We live in a first-person world. We argue from our own experience. But what does our own experience actually say about the rest of humanity?
This is the question I find myself asking every time I read a blog post or article announcing that women “can’t have it all.” Inevitably, the writer is a woman who’s found herself in some intolerable situation, has exited said situation, and announces that this means having it all is impossible.
The latest person to follow this line of argument — in a very prominent way — is Anne-Marie Slaughter. She is “Dean Slaughter” to me, as she served as the first female dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, which is where my undergraduate degree is from (she actually assumed that post the year after I graduated, but she was well known. Something that’s not well known: my major was public policy. I bet even those of you who’ve read this blog for 3 years didn’t know that!). Dean Slaughter just penned a piece called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” for the Atlantic. She writes of having taken a job working for Hillary Clinton at the State Department, but with her husband and children still living in Princeton, she was seeing them only on weekends. Her then-14-year-old started acting up in school, and having other problems. Slaughter was homesick. Eventually, Secretary Clinton herself gave Slaughter permission of a sort to leave, given that Princeton revokes your tenure after 2 years of absence (that I didn’t know either. So if Ben Bernanke ever comes back, he won’t automatically have tenure. Except I imagine Princeton would figure something out. As they likely would have with Slaughter — so it was kind of a sham reason).
Much of Slaughter’s essay is quite thoughtful, but the sweeping nature of it bothers me — making a statement that women can’t have it all because Dean Slaughter found one highly prestigious and demanding job unworkable, so she went back to another highly prestigious and demanding job (being a tenured prof at Princeton — kind of at the top of the academic pecking order). Indeed, looking at the way I define having it all — career success, a thriving family, and personal happiness — Dean Slaughter currently has it. I would imagine that many young women and men battling up the academic ladder would consider what she has pretty good.
I have been criticized on this blog (and elsewhere) for arguing that my experience should have anything to do with anyone else. I do try to be careful, though (usually), to couch the argument as “I have done X, therefore X is possible.” My problem with the usual “can’t have it all” story is that the argument is “I couldn’t do X for Y reason, therefore women can’t do X.” All we really know is that you decided not to do X because Y was important to you. Given that women have done most “X”s you can think of — run a country, be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, fly airplanes, do brain surgery, be the dean of a prestigious academic school, and in all these cases, have children and also be happy — you then have to argue that those women are inherently different. Slaughter tilts at this. Such women are rich, self-employed, have stay-at-home spouses, or are superhuman. But why wouldn’t we imagine that many men who’ve achieved great success have one or more item from this list going for them too?