Anne-Marie Slaughter underwent a Damascene conversion where she realised she couldn’t completely ignore the needs of her family and remain happy. Fortunately for her, this happened when her sons were nearly grown-up, so there wasn’t really too much family work to do. Nevertheless, she downgraded her career from Hillary Clinton’s adviser to Professor of Politics and International Relations at Princeton – she must have been home for supper at least three times a week.
Less of the sarcasm and cattiness. That a career woman with the skin of a rhino can eventually recognise the needs of her family should surely fill us with hope. And while it may have taken her 15 years to realise what the vast, silent majority of mothers know anyway, this 15 years was well spent for it gives her message far more authority, influence and clout than us mothering mothers could, in a year of Sundays, ever hope to achieve.
What is more she sends a seismic shift through feminist ideology which her feminist declarations only thinly cover-up. For if, as she suggests, women should be allowed to spread out their careers and pursue non-traditional routes, inequality of outcome, which is fuel to the lavish funding of feminist causes, such as getting more women into boardrooms and senior professional jobs, suddenly becomes justifiable. We now have it on good authority (in case we didn’t know already) that family preferences are the reason why women are less senior and why their careers are more likely to peak late.
Ms Slaughter also recognises that the high-flying career is what she was conditioned to want rather than a reflection of her real desires. And we know that feminism is the instrument through which that conditioning occurs.
And while her emphasis on family and caring is a useful ploy to ensure that women can have their cake and eat it, a focus on the importance of family is a much needed balm to a severely over-heated commercial world.
But Ms Slaughter places herself firmly in the feminist camp and I think this is not simply to stay in with the great and the good. By declaring herself a feminist, Ms Slaughter is adding to those powerful voices which ensure that women’s interests are one of the most important organising principles of the Western world.
This means that desirable though they appear some arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. Others are patently absurd.
So, for example, she reiterates the claim that those looking after small children need the analytical skills of a physicist and adaptive abilities of a crisis manager. This is simply not true. A truly kind and loving person with emotional intelligence by the bucket load can bring up wonderful well-adjusted children. You need to be filled with love; you don’t need to have a high IQ.
Working flexibly certainly has much to recommend it, but not in all professions. Further, much of the research proving its effectiveness is ideological and as I have argued elsewhere there has been a resistance to counting the costs. The idea that managers and colleagues will support and cover for those with a family suggests that Slaughter is so senior she is out of touch with the realities involved. A survey by Red Magazine (September 2013) found that 40 per cent of working non-parents felt that they work longer and harder than their colleagues in order to cover parents’ work and unsurprisingly they felt that this was unfair. “I am extremely resentful about colleagues with kids leaving me to finish their work when they have to leave early”, says a senior editor at a large production company.
And I haven’t even explored the impact of flexible employment through zero hours contracts and insecure employment on those who are less well off.
Then Slaughter tells us that she would never hire someone who told her that work would always come before family. This might be okay for work where there is a low level of responsibility - although in fact those who do these jobs are forced to put work before family because they are so badly off.
However, it is not alright for education ministers, GPs, soldiers, priests and those running our local authorities. In fact, it is not even alright for the teacher of my daughter at school. We need to know, in a range of professions, particularly those which are about supporting individuals and the family, that those involved in doing so will definitely be prioritising their work. For this, those individuals need someone who is responsible for the home. And this is where a world based on feminist principles really falls down.
Those in public office, or providing an invaluable service, can, whether they are men or women, really only do so if they know that someone will be there to pick up the slack in the home. Likewise, families require their personal representative, one who knows and understands each individual’s needs and interests, who can help ensure that these are being met through the institutions in the public world. For such a person their work will be unambiguously secondary, and this requires someone able to support them so they can focus on the needs of the home.
Such a functional system cannot be provided by feminism where a woman’s desire to do a bit of mothering and have a bit of a career provides a hotchpotch of a model that has to be emulated by everybody to ensure that the educated woman gets what she wants.
It can be better provided by a partnership between a man and woman, who, functioning as a unit work out between them how the needs of the family and demands of the workplace can best be met. This requires moving the focus away from female fulfilment to the needs of others. From the self to the family, the community and the public realm.
This would provide a far more functional model for organising the world but for this to happen women need to abandon feminism. This only encourages women to think of, but not for, themselves.