Why Women Are (Still) Talking About Whether We Can Have It All

Jul 03, 2012 -
We’ve all been inundated by the buzz surrounding Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in The Atlantic on “Why Women [Still] Can't Have It All.” Since it went live on June 21st, it has become the most-shared article in the magazine’s history. Commentators were quick to point out that the struggles of working women (particularly working mothers) are nothing new, so why did the age-old observation that work-life balance exists only in brochures suddenly catch the attention of thousands overnight? Simply put, Slaughter’s frank admissions broke the silence on what had become an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of situation. With one of the nation’s most accomplished women admitting to her own struggles, it’s suddenly OK for us to admit to ours. Struggling to balance our personal and professional lives isn’t weakness; it’s reality, and it’s high time we stop blaming ourselves alone for it. Individually, at book clubs and over coffee, women were whispering the truth: that sometimes we struggle. But Slaughter’s personal confessions broke the unspoken rule of our role models that admitting publicly to the struggle was somehow anti-feminist. In her article, Slaughter confesses that“[w]omen of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.” And talk we did. Within hours of being posted, the article went viral with shares from across the country, ranging from colleagues to classmates to cousins. The second wave of responses hit the web mere days later. Response was so staggering that The Atlantic issued a special report of responses to Slaughter’s story, covering the renewed debate from every angle imaginable, like a giant collective exhalation of pent-up frustration. Although I couldn’t agree more with Slaughter’s suggestions about how to make work-life balance a real possibility, the biggest takeaway from this debate isn’t any particular policy prescription. It’s the opened door to having an honest discussion about what’s wrong now that we can finally admit there might be something wrong. For all the messages GenY women have received our entire lives about self-reliance and working hard to achieve our dreams, at some point our struggles go beyond our the simple sum of our individual choices and personal ambition. Slaughter herself acknowledges the conflicted message we’ve been given. “I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).” Now, Slaughter is giving us permission to cut ourselves some slack. If we're exhausted and still not where we want to be in our careers and/or our personal lives, we don't have to just blame ourselves. Like the famous scene in Good Will Hunting, someone is saying—and allowing us to believe— it’s not our fault.  Of course, the roots of this problem run deep, and there’s been more than a little backlash. Many critics have oversimplified the problem by challenging the dedication of those willing to own up to facing hardship. Certainly even in a perfect world, hard work and compromise will always be part of the formula. But until we create that perfect world, this discussion is helping a lot of young women accept the challenges we face in knowing that it's not all us, and we're not in it alone. Has Slaughter’s article opened up a can of worms at your workplace or with your female friends? Rebecca Barnes is an attorney who lives in the Washington, D.C. area.