Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Can Women Have it All: Bridging the Public and Private Spheres

Former State Department official, Anne-Marie Slaughter has swept headlines and conversations with her recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.”  Reactions have been published in Salon.com, The New York Times, Forbes and feminist blogs across the country.  I find the piece particularly fascinating for the way it challenges our traditional definitions of "equality" and progress for women.

In the piece, Slaughter destroys the popular myth that women today can “have it all”-- meaning, simultaneously successful careers and families-- without significant changes in our social and economic structure that would allow a healthy work-life balance for women and their families.  Yet, often women, themselves, are responsible for perpetuating the “myth” that this work-life balance is achievable.

It is easy to understand why women would continue this fiction.  We constantly urge that women can do everything as well as men-- that, given the opportunity, women have every ability to be as successful as their male counterparts.  

What is ignored, however, is that the cost of achieving this is often one’s personal and family life.  Our current society is structured so that there is a tradeoff-- you are either a good professional or a good parent.  As Slaughter states,

Male leaders are routinely praised for having sacrificed their personal life on the altar of public or corporate service. That sacrifice, of course, typically involves their family....It is clear which set of choices society values more today. Workers who put their careers first are typically rewarded; workers who choose their families are overlooked, disbelieved, or accused of unprofessionalism.

Additionally, those who do dedicate time to their families often face insurmountable barriers to re-entering their career track.  Therefore, in order to be successful, women must often hide or ignore their commitments to their families-- a choice which is often undesirable and unsustainable.  

Slaughter goes on to suggest a variety of changes not unfamiliar to her feminist counterparts: friendlier workplace policies for parents, flexible scheduling, parental leave, a redesign of the career path to account for time spent raising children.  What makes Slaughter’s position particularly unique, however, is her insistence that the country “revalue family values.”  

Many women have ostensibly opposed this last suggestion, as Slaughter explains:

Women have contributed to the fetish of the one-dimensional life, albeit by necessity. The pioneer generation of feminists walled off their personal lives from their professional personas to ensure that they could never be discriminated against for a lack of commitment to their work.

Slaughter argues, however, that this is the nature of the problem:  By hiding their commitments, women are contributing to a society that devalues the time people spend with their children.  It is this which contributes to the cultural expectation that people will devote all of themselves to either their work or their children, but not both.  

For this reason, she urges greater female representation in leadership roles in order to institute workable change that reflects the fact that successful people can (and should) care just as much about their families as their careers.

For instance, Slaughter mentions that in her various leadership roles, she “decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life.”  Despite the pleas of some frightened female colleagues, she chose not hide this significant part of her life.  Instead, by elevating her family life to the level of workplace discourse, she set an example to that would change the normative culture of her workplace.  

As I read it, what Slaughter is ultimately proposing is an eradication of the artificial private/public distinction of Western society.  She urges the reintegration of one’s private persona-- focused on family, hearth, and home-- and the public persona one puts on in the workplace.  

There is nothing more promising for feminists than this prospect, because it undoes the foundation of an oppressive (though historically contingent) liberal philosophy that has disempowered women since the Age of Enlightenment.  

Before delving into why this has been an oppressive ideology, I must clarify that when I refer to “liberalism,” I speak of the classical liberalism of Locke, Smith, Rousseau, etc.-- which stresses limited government and individual liberties--  and not modern liberalism in America, which we associate with the Democratic Left.  

The central tenet of classical liberalism is that every citizen has universal equality of opportunity within the public sphere.  Sounds pretty awesome, right?  Wait for it...

Liberal theory posits as its foundation the separation of public life from private life.  The private sphere is a place of difference-- difference in ability, wealth, biology.  These differences consequently provide the basis for discrimination and inequality.  The “natural” law of this land is the law of patriarchy-- the law of fathers, authoritarian relationships, master-slave dualities.  

Liberalism, therefore, offers the “public realm” as salvation.  The public realm provides the legal fiction of citizenship, and, with it, equality.  In the polity, all men have the same rights.  All men are free to exercise their political rights and decision-making capacities.  All men are brothers, rather than following in the patriarchal roles of fathers and sons.

The problem here for women, and other marginalized communities, is that the private sphere  does not cease to exist just because the public sphere coexists with it.  The private sphere-- the sphere of family and home-- retains its authoritarian, patriarchal relations and rules.  In fact, the promise of liberal citizenship is not only that the government will not interfere with one’s rights in the public, but that it will  not interfere with a man’s sovereignty in his private home.   It is premised on the fact that there will still be inequality it the private realm.  

And guess who  has historically been stuck in the private realm, denied the rights of liberal citizenship in the public realm?  You guessed it-- all those wives, mothers, sisters, home-makers, baby machines, and other women-folk (obviously, also anyone who is not a white man) who do not qualify as real citizens.

This brings us back to Slaughter.  Slaughter escapes the trap of assuming that because women have successfully pushed their way into the public sphere that we have somehow achieved equality.  After all this push for “equality,” women need to ask “Equal to what?”  Equal in a system inherently based on oppression and discrimination?  Equal in a system that still does not allow for the coexistance of political liberty and familial well-being?

The myth of equality is what has kept so many women from “having it all.”  It is a false liberal promise that causes women to internalize the failures of an unequal and unfair system, rather than fighting to change it.  Justice will only exist as the meaningless distinction between public and private life that serves as the premise of our patriarchal system is destroyed.

To reintegrate the public and private spheres, workplace policies and cultural expectations need to  be informed by the real needs of caregivers and their families.

And that involves women speaking up.  And then “having it all.”

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