verwhelmed women of the world, unite! Anne-Marie Slaughter has discovered the key to women’s empowerment. It’s “care.” In her new book, Unfinished Business, she writes: “Care is the crucible that can help reforge the sisterhood of the early feminist movement and expand and shape it into a much broader human coalition.” Slaughter, a former dean at Princeton, left her job as director of policy planning at the State Department in 2011 because living in a different city from her family had become untenable. A year later she wrote an account in the Atlantic of her work-life balance experience and found feminist fame.

Unfinished Business, by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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That cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” featuring a photo of a baby peeking out of a briefcase, became one of the most popular articles in the magazine’s history. It was viewed almost 3 million times before Unfinished Business went to press. A range of voices weighed in on Slaughter’s work, and much of her new book is a response to her critics.

Some of those critics objected to her elitist view of the problems women experience. Others felt she didn’t take account of the problems facing black women or the challenges of same-sex couples. But the easiest criticism to make was this: By Anne-Marie Slaughter’s definition, no one—man or woman—can have it all. She wanted to hold a high-powered post in Washington D.C. while her husband remained in New Jersey with her two adolescent sons, and despite this arrangement, she wanted to remain involved in their lives. Even though her husband had a flexible academic schedule and, by her own account, did a bang-up job of managing her sons’ lives—helping them practice the piano, cheering at their athletic events, helping with schoolwork, and feeding them each evening—the plan began to fall apart.

In what seems like a questionable maternal decision, Slaughter shares with readers of Unfinished Business the fact that her older son was regularly getting into trouble with the local police. At a certain point, things became unmanageable, and she realized she needed to live in the same state as her children. If we imagine that Slaughter and her husband changed places and he was the one out of town most of the week, would the couple have made a different decision? Probably not. A lot of fathers, especially those who could easily have found work closer to home, would have similarly sacrificed career ambitions for the sake of their family.

So what’s the problem? Slaughter notes that many of her colleagues slighted her upon learning she was giving up her position at the State Department:

Suddenly the person I was talking to would have a very different perception of me. The reactions ran the gamut from “It’s such a pity that you had to leave Washington” to “I wouldn’t generalize from your experience. I never had to compromise and my kids turned out great” to the many signs that my interlocutor was reassessing whether I was really a “player.” In short, even as a woman who was still working full-time as a tenured professor, I had suddenly become…subtly devalued.

The horror.

The reason, it turns out, that we must have this conversation about work-life balance is not that Anne-Marie Slaughter could not do what she wanted to do—be with her family and have a job in Washington. It’s that other people didn’t think she was a “player” anymore.

Slaughter goes through the motions of the righteous work-life crusader. She suggests that we need a larger government safety net (including more government-sponsored child care), that we need more family-friendly workplaces (which not only offer more parental-leave time but do more to make sure people take it). She says that more men need to take on responsibilities like her own husband did and make sure that their wives aren’t the only ones burdened by a “second shift.” She criticizes wives who micromanage their husbands’ parenting to the point that husbands simply throw up their hands and say, “Fine, do it yourself.”

Slaughter suggests that couples talk about how to handle issues of work-life balance before they get married. Is one spouse willing to move cities for the sake of the other one’s career? What happens when a child gets sick? Who will take off? It’s one thing for a husband to say he will support his wife’s career, but it’s another when he actually has to make sacrifices for it. Like many authors in this genre, Slaughter seems to think that if only women had more support from their husbands and more support from the government, they would be willing to do more work outside the home and push themselves further professionally. But it’s not at all clear that women with young children would want such an arrangement.

Her plan, however, goes beyond changing women’s preferences. Nor is she simply calling for European-style socialism. Slaughter wants to completely alter our daily social interactions. For instance, she notes that when someone in Washington steps down from a position, the frequently offered line is that he or she is leaving to “spend more time with family.” Slaughter writes, “Consider what this standard Washington excuse implies: It’s so unthinkable that an official would actually step down to spend time with his or her family that it must be a cover for something else.” She calls this a sign of “distorted values” and offers this suggestion: “A first step that we can all take toward creating a world of real equality is to stop using this kind of undermining language when we talk about the choices women and men make about their work.”

Slaughter said she herself was guilty of this kind of thinking. Not until her kids were teenagers did she realize that choosing your children over your career is difficult and that people who do so are not wimps.

Now she wants us all to show proper respect to “caregiving.” By respect, she means not only that we should pay our caregivers more money, but also that we should be more impressed with what it takes to care for others. “Is managing money really harder than managing kids?” Slaughter wonders. She understands that people who manage money have to go to school for a lot longer than do those who care for children. And she knows there are fewer qualified money-managers than caregivers. But she’s not satisfied with the supply-and-demand explanation. Slaughter wants to know why we don’t pay teachers and daycare workers more.

So how does Slaughter plan to set things right? She recommends less social emphasis on work: “The next time someone tells you how many hours she worked last week, or talks only about work at a party, ask her what interesting books she’s read lately, or if she’s seen any good movies.” Here’s another bit of cocktail-party advice: “When you meet someone, try not to ask, ‘What do you do?’ within the first five minutes. Ask him what he’s interested in, what his hobbies are, what he’s passionate about in life.”

Sure. Why not? But whether this will translate into a higher value placed on caregiving seems an open question.

The truth is this: People do value caregiving. When it involves their own elderly parents, when it involves their own children, they are willing to sacrifice quite a bit. The reason that child care costs more than rent for some people is that childcare is important.

That’s also why women with multiple graduate degrees and powerful jobs decide to give up work and care for their children themselves. Every middle-class family makes a decision about whether there are things they are willing to trade in order to have a parent stay home, even part time, to care for children. The question is not how much we are willing to pay for care and how much we value it. It’s how much we are willing to pay for other people’s children.
We can remake government and we can remake businesses, but remaking human nature is something else entirely.

At a couple of points in Unfinished Business, Slaughter notes that many men don’t like it when their wives make more money than they do. Her own husband was apparently pitied for having such a wildly successful wife. She speaks to women who are now divorced because their husbands were so resentful of their careers. One woman reported that her boyfriend left her when she took a tenure-track job. If husbands are so annoyed that women are not prioritizing home and family, she writes, “why don’t these men stop working or scale back their careers, and spend more time caring for their families?”

Perhaps their ideas about what constitutes women’s and men’s work are just backwards. Or perhaps they’re just insecure. Something Anne-Marie Slaughter should understand.

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