this conflict, even to the point of allowing women have a stronger desire to be present for their children than men.
The article is important, because it reflects a moment of sober reassessment widely shared among the elite women Slaughter talks to and represents. The Atlantic and other magazines have recently published articles about the unhappiness of elite women, and we seem to be in the midst of a modest degree of soul-searching. Has the sexual revolution really been an unmitigated good for women? Has adopting the career goals and work life of men been for the best? Are children really choices for most women, or are they closer to deep psychological necessities?
Important questions. But, unfortunately, Slaughter isn’t really up to answering them. At the end of the day she is a modern liberal, which means believing in an unlimited future. As she says, “I still believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and men can too).”
Her naive faith is characteristic of liberal elites who really believe that they can throw themselves into the hyper-competitive meritocratic system that rewards them so richly without risking profound personal losses. With continued re-socialization and changes in work environments—all of which will require more women in power to change things—the painful conflict between our self-regarding desires (“I want to rise to the very, very top!) and our responsibilities to others (it could be our parents or friends just as easily as our children) will melt away.
But it’s silly to imagine that flexible work schedules will make much of a difference. You can be a workaholic in your home office, and in fact without the ritual of leaving the workplace it can be an even greater danger. We need an interior discipline to negotiate the kinds of dilemmas that women like Slaughter have faced and will continue to face, not social reform.
And this discipline only makes sense in light of a substantive view of what makes for a good life, which of course liberals like Slaughter don’t want to “impose” on anyone and won’t even formulate for themselves. They’re all about honoring “choices.” Yet it’s telling that the one person in her story who does have the discipline to put limits on the demands that a career places on life is an Orthodox Jew. No lack of a substantive view there.