My review of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, Unfinished Business, ran in today’s Wall Street Journal. (If you are not a WSJ subscriber, you can try Googling “The Other Princeton Mom” and WSJ — yes, that’s what the Journal called the review!). Slaughter’s 2012 essay for The Atlantic on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” was read close to 3 million times, and this book is the result of the inevitable book deal that followed.
The Atlantic essay suffered from all the usual problems in Can’t Have It All literature. There was the requisite Recitation of Dark Moments, followed by the epiphany that life was unsustainable, followed by the broader cultural accusations. The broader cultural accusations are based on some elements of truth (the US does lack universal paid maternity leave — though our heroine in these tales almost always worked for somewhere that offered it). But the broader accusations also stem from the odd logic that if our hard-charging heroine was unhappy with her life, we can’t just conclude that charmed lives have stressful seasons. No, we must make sweeping statements. After all, they do click well.
The book is…what it is. There is little new in here. We have the usual story that Americans are chronically overworked and so we need to change the way we work. Women need to let go of our status as superwomen (a theme Slaughter seems to think is profound, though as I point out in the WSJ review, it’s the subject of at least one essay per women’s magazine per month). She has various policy prescriptions, but no explanation of how we will wind up with higher quality and more affordable childcare — and exactly how our current politics would support the subsidies necessary to make that happen. After I wrote my review, I read the New York Times review of it, and that reviewer noted that the book reads like it was written by someone who’s running for office. We’re promised good stuff but it’s vague on the details. I think that’s a pretty apt description.
There are plenty of vague books out there. But I think what bothered me most was Slaughter’s near sneering take on Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In. She writes that “I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out.” Then she goes on to claim she and Sandberg see the world differently because Slaughter’s interest is in policy, with the implication that this is the better area to focus on. That, of course, makes the not-exactly-new and not-exactly-explained policy proposals even more underwhelming.
All of this is too bad, because Slaughter seems to me like a great example of someone who has it all: a family, several great career options that she’s re-invented herself through multiple times. A better story would be that life is bumpy, but you can make it work. Unfortunately, she didn’t write that. I really wish she had.
In other news: Did you read my post about “The Princeton Mom” last year? (That “Princeton Mom,” as in Mrs. Patton). It was a favorite.