The trouble with “can’t have it all” manifestos

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?

35 thoughts on “The trouble with “can’t have it all” manifestos

  1. I have trouble with these types of sweeping statements, too. Although I’m certainly not high-powered, I have stay-at-home friends or working friends w/o kids tell me it is impossible to do both simply because they could not do it. They don’t take into consideration the differences in temperment, family support, finances or simply the ability to say “no”. I don’t have the ability or desire to climb up the ladder with kids but i’m certain that some women (and men) can do it; just because I choose not to doesn’t mean no one can handle it.

    1. @Oil&Garlic – she starts the essay by mentioning how at a party another woman tried to talk her out of writing a sweeping essay like this. I know the headline writers probably got involved to make it sweeping and broad, and I don’t disagree that there’s much various workplaces could do to make life easier for mothers and others. But just because I can’t stomach cool whip doesn’t mean it’s inedible.

      1. She is saying we don’t have to eat cool whip.. we know fresh blueberries are better and we can eat fresh blueberries (live in a meeting less world) etc. give women control over their own schedules.. show that after 45 hours you are not that effective

    2. You guys are missing her call to activism … women are being left behind.. we can change this… we do not have to accept it just b/c we have kids.. and I don’t understand how you are all like.. well I can’t do it it is ok.. it is not ok that we aren’t represented in our own gov and in our own system.. what kind of democracy is that..

  2. A friend tells me the article isn’t so bad even though the headline is awful. Sadly, optimizing my time doesn’t include reading such a long article on something with such a terrible title. (Really, only Atul Gawande can hold my interest in print media for that long.) I did enjoy reading commentary on the cover page though!

    re: “I have done X, therefore X is possible.” Sometimes it sounds like there’s an implicit “for all women” and isn’t clear that it’s the mathematical single counter-example needed for a proof that a statement isn’t true for everybody. It’s something that could use even more clarifying.

    1. The article is, indeed, long. I will admit that I skimmed parts. But thanks for pointing me over to the hapless frump post. I also quite enjoyed the one about the sad white babies and mean feminist mommy photos. It totally is a photographic meme. The blogger didn’t even include the Time cover from a few years ago called “The Case for Staying Home” that had the same image.

  3. I agree, the headline is designed to provoke, in that typically annoying mommy warsish way. I think it’s overcomplicating the problem to frame it as a women’s issue. She’s talking about the need to have control over your own schedule and your own time. Everyone has the same 168 hours, but too many people-both male and female-have very little control over how those hours are spent.

    In one place she says that things will get better if women have 50% of leadership positions and 50% of positions of power. I don’t think that’s true at all. Women in power are just as bad as men at being exploitative and inconsiderate of other people’s time.

    1. I think one thing that having more women in power would do is increase the odds that someone who isn’t a jerk would be aware of the problems the affect mostly women. The example from my own experience is accommodating/supporting nursing moms at work. I’ve been in the position to make sure lactation rooms are set up well (network cables so you can work, space for more than one woman at a time in a company aiming to be over 300 people, etc). Those rooms are required by law in my state, but the other managers in the meeting discussing the layout had no idea what one should be like, and sadly, neither did the (male) architect.

      Sure, some women in power are jerks. But not all people in power are jerks. Jerkiness is not the only reason women’s needs get overlooked.

      1. I didn’t think this article was really about problems that affect mostly women. It was framed that way by the provocative and distracting headline, but I think the article’s more salient points were about the need for flexibility and control over one’s own schedule and time.

        And I don’t think it’s “jerkiness” that leads people in power to disrespect other people’s time. Sometimes it is, but for non-jerks, who I agree are the majority of people in power, it’s just busy-ness and being in a protected bubble in which the consequences of constant schedule churning and changing fall on someone else.

      2. @Cloud- I’m pondering a post on lactation rooms and pump fun one of these days. In terms of the differences between men and women, I will point out that I have never had a female TSA agent pull my breast pump aside for special screening, whereas I have had several male TSA agents do so, most likely because they have absolutely no clue what it is. It’s fun to see my pumps and bottles being waved around in the air in a crowded security line. Though at least no male TSA agent in the US has asked how the thing works, something I cannot say for international travel, when I once needed to mime how a breast pump worked to an Indian customs agent.

        1. My pump was never not pulled in the 18 months I was using it and traveling, except once in New Orleans where the TSA people were letting anything through. Male and female agents both. Perhaps that’s a function of the airports I generally fly through.

        2. Ugh! This reminds me of a friend who went to the 2010 Olympics in China and of the security checks she faced there:
          “I felt sorry for a lady next to me who had her personal belongings inspected. The male volunteer asked her to explain the use of her tampon. She didn’t quite know how to explain what it did especially since the volunteer knew limited English. The security guard then came over and asked her to explain the tampon. We just stood there baffled as to how to explain the function of this. Eventually, they figured out what it was and felt quite embarrassed by the whole incident.”

      3. Like !
        THis comment.
        Again women are not united… who thinks that hte fact hat there are no women in power is not a good thing b/c all women are bixxtches.. come on … ladies .. be a bit more united..

  4. I think the title took away from the largely good parts of the article, esp the solutions for changing American work culture.

    I also think it was more woman-focused than necessary – I think her dilemma would be true for anyone in that kind of position who has significant family responsibilities.

    I think when people make sweeping statements, it’s because they feel they need to justify their choices (on both sides). I also think people see implicit judgment when someone presents an opposing view – that it’s just human nature to do that and become defensive.

    By and large, I did think it was a worthwhile read, though and better than most articles in this vein.

  5. I groaned when I saw the new Atlantic cover and nearly just tossed it aside. I am so weary of the whole “can’t have it all” discussion. I’m 33, and in my eyes that paradigm is tired and outdated. Can we please just move on already?

    But I gave Slaughter’s article a shot and persisted through the piece. (No wonder so many Atlantic writers get book deals–they’re already halfway there after writing a feature!)

    I appreciated her thoughtful take on the issue, which was much less sensational than the cover suggested. And while I think she’s largely correct that women and men feel differently about these issues, I wish we’d stop framing this as a gender issue. Of course it’s going to be hard to “have it all” if your vision of having it all includes a top tier job at the State Department–no matter your gender.

    1. @Anne- there may be differences in how women and men perceive these things. Lots of men travel for work. Lots of 14-year-olds go through difficult phases. I’m not sure what proportion of the men in that Venn diagram overlap between those two categories decide that the two are related. Though this offers an intriguing line for arguing. My husband travels a lot for work. Maybe I can guilt him into thinking that our 5-year-old’s occasional scream-fest is caused by that. Worth a shot!

      1. I think you’re right that there may be a perception gap between genders, but I think it’s a result of socialization rather than some innate “nurturing” thing.

        And I do think men who travel for work think about what it does to their kids but have also been conditioned to think “that’s what dads are supposed to do” rather than trying to change the situation. I know my dad worried about it, and I know my husband was acutely aware of the times when he’d go even a few days without seeing my daughter awake because of his crazy work schedule. (And I do think both were attuned to, or at least thinking about whether certain behaviors were a result of their extended absences.)

  6. Though she made some excellent points about changing the workplace culture towards the latter half of the essay (oh so needlessly wordy, clearly she was in government work long enough to pick up on the writing style!), I was overall extremely disappointed in her framing this as a women’s issue or a mother’s issue—flexibility and understanding should be an issue for ALL employees. I don’t buy that mothers “feel more pull” towards being home with their children than involved fathers. Not the case in our household, especially beyond the breastfeeding years. Yes, as Anne said, lets move beyond these pointless arguments about whether women can “have it all” and work towards more “life-friendly” policies for everyone.

    1. Women tend to talk to each other as blacks talk to each other from a history of being bashed and oppressed (this comment criticizing her writing style is kind of a good example of that… ) instead of calling her a bad writer, as her fellow woman and the mother of daughters, look at what she is saying and own the change that needs to happen.. be the change you want to see

      1. OK, you’re right, maybe calling out her writing style was a cheap shot (and I’m not one that should be throwing stones on that front, either). I do think that the length of the article is relevant; I know many smart, interested people that did not /will not read it because of the time investment involved. And while I do feel that she had some excellent points, my criticisms with the overall framing of the article (and the title) still stand. I think if she is trying to exert social change with her words, then her phrasing, titling, and writing style are extremely important. Even good ideas can get lost or misunderstood. Similar to writing a grant–you can have the most brilliant ideas, but if you haven’t written your proposal to sell them to the reviewers (in a way that they can be grasped quickly & easily, even while skimming) your ideas are essentially worthless. I agree with all of us (myself included) doing our parts to foster change, but real lasting change requires cooperation from the rest of society, and convincing others that there is a problem that requires a solution will take a strong voice.

  7. Read the whole article. Carefully!
    She is trying to help women have it all. The headline is prob shxty ..
    Here is what she is saying.. those who do have it all are self employed or rich.. how can we change this.
    -Give women and men the ability to set their own schedules most of the time.
    -“the days were crammed with meetings..” avoid too many meetings or making people attend meetings that …
    -having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
    HOw many of these women have kids.. Samantha Power does not have kids.. Susan Rice, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Michelle Gavin, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle—who are Rhodes Scholars. Samantha Power, another senior White House official, won a Pulitzer Prize at age 32.
    Instead of bashing her, look at what she is saying and do something about it…

  8. I can be rightly accused of being too simplistic, but I’ll say it anyway. No one can “have it all”. Everyone has to choose what they will focus on in their lives, because a “shotgun” approach to life just isn’t as satisfying, or productive, for that matter. Maybe our terrible problem is that we have so much opportunity that it is difficult to be satisfied with only a few choices.

    1. @Leslie H- this may be semantics then. Of course no one can have absolutely everything — it would be hard to have 4 major careers simultaneously, for instance. My problem is that, when it comes to women “having it all” tends to be defined as a thriving career and thriving family (and I’d add personal happiness). It is absolutely possible to have those things at the same time.

      1. It IS possible. I have it ! But I am self-employed. She is just saying we shouldn’t have to be self-employed to have it. She is right. We can be part of this change.

      2. You missed the point of the article. Not a surprise given that admitted that you skimmed parts of it.

        And, define thriving career? Admin Assistant? Partner at law firm? It’s different for every woman and one obviously takes up less time that the other.

  9. Yes, it is possible to have both a thriving career and a thriving family. But I think people are getting too hung up on the title, which is only partially what the article is about anyway.

    I think the problem with that, with saying “she’s wrong because she’s overgeneralizing from her personal experience,” is that there’s nowhere to really go from there. Yes, any given person might be able to make different choices and have more control over their own individual schedule, but everyone can’t make those same choices in our current system.

    If Sheryl Sandberg makes the choice to go home at 5:30 to have dinner with her family, but a client has been led to expect work done at 6:30, someone else has to make a different choice and not go home at 5:30. If an employee on a project takes the afternoon off to handle a family issue but the meeting about that project is scheduled for 5 pm, someone else has to attend the 5 pm meeting.

    Or, alternatively, the meetings could be scheduled during school hours, which is the kind of solution she was putting forth.

    Getting meetings to be scheduled during school hours, having fewer face-to-face meetings, having managers less wedded to face-time, and those other kinds of things are not solutions that can be implemented via the vehicle of individual employee choices. Those changes have to take place at the level of the person who is scheduling the meetings and demanding the face time.

  10. I think you nailed what was bugging me about this article (which, overall, I liked.) Slaughter’s version of ‘not having it all’ (i.e. her job at Princeton) is still far more high-profile and high-achieving than what the vast majority of women are doing. So, if that’s failing at having it all, what are the rest of us – who are combining family, self, friendships, and hobbies with normal-people jobs – doing? And, she DID do that job for two years! So it’s not like she never got to the top; she just got there and decided it wasn’t for her…at least, not at that point of her life.

    1. @Meagan- yes, there was a certain silliness in lamenting being forced to settle for a job as a tenured professor at Princeton. The horror.

      1. These comments show how women fundamentally compete with one another and really do not want one another to have it all. Instead of examining why so few woman with children actually reach certain career heights, you seem to scoff that it would even be a legitimate concern for a woman who already has a “good” job.

        What do you mean by your last comments, Laura? Because Dr. Slaughter is a tenured professor she shouldn’t examine the difficulties in sustaining an even higher-powered job and more prestigious that also required longer hours and provided less flexibility than tenured professor? It’s as though people are asking “Why should Dr. Slaughter who has more than so many of us, get to reach even higher and get to focus meaningfully on her family, when the rest of us have to tilt the balance in one direction or another?”

        I just can’t see men reacting to one another like that.

        1. WashGirl, my point was that her story didn’t prove she “can’t” do it. Instead, she decided that the tradeoffs were too great. I don’t begrudge anyone the ambition to seek higher opportunities…the highest opportunities. But the challenges she faced in her job at the State Department were so extreme that to me, it doesn’t prove anything about the way most women experience working motherhood. If it was just a story about women at the very top, then fine. But the story was positioned as being relevant to ALL working mothers, who all have very different definitions of “having it all.”

  11. Well, she does say this: “I am well aware that the majority of American women face problems far greater than any discussed in this article. I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”

    (Apologies, I have an electronic copy with no pagination, or else I would give you a pin cite).

    What does it mean to say that she had it all for two years but decided that the tradeoffs were too high? When I hear the tradeoffs were too, that to me, says something was getting short shrift. She wasn’t having it “all.” She wanted more meaningful engagement with her son; she was not able to do that at her job at State which required long hours 4 hours away from home, therefore Dr. Slaughter did not think she could have it all.

    1. From what I remember of the article (it was LONG so I may have misinterpreted) she did come along pretty well until her son started having trouble at school and she began to miss her home life. Perhaps somebody in a different position (kids with different ages/temperaments, more help, less distance from their children, etc) would have been able to make it work. Perhaps Slaughter herself might have been able to in a different time of her life. Or maybe that kind of workload is insane for anyone. My point is that while I appreciate that she acknowledges how exceptional her life is compared to the majority of working moms, her example is being held up as the “proof” that women, in general, can’t have it all. Her definition of “having it all” is a pretty narrow one, and not one that most women I know would aspire to in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge her for wanting it to succeed on a different level from most; I just don’t think her example proves much about working motherhood in general (which is the way The Atlantic, at least, positioned the story. I know it may not have been her intent in writing it.)

  12. I appreciated this debate and gree with Wash Girl — the article is not TOO LONG. Women with kids can read. We could start here in terms of talking about why we are disenfranchised in our own society …. What would really be cook would be to see some articles by some of the men she mentioned and hear them talk about their work life balance. I think it is well-written and provocative and when we say “having it all” we do mean children, man, and high-powered career… we are still having this conversation in america and we are all women in america trying to have more. that some have more than others doesn’t make her cause or the article any less valuable… every woman in america has right to aspire to more … and to honest conversation about why : c rice is the first person in the last 50 years of her job to NOT HAVE HAD A FAMILY.. all she is saying is women want families and in a free, modern society should be able to shoot for the stars and have a familly – particularly in the age of technology… and in an age where a man can be educated to also see the value of having a family life while his family is still young. this is our fight.

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