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Ming Holden

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We Can't Have It All, But We Can Give Her Credit

Posted: 06/28/2012 11:56 am

Two main misconceptions have cropped up in the buzz around Anne-Marie Slaughter's current cover story in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." One is that Slaughter imagines herself to be speaking for women other than those in her demographic, when she explicitly states otherwise. The other is an antagonistic response to what readers think Slaughter wrote based on how her article was packaged and sold, rather than what she actually writes in it. Slaughter doesn't merely point to well-known problems for women in the workplace; she offers solutions to them, which goes unacknowledged by those who would prefer the article be pigeonholed as an annual "feminist complaint," what some have called a "perennial" appearance in publications like The Atlantic.

But the reductionist bent to the response to Slaughter's article doesn't end there, and I'm not talking about the cover art of the baby in the briefcase. It's the fact that most have contextualized their articles and blog posts about Slaughter's piece by citing her job titles and credentials, but not what she's done at her job, or how she's done it. Slaughter has rightly been lauded this week for changing the conversation about women in the workplace; she should be given credit, however, for being a person who changes the conversation whatever the subject, for having done so for a while now, and continuing to do so at her job and away from it.

In her piece, Slaughter recounts choosing, during her tenure as the first female dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, to mention her family life in the office even as her doing so upset her female employees. Substance of life outside the office was a very female thing to be mentioning or using as a reason to head home to eat, it appears, but Slaughter decided to do so with her eyes wide open: the product of her Atlantic argument is not just a grievance about the way things are, but a call to change cultural assumptions about career trajectories, office policies, and workplace mores such that the family life of employees of any gender can be allowed for more fully, thus leading ultimately to a more happy and productive workplace for all. Yet the way Slaughter is hurriedly sketched out in response to her article can be just as damaging as when we treat high-powered male professionals as though they shouldn't leave the office for family reasons or earlier than tradition dictates. Slaughter's choices with her time in and outside of the office and her title directly exemplify the spirit in which she wants to see things change, and I don't see that mightily important contribution of hers given its due in the discourse around her article.

Slaughter has said that mine is the generation for which she primarily wrote the article (I'm in my twenties). I don't write this simply out of gratitude for Slaughter's admission that perhaps women my age who hear 'we can have it all if we just [fill in the blank] enough' have been sold something of a raw deal, that simultaneously earning the gold stars of "superlative parent" and "superlative professional" even at more privileged levels of American life is structurally impossible at the moment. Back in October Slaughter shared a piece of mine on Twitter for no reason other than to support what I said about psychosocial support for traumatized youth in post-conflict zones. Slaughter didn't know me from Adam; and if she did she'd know I never studied foreign policy and that I mainly do art projects abroad on a shoestring budget of creative writing grants. I remember the missive from Twitter and how I froze in front of my old laptop, wide-eyed, working it out in my basement apartment in Indiana while my leftovers heated on the stove: the recent and first female Policy Planning Director at State had a) seen my piece; b) actually read the thing; c) called it "fabulous"; and d) shared it with nearly 30,000 people on Twitter. It can go like that? I remember thinking. From a basement in Indiana to the woman who bore the heavy load of implementing the smart-powered championing of young women and youth her boss Secretary Clinton was electrifying crowds with in speeches across the planet? O brave, new world that has such policy wonks in it!

I wondered, had I been unaware of a much more open and inclusive current and recent State Department this whole time? That I had, but...who else at Slaughter's level did that?

No one, as it turns out. No one does it to the extent she does. Slaughter isn't just "another high-level woman entering the fray," as she's been billed since her article blew up the interwebs. In fact, as @SlaughterAM, her patience, inclusivity, and endlessly twiplomatic responses to snarky tweets constitute a presence I haven't seen before or since from anyone else. They're also qualities I initially thought of as "motherly," but would never have dared describe as such before reading the article Slaughter herself wrote. Her Twitter handle is "foreign policy curator"; the kindness and inclusion with which she does the job, however, make her something of foreign policy den mother as well. Nowhere in the recent spate of press about Slaughter have I seen reference to the now 30,000-plus followers she treats so nicely on Twitter daily -- which itself takes a bite out of her in-demand time -- or, and this is crucial, the conscious shift she is thereby creating in the foreign policy world to render her field open to new kinds of input. Her "feminine" approach to things is no less than single-handedly modernizing the foreign policy debate by rendering it more inclusive, more democratic, and more timely.

There's more. No wonk called it like Slaughter did when, last November, she offered a theory of collaborative power (also at The Atlantic), a way of capturing the new diffusions and relational webs of power allowed into existence by the increasingly technological age we're in, and exemplified by the increasingly democratic nature of structural changes in developing nations we're seeing partly as a result of that technology. Through an essay I wrote, I was lucky enough to attend the phenomenally interdisciplinary, forward-thinking USAID Frontiers in Development Conference earlier this month, where no less than four female heads of state spoke. It wasn't a forum for fierce debate, but things got a little punchy on the last of the three days of the conference, when everyone was a little tired. Oxfam's Paul O'Brien finally said, exasperated, during his panel on sustainable development: "We need new ways of thinking about power!"

Slaughter called that one last year, of course. That was the moment the essentiality of policy really got across to me, because the conference was about practical assistance. It was always a truism, but I fully understood that day what Slaughter's known all along: the thinking comes before the doing, the reason before the practice, the conviction before the action. Slaughter's been implementing that basic wisdom since long before applying it to the workplace last week, just as she knew that the resurrection of America's leadership on the international stage depends on the fact that America is, among other things, an idea -- and talked to Stephen Colbert about her book to that effect -- five years ago, before the brunt of the internet and cell phone explosion made possible the exportation of our ideals to the extent it would do. (In her book, one of those ideals is that most "feminine" of qualities: tolerance.) In the same vein, Slaughter knows that the current structure of the American workplace is more likely to transform if she weighs in with her message. Word limit precludes but recent examples; suffice it to say Slaughter has changed the game in the 'Having It All' conversation, but we should acknowledge that this is not only because she's a high-level professional woman. She's a game-changing person, which runs deeper and longer than any line on her C.V.

 

Follow Ming Holden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/minglishmuffin

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