Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Brevity

To the critics of Anne-Marie Slaughter's very-long-but-who-am-I-to-talk* manifesto: she's not claiming to tell the story of struggling or ordinary women. You can't criticize her for neglecting to address the well-being of poor/middle-class women, because she did address it, with her claim that if life is made easier for the Anne-Marie Slaughter's of the nation, the benefits would trickle down to all women. What you can do is question that hypothesis. You can - I shall - speculate that Slaughter wanted to tell the story of her situation and others like it, but felt that it would be irresponsible/in bad taste not to connect this to a broader, social-justice one. Critics I've read seem to kind of get this, kind of not.

*I listened to some of the WBUR interview with Slaughter, and a common theme with the callers was that they were busy working moms who had not, alas, had time to read the article. Normally in such cases, one wonders why the person's calling in, but here, given the subject at hand, it did seem unfortunate that to read about the impossibility of having it all, and respond in a timely fashion, in a way that shows you caught every nuance of Slaughter's multifaceted point, you'd need more leisure time than the target audience might have.

13 comments:

caryatis said...

But the thing is, Slaughter's experience is not even representative of women in her class. Her basic problem was that working in DC with your family in New Jersey means you don't get to see your family as much as you want. But that is her choice, which brought with it utterly predictable consequences, and it is, I would hope, an uncommon choice because it's so obviously going to make it impossible to balance work and family!

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

"But the thing is, Slaughter's experience is not even representative of women in her class."

As I mentioned in my own far-to-long response to her essay, it depends how you define "her class." If you mean well-educated female professionals, then no. But if you mean the absolute creme de la creme of the super-duper elite, then yes, her situation was representative.

Re: DC/NJ specifically, I wasn't entirely sure how Slaughter imagined her case might have been made easier. There's certainly unnecessary business-travel, but being a prof in one locale and also working for the federal government, which is located in the nation's capital, this would seem tough to telecommute your way out of.

caryatis said...

You're saying that most creme de la creme women choose to be professors in one place and work in another, while married to men not willing to move? Because that's the core of her problem, and that's not a common predicament (and it is one she totally brought upon herself.)

Phoebe said...

But her class isn't "professors." It's public intellectuals with massive ambitions.

(But I suppose, gender aside, there is something frustrating, given how many two-academic couples struggle with not finding jobs anywhere near each other, about having to hear how tough it is for academics who both have tenure at the same place, and it's Princeton, and their problem is that one of them could do something else. I do see how, for them, this would have been a real problem, but from the outside, it's the sort of thing that looks non-problem-ish.)

PG said...

But spouses having their best career opportunities not coincide in the same city is an extremely commonplace problem among the professional class. Gabby Giffords's husband was in neither Arizona nor DC when she was shot, because he's an astronaut and thus based in Houston for his work.

A friend who is a doctor is currently waiting on doing a fellowship in her specialty because it's now her husband's turn to do his fellowship, after having waited out her residency. Many dual-academic marriages struggle with getting offers for both spouses in the same city. (Schools that fail to make an offer to one often end up losing the other, and at least in law, spouses often change schools together even if the schools are in the same city.)

Even when only one spouse works, the rest of the family may revolt against changing cities to follow his/her career. My uncle had a terrific position at Microsoft, but had to leave it because his wife and kids refused to move and commuting to Redmond WA from Texas was shortchanging both work and family.

As I said in my comment to the previous post, I incline to favoring the your-turn-then-my-turn way of dealing with this, but it's not always viable. Even if the parents are willing to do this, it might be too hard on the kids. Or the family's income requirements may be incompatible with having the higher-earning spouse take a pay cut to follow the lower-earning spouse's opportunity.

Anyway, what I meant to say is that it seems rather harsh to dismiss this as a non-concern because it's a problem that people totally bring upon themselves by marrying spouses and having children who might have their own careers/ preferences.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Who's your comment directed at? Regardless, I think we can all agree that there are situations in which professionals must live in different places, that this is especially bad in academia, but an issue in other fields as well.

As for whether it's "harsh" to say Slaughter faced a non-problem, I think it depends what's meant. I can believe that it was a real problem for her family, but if you're not her husband, her kids, or her close friend? This isn't merely "first world problems" or even "second-after-Sartre," which would also cover a grad-student couple at Harvard, one of whom gets a job at Stanford, the other Oxford, a scenario that might sound snooty but that outsiders could understand would be a real problem. If that had been her story, she'd have gotten YPIS, no doubt, but it would have been clear what the problem was, and what might have solved it (namely a viable job option for the two in the same place).

Meanwhile if you and your spouse have reached the pinnacles of your incredibly prestigious and well-paid careers, have managed to live in the same place and even teach at the same university, and you decide to change careers, that's somewhat different. Again, not that having the option didn't put the family in a complicated spot. If it didn't feel "viable" to her to remain a prof, if she felt she had to go to DC for a bit, while also wanting to be with her family elsewhere, then yes, she was in an actual bind. But should anyone outside the immediate situation sympathize, in a way that leads us to use her case as an example of the struggles women, even limiting this to professionals, face?

To repeat myself again, and again, the problem isn't that Slaughter felt torn, and that we want her to count her blessings or something. It's that she presents her situation as somehow emblematic of something greater, which it basically is not. It would have been much easier (and quicker!) to get to her stronger points if she hadn't distracted us with a personal story that extraordinary. (That a similar dilemma is also faced by astronauts married to senators doesn't make it much more relatable.)

caryatis said...

"To repeat myself again, and again, the problem isn't that Slaughter felt torn, and that we want her to count her blessings or something. It's that she presents her situation as somehow emblematic of something greater, which it basically is not. It would have been much easier (and quicker!) to get to her stronger points if she hadn't distracted us with a personal story that extraordinary. (That a similar dilemma is also faced by astronauts married to senators doesn't make it much more relatable.)"

I completely agree. And PG is right to mention this is a problem for some who are maybe more top 10% than 1% too.

But I see this as more a life-planning problem than a problem with feminism or with the workplace. Women could avoid this problem by, before committing to a person, considering whether that person's career and geographic location are going to be compatible with theirs. Maybe more women should marry down, because men who make less or have less high-powered careers are going to be more flexible.

Sorry if I sound callous--I'm sure if you're in love you may be willing to jump into a situation that you know is going to be difficult with two academics or two doctors. And hopefully the rewards of True Love are enough to compensate you for the difficulties of that situation. But, you know, this was Slaughter's choice. She doesn't get to blame the system or pretend all women are in the same boat.

PG said...

I think her personal story is important because of the massive under-representation of women in the upper echelons of government. The particular job Slaughter had in DC was to be Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. If women routinely feel the need to turn down the jobs that come up when presidential administrations begin (all of Bush's political appointees leave and Obama puts his people in) because they're constrained by family, and men don't feel that constraint, this perpetuates that under-representation. If you believe that the under-representation in turn affects what our laws and policies actually are, then it matters for less elite women as well. (In Slaughter's State Department case, it's especially relevant for women outside the U.S., though at least her boss was a woman.)

These things aren't terribly predictable. A Democratic woman who bought the idea of a permanent Republican majority in 1990 (after 8 years of Reagan and Bush Sr.'s presumed reelection due to success in the Gulf War) may have assumed there were no opportunities for her in D.C. Then boom, Clinton wins in 1992 and Democrats are getting jobs again. In a way that's well beyond what doctors, academics et al can forecast about their career futures, people who want to be involved in politics and policy do so at the whims of the electorate.

Note that when men say they're leaving their DC careers to "spend more time with their family," it's almost always read as a falsehood -- that the man actually is unhappy with his work, or his boss is about to show him the door, but it's polite and face-saving for Karl Rove suddenly to rediscover his interest in his wife and now-college-attending son after having been absentee for years. A man pretty much has to have a really ill spouse or child for people to believe that he's actually going home to spend time with his family.

Slaughter's claim, in contrast, seems to be taken as immediately believable. I haven't seen anyone argue that actually she was in conflict with Secretary Clinton and frustrated with the limitations on her ability to set policy.

Phoebe said...

PG,

As long as working for the federal government means, in such cases, moving to D.C., they can make the hours reasonable and so forth, but if families don't move to D.C. as well, this is unfixable. I understood Slaughter's ideas for other female professionals, who might work from home, but it didn't seem conceivable that her job - either of her jobs - would have allowed for much telecommuting.

The problem, if anything, is, as Caryatis suggests, that a woman who wants to ascend to those heights so often ends up with a man will almost inevitably end up married to a man at least as successful as herself. The feminist solution here wasn't to move the U.S. capital to NJ, but for women with these aspirations to marry men who might be amenable to following them geographically. The kids, yes, would come with. I've met a great many kids this year who've come with in similar circumstances, and they don't seem too shaken up about it.

"Slaughter's claim, in contrast, seems to be taken as immediately believable."

I don't think so. It seemed quite possible that she left because she didn't want to give up tenure at Princeton, which she would have lost if she stayed longer. But as to the larger point - do women who say they want to spend more time with their families get taken more seriously? Maybe, but if so, that simply goes along with Slaughter's point about how even women with supportive husbands want to spend more time with their families. That men, given that time, will, according to not-entirely-unfair stereotype, use it for hobbies/lounging and not on childcare, makes it less plausible when a man quits for that reason.

Phoebe said...

Also, PG,

To take the most obvious examples - a female president, a female Supreme Court justice. Do we expect that such individuals would telecommute from elsewhere? That they'd be first moms, then world leaders?

What Slaughter is saying about the culture of pretending to work constantly even if you don't, of "working" long hours when you could do all the work in five hours a day, this makes sense in many cases, and is a fair point. But not when it comes to the sorts of super-elite jobs where you really do have to drop everything and be present.

PG said...

People in general usually don't become president/ Prime Minister/ Supreme Court Justice until they're nearly 50. (Those who achieve those positions earlier are pointed out as "young," e.g. Bill Clinton, John Roberts.) No one was worrying about a possible President Hillary Clinton's mommy time because her daughter was grown.

Also, you technically could telecommute a lot of being a Supreme Court justice. You'd need to be there for argument days, but that's a few hours a day, a couple days a week, 6 months of the year. Conferencing with the other justices and especially working with your clerks to produce opinions seems eminently telecommutable (so long as you're not the most junior justice, expected to fetch coffee). Now-retired Justice David Souter was unmarried and childless (and I think lived with his mother?), and he'd minimize time in DC and go back to New Hampshire as much as possible.

For examples from other different branches of government, Sarah Palin basically tele/commuted as governor of Alaska, refusing to move her family to Juneau and regularly going home to Wasilla. As a senator for nearly 40 years, Joe Biden famously went home on the Amtrak every night. (For which feat, they seem to have named the Wilmington station for him.) He began doing so because his first wife died right after he was elected, in a car crash severely injuring his sons, and he refused to move them to DC. And nobody could say much to him about it, because already he was threatening to resign his seat.

People do these things even in high powered jobs if the people around them are supportive of it. I still don't think employers need to *reward* people for their parenting, but if you really want someone for a position -- if, e.g., you're terrified of losing your Democratic majority if Biden resigns and his seat reverts Republican -- then you make it work around their parenting. People make it work around other drawbacks, like keeping the super-smart but socially-inept partner in the firm away from clients.

Phoebe said...

PG,

Not following. Someone over 50 could perfectly well have teenaged kids, and Slaughter insisted that teens need their moms hanging around. (Teens themselves probably beg to differ.)

Maybe the Supreme Court's not the best example. But certain jobs require (frequent) relocation, and require being available at odd hours. (Delaware's not so far from D.C., but what if Biden were from Oregon?) These tend to be very low-level (itinerant farming, say) and very high-level/glamorous jobs. A foreign correspondent needs to travel. As does a president. Where exactly Slaughter's job fit in isn't obvious to me, but it seems like the sort of thing where you'd have to actually be in D.C.. It was a long article, so maybe I missed it, but did she ever claim otherwise, with respect to her particular job?

What I read - and maybe you read something else - was: Slaughter's job, and its relocation component, alerted her to the difficulties of rising in the ranks as a mother of still-at-home children. It made her think of ways around this for women in similar situations. But! Did it make her think relocation was never necessary? Wouldn't there be some jobs where, if you take as a given that a mother of youngish kids can't relocate, the answer would be for these posts to be ones women take after their kids have left home?

PG said...

I suppose it depends on when you begin and end childbearing. If you have your last kid at 35 or older, then yes, you've got a child who's 15 or younger when you're 50.

By the way, I think Slaughter's reference to her son's difficulties was not a gratuitous invasion of his privacy, but meant to explain why she needed to run back to NJ in the middle of the day or week sometimes. I was my parents' most difficult child, but by 14 even I had gotten fairly well sorted and self-managing. Notwithstanding the rash of articles about American children's delayed maturity, most people assume that teenagers have got the broad outlines of adulthood in them -- an ability to take directions, fulfill responsibilities -- such that they don't need constant supervision. (Although of course you should never leave them alone in the house on a Friday or Saturday night.)

While aligning career opportunities is a pretty common problem for dual-professional marriages, a teenager who needs his mom available to come to school on any given day is rarer. It tends to indicate the teen is misbehaving or dependent on parental rescue (to bring forgotten homework, lunch, permission slips, etc.) to an unusual extent.

Anyway, Slaughter does say that she could have spent more time at home without leaving her DC job entirely: "I might have been able to get my family to join me in Washington for a year; I might have been able to get classified technology installed at my house the way Jim Steinberg did; I might have been able to commute only four days a week instead of five. (While this last change would have still left me very little time at home, given the intensity of my job, it might have made the job doable for another year or two.) But I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home."