Skip to main content

Why is 'having it all' just a women's issue?

By Stephanie Coontz, Special to CNN
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon June 25, 2012
 Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left the Obama administration to spend time with her family, ignited a firestorm with an Atlantic article.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left the Obama administration to spend time with her family, ignited a firestorm with an Atlantic article.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Stephanie Coontz: Atlantic article riled women on perennial issues of feminism, motherhood
  • Coontz says issue framed as false feminist promise of "having it all"
  • She says U.S. companies often inhospitable to work/family balance for women and men
  • Coontz: Workplaces should reasonably accommodate family life regardless of worker's sex

Editor's note: Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."

(CNN) -- The July/August cover story of the Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" by Anne-Marie Slaughter, has ignited a firestorm.

One side accepts the author's argument: that feminism has set women up to fail by pretending they can have a high-powered career and still be an involved mother. The other side accuses Slaughter, who left her job as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, of setting women back by telling them to "rediscover the pursuit of happiness," starting at home.

Slaughter's article contains a powerful critique of the insanely rigid workplace culture that produces higher levels of career-family conflict among Americans -- among men and women -- than among any of our Western European counterparts, without measurably increasing our productivity or gross national product. And she makes sensible suggestions about how to reorganize workplaces and individual career paths to lessen that conflict.

Unfortunately, the way the discussion is framed perpetuates two myths: that feminism is to blame for raising unrealistic expectations about "having it all" and that work-family dilemmas are primarily an issue for women.

Stephanie Coontz
Stephanie Coontz

Let's start by recognizing that the women's movement never told anybody that they could "have it all." That concept was the brainchild of advertising executives, not feminist activists. Feminism insists on women's right to make choices -- about whether to marry, whether to have children, whether to combine work and family or to focus on one over the other. It also urges men and women to share the joys and burdens of family life and calls on society to place a higher priority on supporting caregiving work.

Second, we should distinguish between high-powered careers that really are incompatible with active involvement in family life and those that force people to choose between work and family only because of misguided employment requirements and inadequate work-family policies.

By her account, Slaughter had one of the former. Before she "dropped out" merely to become a full-time professor, write books and make 40 to 50 speeches each year, Slaughter left Trenton, New Jersey, every Monday on the 5:30 a.m. train to Washington and didn't get back until late Friday night. Such a job is incompatible with family obligations and pleasures for men as well as for women. The real question is not why so many women feel compelled to walk away from these jobs but why so few men feel the same way.

The teaser at the top of the Atlantic article claims that "women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich or self-employed." But that sentence is missing an adjective. What it really means is that women who manage simultaneously to be involved mothers and top professionals in the United States are a rare and privileged group. Men who manage to be involved fathers and top professionals are equally rare and privileged.

The irony is that most jobs, even top professional positions, do not actually require as much absenteeism from family as employers often impose. University of Texas sociologist Jennifer Glass, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, points out that corporate and government professionals in the United States put in much longer workweeks than their counterparts in Europe, where limits on work hours are common, workplace flexibility is more widespread, and workers are entitled to far more vacation days per year than most Americans -- and actually use them.

U.S. companies generally penalize workers who try to cut back on hours, reducing their hourly wages even when their hourly productivity remains the same or increases. The European Union, by contrast, forbids employers to pay less per hour for the same work when it is done part time than when it is done full time.

"In a system where work hours are encouraged to spiral out of control at the highest positions," Glass notes, "the people who make it to the top -- male or female -- have little time for family or community commitments, and little patience for the family commitments of the people they supervise."

Slaughter ultimately suggests some excellent reforms that would allow both men and women to meet their work and family commitments more successfully, although she inexplicably describes them as "solutions to the problems of professional women." Later she acknowledges that work-family issues plague all American workers, regardless of their sex, income level, occupational niche or even parental status since many childless workers have responsibilities to aging parents or ill partners. In fact, according to the New York-based Families and Work Institute, men now report even higher levels of work-family conflict than women do.

It was a great victory for gender equality when people finally stopped routinely saying "she's awfully good at her job -- for a woman." The next big step forward will be when people stop saying, "It's awfully tough to balance work and family -- for a woman." It's tough for men and women. We need to push for work-family practices and policies that allow individuals to customize their work lives according to their changing individual preferences and family obligations, not just their traditional gender roles.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Coontz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT