Why Women Can, and Can’t Have It All

BY Maria Lopez Conde  June 26, 2012 at 4:51 PM EDT

In her controversial cover story “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for this month’s The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton University professor and former State Department official, asks if women — “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place” — can have both a successful career and a family.

Slaughter served as the first female director of policy planning for the State Department, a “foreign-policy dream job,” but stepped down after two years because she wanted to spend more time with her sons at home in Princeton, N.J. The former government official candidly writes about the tensions of balancing home life with the pressures of a demanding job. Her provocative piece elicited reactions from both men and women and sparked a new conversation about the role of women in the workplace, what feminism is and whether women can indeed have it all.

NewsHour spoke with several women from various backgrounds, hoping to gain further insight from Slaughter’s article.

Rebecca Traister, senior writer at Salon.com and author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women,” agrees with the gist of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article but she feels it is reviving an old debate.

It’s very symptomatic of where we are after second wave feminism. Women who have had these experiences of being powerful and successful that wouldn’t have happened in the past. This is a firsthand account of that and I’ve admired her for a long time. These are accounts that are turning up as firsthand evidences of the way we haven’t reformed our domestic expectations and workplaces exist as if everyone had spouses at home when in fact, feminism and some of its victories have meant that that is not the case anymore. It’s not men with wives who cook dinner and take care of the children. The body of what she’s arguing, especially at the end, about the kinds of shifts we need to make to make in order to make it more tenable for women and for men to balance home and work lives in ways that are economically feasible, that’s really valuable to me. It’s incredibly valuable but it’s also not breaking news. It’s also Arlie Hochshild, a sociologist who wrote a book twenty years ago called “The Second Shift.” People have pointing out for a long time that we have a lot to do when it comes to parity and equal gender opportunity. But that this is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s experience at a very high power job is very specific version of the story.

However, Traister disagrees with the way the story was sold by The Atlantic.

I hate the term “have it all” in regards to summing up the feminist project, a project that is much more about economic and political equality, sexual freedom and social liberty and the phrase makes it all about having it all like a “completist” job where we get the most cake, the most shoes. It’s an anti-feminist approach. It’s a generational difference, I think. It’s not the way I see feminism and I wasn’t promised that I was going to get what I wanted. I was always told there would always be challenges and that’s what Anne-Marie’s piece reinforces in a powerful and intelligent way. But have it be sold – as it is on the cover of the magazine- as a kind of punishment, it’s like a deadening diagnosis. It should be about fighting for more but this article title says, “Sorry, you can’t do it.” That’s how the framing works to sell it. That doesn’t match the piece and I think it’s a really sad message to send both women and men.

Zerlina Maxwell, a contributing writer to Feministing, Ebony and The Grio, believes women should not necessarily want it all.

Why do we want to have it all? I mean, I think it’s okay if women make individual independent choices of “I want a career and family and all this” but the idea that we inherently should want to have it all is a little bit problematic particularly, because it doesn’t allow us to really make independent choices to have it all in other ways. There are other ways to have it all besides having a family and a career and that’s really my issue with it.

Maxwell said the issue isn’t necessarily linked to the fact these women are women — it also has to do with the particular careers they want to break into.

High-level State Department employee, even if you’re a man, you’re also going to have the same troubles balancing career and travel around the world but when you make a decision to go into that career, there are sacrifices that you have to consider before doing that and there’s nothing wrong with that. And I think that individual women don’t really have the power, without a collective shift in the structural dynamics, to really change that and that’s not going to happen over time.

Tune in to the NewsHour Tuesday for Judy Woodruff’s conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, Monica Olivera, a young mother and founder of the Latin Baby blog and Naomi Decter, vice president of the public relations firm Beckerman, who has written for The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal.