Libby Zinman Schwartz
This past week Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Princeton dean and currently CEO of the New America Foundation, discussed her new book, “Unfinished Business, Women, Men, Work, Family” on women, careers and family at the Woodrow Wilson School of Government. She has been a guest speaker at the WW School several times during the past decade, and I have always found her elegant, confident and articulate. However, on this last occasion I was distressed to learn how disconnected she is from millions of women who will be her presumed reading audience.
Unfortunately, the author’s memoir of her personal career development may have little to say to millions of women presently trying to work at a career, or simply work. These are women with children who may be married or single, with a husband who may be working or unemployed in a society which has become starkly divided between the very wealthy, the super rich, the dissipated middle class and the growing poor.
“Unfinished Business” speaks more generally to affluent women fortunate enough to have been raised like the author in families who could afford her an elite education and the subsequent valued connections that later propel its insiders toward affluent lives and successful careers.
Her husband, in her words the “lead-parent“ while she forged a career, is a Princeton professor whose teaching requirements left him with considerable time and freedom to supervise his children. Both undoubtedly earned handsome incomes that enabled the author to carve a career with relative ease. A very different scenario from most women today.
Ms. Slaughter’s new book offers a theme that has evolved sharply from her past strong focus on women and careers to an Atlantic Monthly article entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in which she gradually becomes more aware of the call of family obligations. In her latest book, “Unfinished Business, Women, Men Work, Family” the author, formerly director of policy planning in the State Department and now CEO of her own company, sharply rearranges her priorities and her career trajectory to allow increased participation in her family life. She mentions among existing strategies, flexible hours and working at home, and adds to these piece-meal solutions her notion that the nation has to come together in learning how to care, practice patience and restraint and even give men freedom to choose as values in a “work-obsessed” society.
Perhaps the author doesn’t yet realize that work-obsession in America is a necessity for most and a luxury for the more affluent and competitive. In a culture like ours that values wealth, status and power above all, her idealism is inspiring but unrealistic: global competition for natural resources or their replacements and wars over hegemonic preeminence are forcing people throughout the world to work longer hours for less pay. Something less complex, more reliable and concrete than changing an entire culture is currently needed to improve women’s lives. For the present a more expedient paradigm may be needed.
Unless she has the good fortune or high profile of an Anne Marie Slaughter, the average woman (or man) in America cannot easily shift career choices and must work hard without the luxury of domestic help to cushion the stress of an already overburdened life. Adding to that already heavy load, Ms. Slaughter is now suggesting that attention or care to family is just as essential as a career. And this is the dilemma. Few can argue with the premise of the book that raising a happy, healthy, cohesive family comes first. Working women constantly juggle these two priorities, whether it is merely a job to put food on the table or the luxury of a chosen career. Painful guilt accompanies both priorities if either is inadequately served.
A while ago, another Princeton dean, speaking to an audience at the university, exhorted female students to find a suitable Princeton man and marry up. Women seeking independence, rather than dependence on male financial support, may have found her words “elitist,“ even insulting. However, after hearing Ms. Slaughter’s most recent plea for “family first,” yet another responsibility for working women, I wondered how most women, without adequate support at home or the self-professed financial ease the author has known throughout her life, could master both obligations.
What our author has experienced as a member of the elite Princeton community, a past student and dean at the university has been a consistent environment that grows happy families, whose wealth ensures children’s well being from private school through to high end, top universities.
The dilemma “Unfinished Business” presents is not only about women working hard to achieve career goals while doing double duty as a mom and family caregiver; in American it is also about wealth and the connections that provide some women with opportunities denied others today in the new class-divided America. The dean who advised female Princeton students to find a Princeton man to ensure their future was implying that marrying into wealth was good, and she may indeed be right. Substantial wealth greases the wheels and makes it much easier to satisfy needs and ensure our children’s future. It can also make careers affordable and nearly guiltless. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer women today have that opportunity as the middle class shrinks, the cost of top schools become prohibitive, and the likelihood of single or working-parents earning enough to satisfy both career and family almost nonexistent.
Given her past struggles in both arenas of career and family life our author, seeking a “new America” in which working women (and men) finally can “have it all,” may be able to truly help women realize both goals of career and family by lobbying her friends and prominent leaders in government to urge President Obama to resurrect his former plan to tax corporations and the super rich at a much higher level. Certainly, the idol of the Republican party, Ronald Reagan, was able to do that without notable party dissention
If that initiative could succeed, funding of an innovative program introducing “family managers,” men and women who qualify as energetic, competent caregivers. could be added to the national budget to support full-time working mothers and additionally supply new jobs for many who need them in a still lagging economy. A program such as this could also help to gradually level the playing field between the widely disparate socioeconomic classes in the United States. Family managers would be funded by government dollars, supplemented by contributions from the families they serve, relative to their incomes. Without the benefit of significant wealth or government support of this type, Ms. Slaughter’s exhortations to her readers to seek careers and fully honor family life will fall on deaf ears.
I am not underestimating our author’s sincerity or motivation in her effort to encourage women to follow their career dreams while also “caring“ for families. They are already trying to achieve those goals under great stress, which has been seriously escalating their vulnerability to physical illnesses, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.
Ms. Slaughter, author and activist, has clearly examined her own life and unique needs for meaningful inclusion in family life. Now she just has to use her name, leadership skills and valuable connections to make her dream and theirs a reality.
Libby Zinman Schwartz is a writer and retired psychotherapist who lives and works in Princeton.
Libby Zinman Schwartz