Features

What stops women from having it all

An interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

30 January 2016

9:00 AM

You can’t accuse the redoubtable Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation think tank, of giving up easily: she has arrived in London fresh from the World Economic Forum at Davos, where she slipped on the ice and broke her wrist, spending two days in a Swiss hospital. One arm is therefore out of action, and her voice is hoarse, but she is soldiering on through a dense thicket of meetings and interviews to talk about her new book Unfinished Business, on how the work-life balance is broken and how to fix it.

The trigger for the book was a rare, traumatic moment when Slaughter was stopped in her tracks, back in 2011. She was at her professional peak, in her dream role as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton. The job required her to be in Washington during the week while her husband Andrew, a professor of politics at Princeton, gamely held the fort back in New Jersey with their two sons. Her boys weren’t so stoic: her ten-year-old used to cry on Sunday nights before she went away. Later, when her eldest was 14, he began disrupting classes, skipping school, and becoming known to the local police.

It became painfully clear that her weekday presence was required at home. She left the State Department, returned to teaching at Princeton, and in 2012 wrote an impassioned article entitled: ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, one of the most-read pieces in the history of the Atlantic magazine. Her book, on similar territory, represents the evolution of Slaughter’s thinking.

I ask Slaughter about the phrase ‘having it all’, which was popularised in 1982 by Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan magazine’s high priestess of glamorous self-improvement. By ‘it all’, Gurley Brown meant love, sex, money and success: she seemed vaguely repelled by motherhood. Today the term applies almost exclusively to combining children with a career. ‘It’s a lightning rod,’ says Slaughter. ‘Now I really avoid it. You don’t hear me saying it. I talk about equality, because that’s what we’re talking about.’

One of the biggest surprises in the book, for those outside the US, is how unsympathetic its work culture is to new mothers. The US doesn’t offer mandatory paid maternity leave: the only two countries with a similar policy are Papua New Guinea and Oman. Women at the bottom of the US social heap can be put in dire straits by motherhood. Those at the top, says Slaughter, ‘typically work for companies that are enlightened enough to provide paid maternity leave’. How much? ‘The longest I’ve ever heard of is three to six months. And for most places it’s more like six weeks, which is still really tough.’


Slaughter says: ‘In Washington DC it is mandatory to have a ‘pumping room’ [for breast milk]. So the assumption is that all mothers will be pumping because nobody’s going to stay at home until the child is weaned.’ Add to that the US’s meagre holidays and rigid work schedules, and you have a recipe for working parent burnout. Still, there’s a batsqueak of truth in the observation that Americans think Europeans are lazy while we think Americans are crazy.

Part of me admires the way that high–flying American women such as Slaughter can discuss working motherhood with such earnestness, deploying terms such as ‘care-giving’ and ‘parenting’ and having grown-up discussions with their partners about gender expectations. British mothers in a similar boat tend instead to anaesthetise their frustrations with wine and therapeutic griping on sites like Mums-net. Yet even though the US has many of the most vocal and influential feminists in the world, British working mothers have ended up with the better deal. What happened?

Part of the US problem has been with the religious right, Slaughter says, which historically opposed paid maternity leave and childcare as interfering with women’s role as stay-at-home mothers. Also, feminist campaigners put what she calls ‘care feminism’ too far down their to-do list. Babies became the elephant in the policy room: ‘Women themselves wanted to break the stereotypes of us as mothers, understandably, so instead of fighting for day care, we fought against discrimination in the workplace.’

Slaughter writes eloquently about the grim choices faced by low-wage US workers such as Rhiannon Broschat, a single mother fired from a supermarket job in 2014 because her son’s school was closed during freezing weather and she had to stay off work. Yet Slaughter herself admits that she had everything in place for her Washington job, including a housekeeper, her willing husband as ‘lead parent’ and a ‘tremendously supportive boss’ in Hillary Clinton.

Yet although Slaughter argues convincingly that workplaces must become more flexible, didn’t her own Washington tipping-point simply fall into the category of ‘stuff happens’? Her son needed her, just as he would have needed his father if the positions were reversed. She readily agrees: ‘I was hired for a job that depended on world events which are incredibly unpredictable. There are a whole class of jobs — and that was one — where there’s nothing you can do about that. That part of my story was that, with every advantage in the world, I still had to make a choice. What is it like for women who don’t have every advantage?’

The book openly reveals Slaughter arguing with her own prejudices, as she adjusts to her main message that we need to value caring just as much as lucrative, high-octane careers. She reminds herself that the banker or businessperson is no more important in the room than the teacher or the nurse. At the same time she herself is hungry for stellar professional advancement. Britain’s year-long maternity leave (which I confess to having taken twice) makes her anxious: ‘If I went away for a year I would worry that I’d lost my edge.’ In terms of an appetite for Scandi-style social policy, I think she would like a bite of a Danish, but she couldn’t swallow a whole one. Yet Slaughter is also honest in raising tricky questions around family expectations and female domestic perfectionism that others prefer to gloss over, at least until it hits them in the face. It’s not so much ‘lean in’ as ‘think it through’.

I ask her to put her foreign policy hat back on. In the State Department, she was an advocate for the 2011 US intervention against Gaddafi in Libya, a country which is now a dangerously volatile mess. Did US policy-makers, herself included, underestimate the swift, brutal rise of Islamism there? No, she says, but at the time ‘I thought we were stopping a Rwanda-type massacre’ in Benghazi and ‘What happened was that Nato then turned that into “this is an intervention to unseat this guy’’.’ She has long called for a humanitarian intervention in Syria to stop Assad dropping bombs on his own people and bring him to the negotiating table.

Her older son’s in college now and doing well, having unintentionally bounced his mother into a whole new area of policy expertise. Would she go back into government? ‘You know, I wouldn’t rule it out,’ she says. I think maybe Washington should get ready for the return of Slaughter.

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