What if women aren’t the problem? It’s a provocative question when the likelier framing in the media, however well intentioned, is to diagnose women’s deficiencies. “Unfinished Business,” Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book expanding her blockbuster cover story in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It all,” starts with the assumption that it’s not (just) women’s fault.
“Perhaps the problem is not with women,” writes the former Princeton professor, high-level State Department official and current president of the New America Foundation, “but with work.”
Slaughter argues that the current punishing route to professional success — or simply to survival — is stalling gender progress, because it denies the value and prevents the advancement of parents and other caregivers, still overwhelmingly women. “Thinking of careers as a single race in which everyone starts at the same point and competes over the same time period is a choice,” she writes, one we should stop uncritically accepting. All of us, she says, are locked in “the struggle to combine competition and care in a system that rewards one and penalizes the other.” This should be a gender-neutral dilemma, but it isn’t. Slaughter proposes that we make it everybody’s business.
Although Slaughter isn’t the first to question America’s uncompromising work culture, she is rare to do so without any essentialist claptrap about how women’s inherently nurturing spirits will soften the world’s edges, or more immediately, that women are always uniquely suited to care for others. Slaughter’s Atlantic article nearly went there, with the uncritical observation that “I do not believe fathers love their children any less than mothers do, but men do seem more likely to choose their job at a cost to their family, while women seem more likely to choose their family at a cost to their job.” The book is much more clearer-eyed on how those choices don’t happen in a vacuum.
Indeed, one of the most refreshing aspects of this book is how openly willing Slaughter is to revisit her own preconceived notions and concede where she’s changed her mind. (Another is her consistent awareness of the privileges of her financial and professional position without allowing it to paralyze her out of saying anything important.)
She admits that even as she preaches gender neutrality for caregiving now, “only in my last two years at Princeton, after thinking very hard about what needs to change, did I start talking to my male students about whether and when they are planning on having kids.” [Her interlocutors, both gay and straight men, have helped her see that declaring “‘children need their mothers more than they need other loving adults in their lives’ is false.”
A paradox of the book is that Slaughter believes nothing will change without men seeing the trade-offs of caregiving and breadwinning as their urgent task. But much of “Unfinished Business” is firmly pitched to anxious women anyway: How to plan when the best plans can unravel, how to talk to your partner about the tough decisions to be made, how to talk to your boss. There are messages here for men, but will men hear them?
But Slaughter believes women have to change too. She argues that although many young women envision a 50-50 partnership, the reality of caregiving is that one spouse will often have to take the lead and that many people, male and female, are uncomfortable with a man who makes career sacrifices to be a primary caregiver. As her husband recently wrote in his own account in the Atlantic, when Slaughter spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, “a woman in the audience asked me — without apparent irony — to stand up so she could make sure ‘he really still is an alpha male.’” If women who partner with men really want to end separate spheres, where men live in public and women in private, Slaughter notes, those reductive attitudes have to go.
Perhaps because Slaughter is coming out of a professional context where the primacy of career fulfillment is unquestioned, the book doesn’t spend much time on the joy of independence or intellectual self-fulfillment, something women are still considered greedy for seeking. Now and again, there lurks the scary specter of, in the words of one of her correspondents, ending up “the power woman who goes home after work to eat moo shoo pork alone in her apartment.” (What’s wrong with that?) For the president of a major think tank and the former director of policy planning at the State Department to relegate the concrete policy proposals to a few bullet points in the back, given how much of a signal-boost she could give them here, is a bit of a letdown.
Still, even where the right public policies are in place, gender inequality lurks, if in diluted form. In this country, where the caregiving and work trade-offs are privatized, the luckiest employees often leave their generous benefits on the table for fear of being penalized. Slaughter’s important contribution is to use her considerable platform to call for cultural change, itself profoundly necessary. The book’s audience, then, shouldn’t just be worried womankind. It should go right into the hands of (still mostly male) decision-makers.
Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family
Random House: 352 pp., $28
Carmon is co-author of the forthcoming book “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”