Saturday, June 23, 2012

Second After Sartre

The WWPD take on Anne-Marie Slaughter's already-picked-apart Atlantic cover story, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." In three parts. Scroll to the third if digression's not your thing.

1) Second-after-Sartre

If your complaint is that you had to curtail your ambitions, and what this leaves you with is, "I teach a full course load [at Princeton]; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book," and if your decision just happens to allow you to hold onto tenure, then what you've got is a Second-to-Sartre problem, as when Simone de Beauvoir based a feminist theory around her experiences as (poorly-treated lover of and, more to the point) second fiddle to the better-known Existentialist, and more specifically, in reference to some philosophy exam on which he placed first, she second, but it was unfair for sexism reasons the details of which I've since forgotten. A SAS problem is not a first-world problem, an UMC-white-person problem, a college-educated-woman problem. It's the incredibly narrow subset of feminist concerns specific to female geniuses and hyper-achievers.

If we fault feminism for conflating the concerns of relatively wealthy, often white women with those of all womankind, we must also question attempts to project Second After Sartre onto women who are simply upper-middle-class. Even if limiting the discussion to straight, married women with advanced degrees and "choices," those for whom the fallback is anything approaching tenure at an Ivy and the life of a public intellectual are few and far between. Think glorified secretarial jobs in the town where the main bread-earner (husband) has a job. Think freelance-writing, or selling crafts on the Internet. Think 'more time for yoga and volunteering.' I say this not to disparage these pursuits, but rather to illustrate what the options are, realistically, for a woman who doesn't need to apply at Walmart, but whose husband's career comes first, and someone has to keep track of those kids.

I understand that there's less zing in pointing out that Slaughter's out-of-touch with an upper-middle-class demographic than in noting that she doesn't deal with the concerns of the mom who's a cashier at Walmart (which she admits!), but this does seem a key detail. And it's not a 'privilege' issue, because this isn't about unearned status, or haves vs. have-nots. Just that the difference between Slaughter's story and that of 'ordinary' female professionals couldn't be greater.

Slaughter explains that "genuine superwomen" "cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves. Such a standard sets up most women for a sense of failure." If that's the case, why is she pitching her altogether exceptional story at "highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place"? Why must the hook, the lede, be her life, if it doesn't illustrate the point she's trying to make, and if anything detracts from it? Is it because "Atlantic cover story about women" suggests a confessional approach?

We as a society should care if the absolute most brilliant and hard-working women are held back, even if that leaves them with fulfilling careers and, of course, material comforts. But should this be feminism's first priority? Slaughter appears to think so: "Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women." There are a few problems with this approach, most obviously that women publishing treatises about work-life balance in the Atlantic are biased in favor of a solution that begins at the top and trickles down.

2) Leave the kids alone!

After many of my female (and some male) Facebook friends had long since shared this, after I thought I knew what the gist might be, my mother asked me if I'd seen the thing, and noticed how the author talks about her son. I had to check it out, and, indeed:
But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him. Over the summer, we had barely spoken to each other—or, more accurately, he had barely spoken to me. 
Parents! Do not do this! Not even if you're a woman who didn't take her husband's name, and thus your children are slightly less readily identifiable! (Of course, if you provide your husband's full name, as Slaughter does, there's not much mystery.) Your adolescent-and-younger children can't consent to this kind of thing (living under your roof and all that), even if you've asked, but almost definitely don't want their lowest points or mediocrity used as fodder for their parents' high-profile think pieces. (And yes, I have my mother's permission to credit her to pointing me to this. Also, she, unlike Slaughter's son, is not 14, nor am I embarrassing her.) Find some other way to illustrate your points.

3) The substance of the article

This is what I read: Women are held back not so much by discrimination against women as by discrimination against a more flexible, low-key, dare-I-say-Continental approach to work. Women, even hyper-achieving geniuses, feel primarily responsible for the children's well-being; men, even super-evolved, 50%-or-more-of-the-household-tasks ones, do not. Women feel selfish putting work first. "To many men, however, the choice to spend more time with their children, instead of working long hours on issues that affect many lives, seems selfish." While this might give the impression (and does, to so many employers) that men/fathers make better employees than women/mothers, in fact we'd all be better-off with a gentler work environment. The 70-hour workweek to which the serious professional must aspire is, in practice, a whole lot of wasted time. All achievements great and small could, in principle, be compatible with going to your kids' recitals.

And I find some of it convincing, some not.

If we took as a given that women want different things than men, that women not merely give birth (and experience pregnancy as well as possible physical and psychological repercussions) but wish to spend more time with their kids, this quite simply would leave mothers, all things equal, with fewer hours in the week, and make mothers less appealing as employees in many fields than men, fathers or not, or women without children, and this would be totally fair

My own sense, however, is that of the parents with this desire, at least at this point in time, more are mothers than are fathers, but it's not absolute, not (necessarily) innate. A more just approach would be to say that parents who are the primary caregiver should expect less, career-wise, than their childless or not-primary-caregiver equivalents.

As much as it's appealing to think that the time a mother spends nurturing/bonding with her kids is time a male coworker of hers is off skiing, Facebooking, or observing obscure Jewish holidays, the perhaps disappointing fact is that there are some people who work constantly, efficiently and constantly, who effectively put their lives on hold either forever or until reaching a point in their career at which the future is more or less guaranteed. And that's who gets the most done. There are also some who aren't that talented, or are slow workers, and who end up at the same place as others who work better but less and do have lives outside the office. An employer might unfairly conflate having no life outside work with being incredibly productive, but even if that were addressed, this would still leave the reality of those few workers who accomplish the most precisely because the only balance in their lives is devotion to all the myriad responsibilities of their job.

Although 'no outside life' isn't entirely accurate. It's OK to have an outside life if it consists of a spouse whose entire job is to support you and your career. Something above and beyond 'being supportive.' If somewhere along the line, you landed someone who makes sure you never need to bother yourself with petty things like going to the supermarket, you're able to work as much as the non-partnered hyper-achiever who will at least need to pick up frozen pizzas every so often. While men and women alike can and do go the monastic frozen-pizza route, a man is far more likely than a woman to have that kind of spouse. 

But not all that likely, in this day and age. Women don't want to do that, and men, at the end of the day, don't want that done for them. More relevant is that assumptions persist even in the absence of that type of marriage. When a man mentions he has a wife, this makes him sound mature, responsible, able to commit. Few will think, 'uh oh, that means he has a life outside work.' Some will think, even if they won't articulate this, 'oh good, that means someone's picking up his dry-cleaning so he can stay past 7.' Meanwhile a woman who mentions a husband is implying, unless she specifies otherwise or her boss happens to be a really evolved, feminist sort, that hers is not the main career in her household, and that any minute now she might leave to have kids, never to return. 

The one bit of the piece I thought was relatable, and quite powerful, despite referring to the 0.001% in terms of achievement and ambition, was this: "Every male Supreme Court justice has a family. Two of the three female justices are single with no children."


Miss Self-Important said...

I have already googled this woman's children. They seem fine. One appears to be obsessed with chinchillas. This is like the opposite of those vapidly enthusiastic LinkedIn "recommendations" from coworkers that you find when when you google adults. What is the word for the opposite of a recommendation? There should be a descriptor for the phenomenon of the permanently discoverable fact that your own mother thought you were FAILING AT LIFE at 13.

I also found puzzling the claim that nothing will change for women until we have a female President and 50 female Senators. Why exactly? Some regional advertising firm won't give women maternity leave or let them telecommute b/c there aren't 50 women in the Senate? Maybe another instance of her confusion of the absolute highest echelons of America with normal people's jobs.

PG said...

Good post, especially point 3. I don't really understand Slaughter's thing about "valuing" involved parents by hiring and promoting them. The workplace is not the appropriate sphere in which to "value" parenting. That comes up in many other arenas, including -- if God forbid the two parents divorce -- which parent will have primary custody.

Re: the final paragraph of the post,

The one female justice who has two children married someone who might initially have been seen as having the "primary" career in their household. Ruth Bader Ginsburg left Harvard Law so she could follow her husband to NYC. Hopefully Columbia Law wasn't too much of a downgrade, but she had her first kid during that first year at Harvard, while also attending class, taking notes and typing papers for her husband while he was in his last year of school (he was in treatment for cancer).

The Ginsburgs' marriage is admired by many women in the legal profession because it ultimately seemed to balance out. She switched schools to follow him to NYC when he became a tax associate; he later switched law firms to follow her to DC when she got an judgeship. She was the primary caregiver when the kids were little, but he did all the cooking.

While Ginsburg probably *is* some kind of superwoman, I think the better solution to having a dual-career marriage is that sort of give-and-take in which sometimes one person carries more of the load, sometimes the other person does. It also depends on what is considered "important" in a career: Mr. Ginsburg probably always made more money, but Justice Ginsburg even before becoming a judge appeared frequently before the Supreme Court to litigate some of the earliest sex discrimination cases (from back when state laws would explicitly deem women less competent), was General Counsel for the ACLU, etc.

Without diminishing the Mr.'s contributions to tax scholarship, I think even if RBG had never become a justice, her work would have had much greater impact on others than his did. But if you want your family to have a certain income, then the career of the higher-earning spouse will probably always be treated as higher priority.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"There should be a descriptor for the phenomenon of the permanently discoverable fact that your own mother thought you were FAILING AT LIFE at 13."

This sort of thing just shouldn't be allowed. Not as in a law, necessarily, although I wouldn't rule it out. But as a matter of good taste, one's own inevitably-identifiable children should be kept out. There's this great big cultural conversation about how kids these days put their whole lives on Facebook and such, and how a picture of a 20-year-old holding a beer will make that person forever unemployable. But we're supposed to consider it brave when an adult, for a much larger audience, tells private details about a child's life, details this child would not have picked to share with anybody.

"I also found puzzling the claim that nothing will change for women until we have a female President and 50 female Senators. Why exactly?"

In a conversation I was having about this article yesterday, someone pointed out that this is not unlike saying that Obama's presidency has ended racism against blacks. Even supporters of affirmative action, who believe in the importance of making sure that women/underrepresented minorities have representation in the public eye, are unlikely to argue that once representation at the highest ranks matches up with the demographics of the population, the grievances of ordinary women/minorities will vanish.

One possible explanation for the female-president-and-senators focus is Slaughter's own bias: the problems keeping women from the top positions in government are ones she knows about personally, so surely if this were solved, so too would the problems of womankind.

I think what went wrong in this essay was, Slaughter decided/was asked to frame a piece about work-life balance in terms of her own biography. So even though the broader problems she cites are real, it's never all that convincing, from the article, that Slaughter has faced particular work-life challenges as a woman. I didn't quite buy that she personally had a feminist grievance, or even a grievance at all. Faced with two wonderful professional options, she chose one over the other. She couldn't be in both places, and wanted to hold onto tenure, live where her spouse and kids did, etc. As two-body problems go, 'my spouse and I both have tenure at the same Ivy, but I've been offered another exciting job elsewhere' ranks so low as to be the kind of problem where you can only possibly expect sympathy from your spouse. The non-problem-ness of her own case detracted from the many valid points she made about the situations faced by others.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"While Ginsburg probably *is* some kind of superwoman, I think the better solution to having a dual-career marriage is that sort of give-and-take in which sometimes one person carries more of the load, sometimes the other person does."

I think that works when both are superstars (esp. in the same field, e.g. law, even if in different subfields) and everyone recognizes this is a power couple as such, or, conversely, when neither spouse is all that ambitious. But in more run-of-the-mill professionals' situations, alternating in this way is likely to mean losing out on whichever goals (partner, tenure, etc.) one or both spouses had at the start. Potential and current employers won't necessarily be understanding, because unless you project incredible drive, they'll have no good reason to think that your scaling back will be temporary and not permanent. (Also, employers' reasoning aside, because, in certain fields, you need to keep up with innovations/new papers, and it's hard to plunge back in.)

G said...

Hey Phoeb, I actually haven't read this article (being generally not hooked in to the blogosphere, except for occasional peeks at WWPD). And I agree that it's sometimes weirdly overlooked that being a parent *is* very time-consuming and hence probably will reduce one's productivity in the workplace.

But. I have to wonder whether there isn't an *extra* bias against *mothers* who choose to spend time that could be working child-rearing, bias that doesn't go against their (admittedly less statistically frequent) matched male counterparts That is, will a woman who spends the *exact* same amount of time parenting as some male counterpart, and who happens to be *exactly* as efficient as her male counterpart in the workplace face more difficulties than him? It seems to me this is a possibility --there's probably empirical research but too lazy to look it up. in particular, I wonder whether *mothers* are perceived as less dedicated to their careers than fathers, causing them to be differently evaluated in the workplace, independent of any actual differences in productivity.

One explanation for this (entirely speculated) difference may be that in some professions, women are already seen as suspect because not tough or hard-headed enough. So crossing the line from being just a woman to a full-out (nurturing, mushy) *mother* might really cause problems in such a career that might not arise for (similarly child-rearing involved) *fathers* in the same career.

btw, your post about privilege made me laugh--what a classic bit of conceptual analysis of the kind analytic philosophers LOOOOOOVE to get off on. maybe that could be your 3rd or 4th career?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...



"I wonder whether *mothers* are perceived as less dedicated to their careers than fathers, causing them to be differently evaluated in the workplace, independent of any actual differences in productivity."

Oh, I think so. This is along the same lines as what I say at the end of this admittedly gargantuan post - even before kids enter the picture, a man who mentions a wife is thought to be at least as good of an employee, whereas a woman who mentions a husband is imagined to be on the cusp of leaving whichever profession. Whether or not this accurately reflects how particular employers themselves behave, female employees will sometimes have the impression that having a boyfriend/husband is something to be discreet about, perhaps to deny entirely.

G said...

ah! Then I really am preaching to the choir. careful reading is not my strong point :/

I shrieked when I saw the pic of the little furry one sprawled out. (!!) Is there an "upward facing sprawled dog" to go along w/ "downward dog"? That could be my new favorite pose.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for #2. Other than a horrified discussion I had with my mom about it ("That poor kid! I/You would never do that to (my kid)/me"), you're the first person I've seen addressing that. Seriously, leave your kids out of your nationally public excuses, especially if they're underage.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks! I'm always glad when others' see why this is a problem. Which isn't often.