BROOKLYN – The auditorium of the Fishman Space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) was filled on a Saturday afternoon with men and women of all ages – but mainly young people – who looked forward to hearing a conversation “On Truth (and lies) in Feminism” between Anne-Marie Slaughter and Simon Critchley.
In 2012, Slaughter’s article “Why Woman Still Can’t Have it All” became the most widely- read article in the history of The Atlantic magazine. According to the event’s program it “helped spark a renewed national debate on the continued obstacles to full male-female equality.”
Critchley, author and Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, is the host of the On Truth (and Lies) conversation series of the Onassis Foundation (USA), and Slaughter is the president and CEO of the New America Foundation.
The conversation about the options available to women and the choices they make began with discussion about the Young Vic adaptation of Ibsen’s classic, A Doll’s House staring Hattie Morahan as Nora, that is currently running at BAM.
Passionate debates continue over whether Nora is a textbook case of feminism or narcissism, but the horrendous costs of her decision to find herself after her disappointment and frustration in her marriage drive her to the brink of suicide reflect Slaughter’s main point: with the exception of women at the top of the socioeconomic ladder – the one percent, more or less – women still have to make more sacrifices and have less options than men.
Slaughter and Critchley – both are parents – founded the discussion on the notion that caregiving is just as important as bread winning for both men and women and that family and childrearing should be a true partnership, but Slaughter went into detail about the obstacles most women still face, with even the most talented opting to pursue “a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family.”
Her reward for examining the truths and lies was to be condemned by older generations not for being a traitor to the cause, but for doing a disservice to younger women who needed them to still hold the banner of feminism high.
That stung. She said “I owe my own freedoms and opportunities to the pioneering generation of women ahead of me…who knew the only way to make it as a woman is to act like a man. To admit to, much less act on, maternal longings would have been fatal to their careers.”
But women in their 20s and 30s were relieved to hear someone say that their struggles wer not due to their own failings. At speaking engagements she was often thanked for “not giving just one more fatuous ‘You can have it all talk.’”
Slaughter’s main point is that today, only under certain conditions can women have it all, and her article was not an ivory tower expose.
It was after being appointed as the first woman to be director of policy planning for the State Department when she realized, in the words of Mary Matalin, that having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and family can make it work.” But for women in a more rigid bureaucracy, “even with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her Chief of Staff, Cheryl Mills…I could no longer be both the parent and professional I wanted to be.”
Before her appointment, she was able to juggle marriage and raising two boys with a full academic schedule as a professor at Harvard Law School and when she was Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs. She also authored or edited six books.
She still strongly believes that “women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too)…but not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”
The infrastructure necessary for gender equality for all, not just the privileged few, includes daycare, early education, after school programs and elder care.
Slaughter concluded her article with the declaration that “the best hope for improving the lot of all women…is to close the leadership gap: To elect a woman president and 50 woman senators… Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.”
Some of the most fascinating parts of the conversation at BAM – onstage and during the Q&A that followed – revolved around certain counterproductive attitudes of both men and women. For example, the world of high technology is one of the few places where men seem comfortable discussing work-life balance issues. Most would not chose to defer promotions the way professional women with families do?
On the other hand, the men who do put family first and are willing to make compromises with wives who rising to the tops of their professions are not hearing loud applause out there.
“Those dads report that the women they engage with on the playgrounds think they are a little odd. They do not think of them as the model of masculinity. We can’t have it both ways,” Slaughter said.
Just as men had to change and come to believe that “women who were powerful and smart and competitive were attractive… we have to think [positively about] that guy who puts his family first, who says ‘I want to be the lead parent; I’m going to defer a promotion; I’m not going to be the most powerful guy out there.’”
Slaughter said “we have to say ‘you are a masculine, valued, wonderful man,’” for women to get further, and she emphasized, “So it’s also about the way we think about things…I can’t change everything, but I can change the way I think, and ask certain questions.”