A woman reaches the top of her profession: a government job with power and prestige. It means living away from her family during the week, though. At first, she is sure she can make the commute work -- but the strain becomes too great, and she announces she is leaving. Much chatter ensues about whether women can indeed have it all.
No, this is not the story of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who became the face of the life/work balance conversation in the U.S. last month with her article in The Atlantic titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Slaughter, it seems, has a British counterpart -- Louise Mensch, who was a Conservative member of Parliament until last week when she submitted her letter of resignation to Prime Minister David Cameron.
"As you know, I have been struggling for some time to find the best outcome for my family life," she wrote. "I am very sorry that despite my best efforts, I have been unable to make the balancing act."
Where Slaughter had left her husband and two teen sons in New Jersey while she worked during the week in Washington, D.C., Mensch's husband, Peter, lives in New York, where he is the manager of Metallica, Jimmy Page and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The couple were married last year, and she and her three children from her first marriage live in East Northampshire, which is the district she represents in England.
Mensch has a high profile in Britain. She was a best-selling author of "racy" novels before running for office in 2010, and a presence in front of the cameras for the questioning of Rupert Murdoch during the phone-hacking scandal; she's also a force in social media, with more than 100,000 Twitter followers and even a Twitter-like social network of her own. So while Slaughter's resignation made waves after the fact -- when she wrote about it in a widely read cover story -- Mensch's caused uproar in real time.
"Unfortunately it's stirring up some of the same old tired commentary," wrote Jennifer Howze, who blogs about parenting at Britmums blog. "Why did she become an MP if she was just going to leave? some say. Others criticise her ability to manage her responsibilities and insist it makes all working women look bad -- although she's the only popular writer turned Tory MP married to band manager who lives in New York that I know."
And that is the most important similarity between Slaughter and Mensch -- the fact that the particulars of their stories must not be allowed to overshadow the universal questions they raise.
As Howze writes:
This is.. the perfect opportunity for us all to move on - move on from dissecting individual women's choices ... We should also move on from thinking we can do it all, all the time. Nobody can, male or female, mum or dad. Everyone makes compromises and this is hers.
I am grateful to Slaughter and Mensch for giving this subject a new spotlight. But there is a danger in focusing on them now that the conversation they started is well underway. As compelling as their stories are, they come with the risk that we will dismiss this as a problem only for women, and just for those who are seeking to reach the top. The reality, in contrast, is that if the power and resources available to these women were not enough to make it work, then what chance do the rest of us have?
Looked at that way, Mensch's glittering personal life and Slaughter's whirlwind days at Hillary Clinton's side are distractions from the argument for ground-level change.
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