The Lookout

How Anne-Marie Slaughter turned a feminist conflict into a breakout summer hit

The Lookout

"Hey, lady. You, lady. Cursing at your life."— Charlene, "I've Never Been to Me"

Charlene's ancient AM-radio lyric sounded unexpectedly in my head as I savored "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter's charming and tautological cover story in this month's The Atlantic.

I like pieces like Slaughter's. Truism after truism. Good June beach reading: no surprises. But there was that early-'80s melody again.

In the article, Slaughter—a hardworking professor with a bruising speaking schedule who didn't quit working to hang out with her teenage sons but sort of thought about it—reflects on how other women bug her. She admits that she can't be in Washington, D.C., and Princeton, N.J., at the same time (the laws of physics bind her, too). And then she says some sensible-sounding stuff about technology and society.

The article appears to weigh in on the warring spheres that middlebrow women's magazines typically refer to as "work" (cubicles) and "family" (child care). But The Atlantic is not Redbook—and these up-for-grabs words mean something different here. I'd say Slaughter's version of "work" is more widely known as "glamour" (cocktails with Michelle Obama) and her "life" is better described as "deluxe domesticity" (waffles in Princeton, N.J.).

How can you have the fantasies of both Vogue and Elle Décor?! This turns out to be an urgent question for well-heeled female consumers of our time.

"Hey lady, you lady," Slaughter implores, to the many women around her whose "irksome" small-talk about kids and jobs (you're a feminist-antifeminist-go-to-work-stay-home!) evidently inspires "blind fury" in her. Do as I say, she tells them, not as I do.

That's generous of Slaughter, to give advice. A larger-than-life superstar at the summit of American career success with what sounds like an awesome fun family, Slaughter admits to having spent her life as "the woman smiling the faintly superior smile" at other women.

Slaughter acted smug in the sisterhood: That's a good-enough confession, not quite a #humblebrag. At the same time, who can blame her? Slaughter, who is preceded everywhere she goes by her reputation as a top-caliber Ivy League academic, friend of Hillary and left-wing policymaker of the first rank, is objectively superior to everyone I've ever met. I'm not kidding. If she ever smiled superiorly at me, I'd be grateful even for the condescension.

But now she's penitent.

Slaughter, it seems, has been to paradise. She held a "foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan." A snapshot of that dream: "President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History. I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled."

But mingling, too, in the heady evening, were stray thoughts of Slaughter's teenage son in Princeton, who wasn't doing so well in math class. Was she letting him down by partying with presidents in Manhattan? Moreover, what did Slaughter want out of her one wild and precious life?

This last part hit Slaughter hard. In an interview that appears on The Atlantic site, she tells Hanna Rosin how hard it was for her to think—and write!—about her true desires. It seems she had "never been to me," as Charlene put it. And she needed that kind of groovy female awakening-to-desire as much as anything else.

I know this sounds far-fetched, but to my mind, that extraordinarily unsettling and ingenious Motown hit from 1982 really does set up the structure for Slaughter's piece. A woman of a certain age warns girls against the pursuit of worldliness that she believes left her estranged from domesticity and true female fulfillment.

Slaughter's article unfurls the indisputable fact in its "Women Still Can't Have It All" headline—infinite acquisition and possession of all things by one woman is impossible—over many, many pages of magazine prose. That dilation is dumbfounding. That fact about not-having-it-all is binding on all mortals, is it not? But Slaughter is a distinguished professor of law at Princeton University; she knows from sophistry and Socratic argumentation.

That's how I divined that her article is about something else. I'm going to summarize it this way, in Charlene's blunt internally rhyming lyric: "I spent my life exploring/ the subtle whoring/ that costs too much to be free."

Sure, "whoring" is not a Princeton word. It's Motown. But aren't Slaughter and Charlene (whose song was written by a man and originally in the voice of a bum warning a young man against hard living) telling the same story? They whirled around while they were younger—both women have champagne and "foreign dignitaries" in their stories—and now they're spent. They're hoping that the humbler pleasures of home and hearth haven't forsaken them while they've sewn oats in international careers. Totally understandable.

While she sipped champagne at the U.N. with those dignitaries, Slaughter worried about her son's "skipping homework, disrupting classes." Charlene's speaker, for her part, took her champagne on yachts with kings. At the same time, she mourned "the unborn children that might have made me complete."

For its sideswiping of abortion rights and sappiness about home life, "Never Been to Me" was considered a backlash against feminism. Thirty years later, Anne-Marie Slaughter's pals hint that she too is insufficiently feminist when she decides not to re-up her White House job that required her to see her family on weekends, but merely to return (as planned) to her wickedly demanding career as a chaired academic and author.

But then comes the crux of Slaughter's article, truisms swelling as they do in any good Polonian magazine-piece ending. "I didn't just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children ... irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals."

Compare that major-chord finale with Charlene's—spoken, as Slaughter's certainly could be, over an extended bridge in a slightly hysterical but sweet soprano:

"Hey, you know what paradise is? It's a lie—a fantasy we created about people and places as we like them to be. But you know what truth is? It's that little baby you're holding and it's that man you fought with this morning the same one you are gonna make love to tonight."

"That's truth, that's love!" cries Charlene. And I'm with her.

I guess I'm with Slaughter, too. But that's the thing about clichés. They just hang around until someone puts them to music, gets a Motown producer—or an editor in D.C. and some cover art—and manages a breakout summer hit.

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