An Academic Feminist Tries to Square the Circle

With personal endorsements from Hillary Clinton, Arianna Huffington and Melinda Gates, the Princeton professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter, is well-connected. With reviews of her recent book Unfinished Business in The Financial Times, The Observer, The Economist, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Telegraph and The Guardian, she must be saying something interesting. She is a professor of politics at Princeton. She is married to another professor at Princeton. She is the mother of two sons. She took a two-year sabbatical to work for Hillary Clinton at the U.S. State Department. Many people, envious of women with power, fascinated by how the other half live, treat a book—which began as a revisionist article on how women cannot have it all—as the new orthodoxy, even though the author is a plutocrat feminist.

Published with The Atlantic in 2011 with three million hits in a short space of time, it is the single most read article since The Atlantic first went into print. The extended reflection on the “unfinished business” of life for high-powered, doctrinally feminist women in the twenty-first century, claims that women can only have it all under three conditions. If they sequence their babies properly; if they accept that they cannot have it all at the same time; if they also remember that men can’t have it all either. Giving us a privileged insight into the tensions generated by the unpredictable aspects of normal life, such as illness in the family, disobedient children, career conflicts, tensions with spouses and the needs of dependent, elderly relatives, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s experience caused previously rational and hard-nosed women to embrace a new mandate. They abandoned their careers to care for their family, able, for the first time, to acknowledge the pull of the heart and nature.

It would be churlish to pretend we can overlook Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new theses about a select group of non-representative women round whom there always will be a media frenzy. That is because they are being articulated for a new generation that does not necessarily share the dogmatic vision in trying to have it all. It is useful to remember how historical changes become controversial at the level of practical implementation, not least because the millennials, her target audience, are on strike. They do not like to vote in elections; they are not very attracted by maternity; they are skeptical about the ideal of combining work, family, marriage, success and a career, aware of the risks, dangers, and challenges. This may be a symptom or side-effect of the permissive society. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his speech as recipient of the Templeton Prize in 2016 argued that neither the market nor the welfare state nor immigration can substitute for the drastic decline in the birth-rate. He claimed that we are now too “selfish and irresponsible,” about the future. This is a cyclical problem, he says. The Greek and Roman Empires and civilizations declined under the same conditions. While Sacks strikes an apocalyptic note, in the hope that we regroup to preserve our cultural inheritance and regenerate it, Anne-Marie Slaughter is not on board. She is a symptom of the wider problem. She is blinded by ideology, which prevents her from thinking socially.

Slaughter covThe first-wave of feminism mobilized for the vote with many suffragettes hopeful that expanding the franchise to intelligent married women, who knew and understood politics, would save men from adultery, promote chastity, and protect the family. The 1916-2016 anniversary produced the film Suffragette (2016); it occasioned an admission by a minority of commentators that most young people do not participate in elections, with over sixty percent not bothering to participate in Brexit. Second-wave feminism in 1968 cultivated revolutionary zeal for a reordering of society with women as agents of change, charged with a remit to abolish traditional marriage and liberate women from men and children; third- and fourth-wave feminism wax lyrical about the technological means available to “keep the conversation” going while economic fault-lines have become obvious across the globe.

Rich women who can afford expensive child-care are against less rich women, while poor women fight to make ends meet. Sociologists like Nancy Faulbre speak of “the pauperization” of motherhood and Ann Crittenden speaks of the “price of motherhood.” Anne-Marie Slaughter acknowledges the facts and notes how difficult it is “outside Academia,” but does not even understand her own personal crisis about motherhood and how it conflicted with her equally strong desire to press on with opportunities for promotion, prestige, challenge, and success “in the Public Square.”

The concerns of the majority are off Slaughter’s screen for another, related and very good reason. She is a practical atheist. In sketching in the resistance of Christian society to radical change, she makes only one reference to the authority of Holy Scripture when she quotes from St. Paul’s Letter to Timothy, attaching to it a reason to reject Christianity. She claims it mandates men to rule their households and be the sole provider; she also claims that where men fail to provide, Christianity claims they are heretics and excommunicates them; she implies that Holy Scripture should be interpreted literally, and that women are “not allowed” to work outside the home in Christianity. (“But if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”) This is amusing. Her interpretation has authority in fundamentalist Protestant denominations; in contrast, the Catholic Magisterium appeals to a far more sophisticated tradition of biblical interpretation that allows for the development of meaning within the bounds of doctrinal orthodoxy. Thus, there is nothing to stop parents in the plural or mothers from caring for or providing for their offspring if necessary or by agreement so long as the welfare of the children is paramount; the main point is that parents assume responsibility rather than evade it; the provision of care is often a contingent matter anyway.

In keeping with her given aversion to the Christian tradition, Slaughter also does not review the role of abortion or contraception in weakening women, even though they canonize misogyny and legitimize male irresponsibility, a point made today by the 1968 feminist radical Germaine Greer. Nor does she mention God, Christ or the Church as refuges or Our Lady as a role model. The conclusion is obvious. She remains a child of the 1968 Cultural Revolution and does not question any aspect of feminist ideology, in spite of her experience of feeling challenged as a woman, a wife, and a mother by the needs of her children once she embarked on a very demanding two year stint working for Hillary Clinton.

The dream of work as an end in itself throws up purely practical problems. She wants men and women to obey the new rubrics. Both sexes must “lean in” and “lean out.” She knows she and her professor husband had the money to afford “excellent child-care” and hopes that others will be able to get access to the same deals as companies respond to the market and assist in the new vision. The evidence in the professions is very sketchy. She thinks homosexual parents have the same rights as heterosexual parents; she talks of a “precious see-saw” between work and family without questioning her own conviction that adults have needs which are superior to the needs of children; she knows in professional life that there is the “second child syndrome” when for logistical reasons women suddenly abandon careers, yet she clearly thinks this could change if progressive thinking were more normative; young men are adapting slowly as they learn to respect the legitimate rights of women with graduate degrees who value work and self-fulfillment outside marriage, but are also tentative; paternity leave is available but not everywhere. Translated into the rubrics, this means that “private woman” of the nineteenth century has lost to New Woman of 1968, who lost to Superwoman of 2000, who is now passing the baton to Balanced Woman in the twenty-first century.

In order to protect her vision, Slaughter states that the question of how to combine work and family should not be framed as a “woman’s issue” because that puts the onus on women to compromise or make sacrifices; she resents the stigma still attached to women who break ranks with the traditional family; she notes that, since women started to be “liberated,” incredible pathologies develop to accommodate the clash between dreams and reality, such as guilt complexes. She briefly mentions that she is adept at adaptation and contingency. She was married and divorced and remarried by the age of 30; had IVF for her children; and knows she is lucky to have a husband who has accommodated her commitment to her career.

It is time for Mr. and Mrs. Slaughter to take note of a diversity of voices now that the millennials no longer feel a pressing urgency to be trailblazers. The counter-cultural movement represented by Charlie Camosy (Fordham) is an important challenge. He argued in Beyond the Abortion Wars (2015) that a bi-partisan push for incremental reform of the abortion laws is possible because the millennials, raised on ultra-sound, know the fetus is a person and are in favor of restrictive abortion laws; a retired professor of English, Margaret Walters, writes up “a very short introduction” to feminism for Oxford University Press (2005) and reports the next generation is rather bored of feminism due to excessive exposure; the German sociologist, Gabriele Kuby, addresses the Parliament in Prague warning of the dangers posed by gender main-streaming and the next phase of the Sexual Revolution represented by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s acutely liberal, permissive view; Gabriele Kuby’s The Global Sexual Revolution (2012), published by Angelico Press after it has already been well received throughout the post-communist world is a critique of everything covered by Slaughter; the Vatican unites over four hundred religious leaders and scholars in Rome in 2014 to discuss the fact that the complementary relationship between man and woman is not just good but beautiful. Meanwhile, the young, celebrated novelist from Nigeria who gave the commencement address at Wellesley in 2015, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, exposed feminism as an exhausted ideology by writing “we should all be feminists” without offering any new ideas.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s story of life on the fast-track is crypto-Christian. Her not inconsiderable academic achievements as a professor of law, politics, and international studies certainly derive from her iron will; as the first woman to serve as director of policy planning for the US State Department 2009-2011, she is a trailblazer. But the contingent facts will not disappear. Her book fully chronicles the sheer personal strain of denying the rights of her own children. Her story, in total, reads like a medieval morality tale. Her two sons formed stronger bonds with their father that she in part resents; one of them has a police-record. Slaughter’s strongest instincts were to ditch Washington DC when all the unpredictable things of family life began to challenge her theory that life follows the rules of a game plan; she resisted that instinct. Dedicated to her “three men,” Unfinished Business ends with a frank coda: “In many ways this book is a love letter to my own family. They’ve always been the foundation of everything that I’ve done and all that I am.” George Weigel once noted that Theology of the Body would, like a time bomb, go off in the twenty-first century and retrieve the script. More than anything, Slaughter’s book testifies to the need for Catholic Emancipation.

Harriet Murphy


Harriet Murphy writes from Berlin. Her latest book The Abolition of (Wo)man will appear in the Fall from Angelico Press. She earned her D.Phil. from Oxford University and taught modern languages and literature at the National University of Ireland and the University of Warwick in England.