Controversy

The Atlantic's 'Women can't have it all' manifesto: The backlash

A former aide to Hillary Clinton sparks a passionate debate over an age-old question: Can women fulfill their professional ambitions and raise a happy family?

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, looks back on her 18 months at the State Department in the current issue of The Atlantic, and comes to a contentious conclusion: Women definitely can't have it all. Slaughter describes the agony of trying make the best of her "foreign-policy dream job" in Washington, D.C., while commuting every weekend to her home in Princeton, N.J., where her rebellious teenage son appeared to be spiraling out of control. Slaughter lays the blame for her conundrum squarely at the door of feminism, saying the movement misled women into believing that they could have a high-powered career and a family. Slaughter's manifesto quickly became the most-read article in the history of The Atlantic's website, and has sparked lengthy responses across the internet. While many praised her for her honesty, Slaughter also incited a remarkable backlash. Here, five ways critics say Slaughter missed the mark:

1. Feminists don't claim that "women can have it all" 
Slaughter's entire premise is a straw man, says Maha Atal at Forbes. The feminist movement never promised women "the ability to have a completely unencumbered, full-time career and a completely involved, cook-dinner-every-day experience of motherhood without making any compromises." The "have it all" concept "was the brainchild of advertising executives, not feminist activists," says Stephanie Coontz at CNN.

2. Besides, "having it all" is an impossible standard
"We should immediately strike the phrase 'have it all' from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again," says Rebecca Traister at Salon. "It is a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist shortfall." The "have it all" mindset "sets an impossible bar for female success, and then ensures that when women fail to clear it, it's feminism — as opposed to persistent gender inequity — that's to blame."

3. Men would also struggle in Slaughter's position
Slaughter's job at the State Department was so demanding that she suddenly has an easier go of it by falling back to being a full-time Princeton professor who writes books and gives 40 to 50 speeches a year, says Coontz. Really, her grueling government career would be "incompatible with family obligations and pleasures for men as well as for women."

4. Many women don't want children 
Slaughter is incapable of acknowledging that "not every smart, ambitious, financially stable woman is meant to become a mother, and not everyone wants to," says Keli Goff at The Huffington Post. For all of feminism's gains, "even today, a woman saying, 'I know I don't want to have children,' remains an even greater lightning rod for debate among women than a woman saying, 'I am leaving my high-flying career to stay home with my children.'" Slaughter merely assumes that having children is part of the formula for being successful and happy.

5. And what ever happened to happiness?
Slaugher's story "is a fundamentally joyless account of life at the top, a Rolodex masquerading as a manifesto," says Kara Baskin at The Boston Globe. Her attempt to juggle work and life reads like "one long astonishing feat of compartmentalization executed for fear of letting someone down." Before women mindlessly chase that golden ring, "why not take a step back and redefine fulfillment?" There must be more to life "than just getting from point A to point B with minimal trauma."

Read Slaughter's entire article at The Atlantic.

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