Anne-Marie Slaughter had been the director of policy planning for the State Department for two years — commuting from Princeton, N.J., where her family lived, to Washington, D.C., where the job was — when she realized something had to give.
"It was a fabulous job, but at the end of two years I simply had to recognize that I needed to be at home," Slaughter tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne. Moreover, she adds, "I wanted to be at home, and there was no way to do that and to do the kind of job that Secretary Clinton needed me to do."
Now, granted, for Slaughter, being "at home" was hardly akin to leaving the workforce to be a full-time mother. She returned to a job as a tenured professor at Princeton University and continued to write, publish, give talks and teach a full course load.
Nevertheless, being forced to make this choice that so many women face — between her family and her career — was a wake-up call. The experience led her to write an article for The Atlantic last summer explaining why women still can't have it all.
"What my experience made me see was how it is that so many women actually do face a choice," Slaughter says. "When they face a choice, they are then systematically disadvantaged in terms of their careers."
There is a certain pressure now, particularly on educated women, to have it all and do it all — to take advantage of all the gains inherited from the feminist movement and to "lean in," as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg encourages.
Slaughter's mother, Anne Slaughter, tells Montagne she thinks this pressure is the result of a generational shift. Anne, who became an artist after raising Anne-Marie and her brothers, had considered going to medical school but her mother told her she'd get married instead. "I remember telling that to Anne-Marie. I said, 'Look, you can go as far as you want,' " Anne Slaughter says. But as Anne-Marie found, the idea that women can "have it all" is untenable.
"There are many, many women who face the situation where that careful balance [between work and family] suddenly tips — a child needs them or they move or have an aging parent — and then what we're seeing is mostly women having to choose and when they choose, they end up opting out of the workforce or going part time or working differently and suddenly they're no longer on the leadership track," Anne-Marie says.
One of the reasons that women take time off from work, she says, is because they are socialized differently than are men. "As my friends say, they drop their kids off at day care and feel guilty for leaving them; their husband drops the kids off at day care and feels good that he dropped them off at day care because he was being an active parent," she says. "In my experience, women feel much more strongly that they should be at home."
The lack of quality, affordable child care and the inflexibility of many work schedules make it difficult for women to juggle. She suggests, for example, a "time-out period" for companies to allow employees, for whatever reason, to take as much as a couple years off and then still get back on the career track.
Ultimately, Anne Slaughter suggests, whether they decide to stay home or work, women today have a much better sense of themselves than did previous generations. And it's that sense of self that led Anne-Marie to "think in the end I am somebody who wants to be with my family," she says. "I have all the choices — and I have choices my mother didn't have — but it is the freedom to be who you are and to actually recognize what you want most fundamentally that in the end led me to make a choice I never thought I'd make."
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You may have seen last summer's Atlantic Monthly magazine cover, showing a toddler in a briefcase being carried by a woman wearing pantyhose. The headline was: "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The article was by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It was her take on work-life balance. The idea here is that women probably can't have both the high-powered career that they want and a family - at least not successfully, and not always the same time. It sparked a lot of debate, so we're circling back to that idea and its author in our series The Changing Lives of Women.
Renee Montagne takes it from here.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're joined by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Welcome.
ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: It's great to be here.
MONTAGNE: And we wanted to bring another voice into this conversation, Anne-Marie's mother, Anne Slaughter, who joins us from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Welcome to you.
ANNE SLAUGHTER: Thank you very much, Renee. Nice to be here.
MONTAGNE: Now, this conversation includes both of you, but let me begin with Anne-Marie, because I'd like you to just refresh our memories with a little thumbnail on the job-family situation you wrote about in this piece.
SLAUGHTER: Well, I was the director of Policy Planning for Hillary Clinton for two years, from 2009 to 2011. I was commuting from Princeton to Washington. My teenage sons and my husband were back in Princeton. It was a fabulous job, but at the end of two years, I simply had to recognize that I needed to be at home. I wanted to be at home, and there was no way to do that and to do the kind of job that Secretary Clinton needed me to do.
MONTAGNE: Well, I will say this, though, in reading that original article, I wondered about your expectations, because you were not just working at a high-powered job. You were commuting between states. And when you returned home, you returned to what anybody, by any description, is also a high-powered job. That's being a tenured professor at Princeton who writes books and articles.
SLAUGHTER: No, that's absolutely right. And I was not writing an article about how I couldn't have it all. I have had it all, and I have a great career and a family. But what my experience made me see was how it is that so many women actually do face a choice, and that when they face a choice, they are then systematically disadvantage in terms of their careers.
MONTAGNE: Anne Slaughter, I want to turn to you and ask you what your reaction was to what your daughter was expressing in this magazine article.
SLAUGHTER: Well, while she was writing, I generally was pointing out that some women have always had to work, for many economic reasons, from all walks of life. And then when it came out, I really fully understood that it had such resonance because there had been a generational shift in our daughters.
MONTAGNE: Well, the piece does mention you. Your daughter describes you as not being able to go to medical school, even though your brothers went on. And it gives your generation credit for trailblazing.
MONTAGNE: But did you start thinking about your own story when you read this article? Because, in fact, you also went on to be a professional artist.
SLAUGHTER: I considered going into medical school. And it's typical, my mother looked at me and said: You'll never get through a medical school. You'll get married before that.
SLAUGHTER: Which is my point, and I found myself of the family in the suburbs. And to me, the importance in my life was always to have a balance, an equilibrium.
MONTAGNE: Well, may I say - and back to you, Anne-Marie Slaughter - that does seem like the core goal, that women would be able to have a balance in their life. What is it that keeps it being hard for women to have a balance if their aspirations are to, in fact, do some of these sort of tougher, high-level, time-consuming jobs that men have been aspiring to forever?
SLAUGHTER: I think for men and women, there are jobs that you just have to recognize, if you're going to do them, you're not going to see your family very much. But those are jobs at the top. Along the way, there are many, many women who face a situation where that careful balance suddenly tips - a child needs them, or they move or they have an aging parent.
And then what we're seeing is mostly women having to choose. And when they choose, they end up opting out of the workforce or going part-time, or working differently. And then suddenly, they're no longer on the leadership track or the promotion track.
MONTAGNE: You write that one of the reasons you do see women really and truly taking time off from work or leaving a job, because they want to be closer to their families, is women are different than men.
SLAUGHTER: Well, I definitely believe women are clearly socialized differently than men. I mean, as my friends say, they drop their kids off at day care and feel guilty for leaving them; their husband drops the kids off at day care and feels good that he dropped them off at day care because he was being an active parent. I was really commenting on the fact that in my experience, women feel much more strongly that they should be at home at various times. And we need to recognize that for many women that means they do experience a choice.
MONTAGNE: Well, I wonder, if you had to prescribe just a couple of things that could be changed, what would you prescribe?
SLAUGHTER: Well, the most important thing I think for many, many women in high-powered careers is being able to control their own time. If you're required to deliver the work at a high quality on deadline, but you can decide when and how to get it done so that you can fit around your family, then you can do extraordinary things.
And the second thing I would say, and some companies are really starting to do this, to actually allow a time-out period where, for whatever reason, you can take up to a couple years out of your career track and still get back on, in terms of promotion and future leadership roles. And then, for women much more broadly, we need high quality, affordable day care.
MONTAGNE: Yeah. I'd like to turn the conversation back to Anne Slaughter. I know you're just by the tone of your voice that you're very proud of your daughter and what she's achieved. But it sounds like there's also pride - great pride from your daughter - in your direction. I just wonder if there was some value when you were being a mother and then finding your way in terms of the artistic life...
MONTAGNE: ...if there were some value then for the fact that there was less pressure to get out and say, become a surgeon.
SLAUGHTER: You know, I think that there are many factors. I was a very young bride at the time where you really didn't control when you had children or not. So immediately I had children, and when you have children it's an innate love, your children come first and they always came first. In the next generation, in the generation of my children, they can choose when, because of contraception, and when they get married. And whether they keep going on in your work or not, they have a much better sense of themselves.
SLAUGHTER: It's interesting to me to hear that Mom, because I think it's exactly that sense, in the end, of who I am that led me to think in the end I am somebody who wants to be with my family. I have all the choices and I have choices my mother didn't have, but it is the freedom to be who you are and to actually recognize what you want most, fundamentally, that in the end led me to make a choice I never thought I'd make.
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MONTAGNE: Thank you very much, both of you, for joining us.
SLAUGHTER: Well, you're welcome.
SLAUGHTER: Thanks very much, Renee.
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INSKEEP: That's our own Renee Montagne with Anne-Marie Slaughter, who just took a job as president of the New America Foundation, also her mother, Anne Slaughter, who joined us from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We also want to hear from you on having it all. In our online series asking women at NPR about their careers, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED host Audie Cornish weighed in.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: For a lot of women for many generations, for lots of working-class women today, you have to do what you have to do, and that's it. There's no precious discussion about it, there's no back and forth about it.
INSKEEP: And you can read Audie's full essay and add your view at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.