Anne-Marie Slaughter Wants a Revolution

Let’s talk about gender equality and work-family balance.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic magazine article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” was a very personal and honest account of choices she’s made about her career and home life. Slaughter, a former top U.S. State Department official and Princeton University dean, argued that more flexible work environments would allow women to pursue professional careers and family care without sacrificing their ambitions. To her surprise, the article ricocheted around the Internet and exploded the debate about gender equality and work-family balance. At TEDGlobal 2013, Slaughter advanced her ideas about rethinking caregiving and breadwinning roles, re-socializing men, and investing in an infrastructure of care. Ernest Beck sat down with Slaughter, who recently became president of the New America Foundation, to talk about men, women, revolutions, and running for political office.

design mind: You took the stage after Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist, gave a moving talk about her courageous campaign to end her country’s ban on letting women drive, an effort that landed her in jail. Was that a hard act to follow? 

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Yes. I knew her story beforehand but I didn’t anticipate its power and drama. She was speaking directly from her experience. What I bring to the debate is the experience of a woman who has achieved a lot and then made an unexpected decision, which has led me to do some hard thinking and to try to reframe the “work-family” debate, intellectually and conceptually. Manal and I are operating on different planes, but both are important. For me, the question is about the value of caregiving and breadwinning in our society. 

design mind: So, in a larger context, your goals are similar?

Anne-Marie: What we have in common is striving for a basic equality that lets all human beings live with dignity. She said she deserves the freedom to drive. But that is just one aspect of the freedom to live up to your full potential as a human being. She fights where she finds it and I fight where I find it. We are of a piece, even if I am fortunate enough to live in a much more liberated society. 

design mind: How do you respond to critics who said your Atlantic piece was about “rich people’s problems”?

Anne-Marie: I’d said so much in the article, noting my comparatively privileged life. But focusing on what I did not address is a fancy way of changing the subject and deflecting attention from my main point: why we don’t have enough women at the top. On the other hand, reframing the debate in terms of caregivers and breadwinners applies equally to the poorest in our society, who are expected to be both. If we built a genuine infrastructure of care it would help those at the bottom of the ladder as much as it would those at the top. 

design mind: Why has this issue resonated with so many people? 

Anne-Marie: It reflects a generational wave. Many people before me have written about the same thing, going back to the ‘70s. But now there is a younger generation of women who use social media to talk about it, and they sent my article to their mothers and mentors and friends, and that triggered an intergenerational debate that was just waiting to happen. 

design mind: When will the revolution happen? 

Anne-Marie: What I want to see is a revolution in my lifetime in terms of the way we think. As the sister of two brothers and the mother of two sons, and with a husband who managed single parenthood while I was away during the week, I have been in a position to observe boys and men and the choices they are forced to make. I know men who are great with their kids and want to be with their families more but feel constrained. This is what led me to rethink what equality really means, and what is “men’s work” and “women’s work” and how best to achieve it. 

design mind: How does society go about re-socializing men?

Anne-Marie: You can’t legislate this to happen. We have to start by talking about it, like the women’s movement did, about how men are socialized to be breadwinners rather than caregivers and that their self-worth is defined in terms of how high they climb over other men. 

design mind: This might take a long time.

Anne-Marie: The demographics are with us. I see younger fathers who are more engaged than ever before, and older fathers who now see the world through their daughters’ eyes. The future of work is with us as well: It will be much more about flexible jobs and independent contracting. Corporate boardrooms across America are not exactly sympathetic to this issue right now, but in five to 10 years this will change.

design mind: At a time of government spending cutbacks, especially to social programs, how do you mobilize public opinion to support an expanded infrastructure of caregiving?

Anne-Marie: You start state by state. You form political action committees. People are already looking at the quality of life in other countries and wondering why Americans work so much harder but are not any happier. Investing in care will no doubt add to costs, but so do many other things. The question is the returns we get on our investment. From the social point of view, we have to invest as much in an infrastructure of care as we do in an infrastructure of capitalism. We are paying a huge hidden price for not giving people the time and flexibility to be there for loved ones. And besides, an infrastructure of care creates jobs. I’m optimistic that as the economy recovers and voices get louder, this issue will get more exposure. 

design mind: This is the kind of ambitious agenda that sounds like a political campaign. Do you want to run for public office?

Anne-Marie: People have been asking me that lately. My next book will tackle gender equality, caregiving, and breadwinning, but in my heart I am a foreign policy person—and this is how I define myself professionally. If we lived in Britain, with a six-week election cycle and public financing of political campaigns, it would be a different story. But if I did that here, my husband would have something to say. It might be the last straw!

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Issue 18

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