Who’s “All” Are We Talking About?

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a widely- read piece for The Atlantic Magazine entitled Why Women Still Can't Have It AllThe gist: It’s time to question the old adage that women can have it all (i.e., the career and the family life); those that do manage it all are “super women, rich, or self-employed,” and if having it all is ever going to be more accessible, certain shifts in the work place must occur such as integrating technology, reemphasizing family values, redefining the successful career track and reprioritizing happiness as a goal. 

Was this article provocative? Yes.  Did it draw attention to a work system that favors points of privilege as a necessary means to climb the corporate ladder and burst through ceilings?  Of course.  Indeed, Slaughter showcases how career-focused societal norms within the United States is in direct odds with most women’s lived experiences while shining a spotlight on why it’s flawed to push the notion that if we just work hard enough, we’ll get the career and the kid and the “partner.” 

You might be wondering why I put partner in quotes.  Had Slaughter discussed any partnership outside of hetero scripts, I wouldn’t have felt as though she was merely paying lip service to the word.  Indeed, traditional family structures and partnerships, often couched in the context of marriage, were the only “partnerships” Slaughter really exemplified.  This, I consider, the proverbial tip of the problematic iceberg.

While, I think that Slaughter intended to question and problematize blaming women who do not, cannot or chose not to place career before family (I applaud Slaughter for this), I found Slaughter’s stance to stigmatize women-identified individuals who want to prioritize work, who chose not to or don’t want to have a family and who might not find motherhood or partnership status the zenith of satisfaction.  Slaughter presupposes that all women define “having it all” in the same manner.  The aftermath?: reinforcing the notion that “true womanhood” is defined by domestic markers and a heaping spoonful of guilt for those that fail to or chose not to abide. Slaughter warns that if we fail to live a “balanced life” (defined as that which incorporates a nuclear family and career aspirations), we might end up as “the angry woman on the other side of a mahogany desk who questions her staff’s work ethic after standard 12-hour workdays, before heading home to eat moo shoo pork in her lonely apartment.”  I was shocked to learn that this fictitious apartment wasn't crawling with cats, since we’re obviously relying on stereotypes.

Sarcasm aside, Slaughter managed to essentialize woman gender identification by promulgating the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lisa Jackson’s message: ‘“to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman. . . . Empowering yourself, doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”  I certainly agree with the last portion of this statement.  Abstaining from motherhood is certainly not necessary, but the opposite is equally as true: Engaging in motherhood, or emphasizing family life is not a critical component of identifying as a woman.  Slaughter only furthers the essentialized notion of woman gender identification by suggesting that women tend to become more distraught than men when faced with family obligations that conflict with work obligations.

Slaughter successfully addressed a flawed working society where women are disadvantaged as well as drew some attention to the intersection of power, career advancement and socioeconomic status.  These points, despite being timely and appropriate, may not make up for the fact that Slaughter reinforced a broad heteronormative script to all women by purporting that we all want the same things.  

By Jessica A. Joseph, MA

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