Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” became one of the most popular in The Atlantic’s history. Slaughter’s message, based on her two years in a high-level job at the U. S. State Department, was that a woman cannot successfully juggle a highly demanding career and the needs of two teenage boys. Many women across the country seemed to respond with a resounding “Damn right.”
We, however, found Slaughter’s article superficial and its conclusions unsupported. In Breaking Through Bias, we wrote, Slaughter’s message is “one of resignation, diminished ambitions, and frustration. We refuse to buy what she is selling.” Hillary Clinton, Slaughter’s former boss, was also critical, commenting, “Some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at these jobs…. Other women don’t break a sweat.” Slaughter never responded to our criticisms or to Clinton’s. She has now, however, significantly expanded her Atlantic article in a new book, Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. Unfortunately, we think her book is even more misguided than her original article.
Slaughter characterizes her book as a call to “reforge the sisterhood of the early feminist movement and expand and shape it into a much broader human coalition.” But Slaughter’s “broader human coalition” is not to have the same agenda as the early feminist movement: assuring women have economic, political, and social opportunities equal to men’s. Rather, this coalition’s agenda is “to correct” American society’s overvaluation of competition (read: economic activity) and undervaluation of care (read: domestic activity).
Slaughter argues that achieving “real equality between men and women” depends on our society establishing “an equally valued continuum” of care and competition, these “two great motivators of human conduct.” Such a continuum depends on our challenging “a wider range of conventional wisdom about what we value and why, about measures of success, about the wellsprings of human nature and what equality really means.” Slaughter believes if we do this, America will be renewed “as a country that values work and family equally and enables its citizens to live full and happy lives.”
Slaughter’s views are often thought-provoking and original. But many of her ideas are profoundly wrong, including her assertion, “Most of the pervasive gender inequalities in our society… cannot be fixed unless men have the same range of choices with respect to mixing caregiving and breadwinning that women do.”
This is absurd. Men’s range of caregiving and breadwinning choices is already far broader than women’s. Granted, a man who is the primary caregiver for his children might be called “Mr. Mom” and not receive the same societal respect as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But if a man wants to take care of his kids, he can choose to do so. His career may suffer, but nothing prevents him from serving as his kids’ primary caregiver — or shunning caregiving entirely and devoting himself 24/7 to his career.
A woman’s range of choices with respect to caregiving and breadwinning is far more limited. Barring economic necessity, a woman can freely choose to be a caregiver — in precisely the same way a man can. But, a woman cannot choose to be a breadwinner in precisely the same way a man can. This is because women are discriminated against in hiring, promotion, and career opportunities. Women in traditional male careers are discriminated against if they seek to be leaders, competitors, and high-pressure performers. And, once women become mothers, they are discriminated against by being viewed as less competent and less committed to their careers than women without children and men, with or without children.
The discrimination women face is a far cry from being called “Mr. Mom.” It is active, persistent social and economic resistance to their achieving career success comparable to men. Slaughter is wrong when she argues that the key to “real equality” between women and men is an “equally valued continuum” of care and competition. Such a continuum would do nothing to end the workplace discrimination against women. Unfinished Business tells us a great deal about getting stay-at-home mothers and fathers more respect but little or nothing about getting women equal career opportunities. By abandoning the agenda of the early feminist movement, Slaughter has abandoned the fight for “real equality between men and women.” Achieving this equality depends on ending gender bias, not on valuing care more and competition less.