The blindspots of Western feminists

Working women should not feel ashamed if they are unable to be the do-it-all mothers idealised by some feminists.

Being emotionally present for one's child is more important than being physically present, says author [Getty Images]
Being emotionally present for one's child is more important than being physically present, says author [Getty Images]

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University and former Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, recently made a splash when the Atlantic published an article she wrote entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“.

The piece is problematic, not for the excellent conclusions that it draws but for the premises from which it flows. Slaughter, a highly distinguished professor and, from what it sounds like, a committed and loving mother, makes the case for the many ways in which “The Workplace” can be adapted to accommodate the many peculiar needs that working mothers face.

Slaughter is particularly concerned that women are having children later in life, causing the children’s most difficult years to coincide with the peak of their mothers’ careers. Accordingly, more and more women are finding themselves having to negotiate complicated professional careers in a third-wave Western feminist world that has embraced a very hands-on notion of motherhood. Slaughter’s piece has been styled as a riposte to Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive who ostensibly argued that women could do better in the workplace by not keeping their ambitions in check in the name of family, apparently suggesting that women really could “have it all”.

 Riz Khan – Model mothers

Three premises undermine Slaughter’s general argument. The first is the assumption that women should be trying to have it all in the first place. One of the most insightful projects I have ever undertaken was reading through the autobiographies of leaders who have inspired my own social activism. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr – they all have more in common than the fact that they are all black men. They are also all men whose personal lives were deeply flawed because they dedicated themselves to a cause that was bigger than their immediate environment.

In fact, I would argue that there is no one who has ever done anything truly great, or at least of great impact, who hasn’t had to live with significant failures in their personal lives. No one can be all things to all people all of the time. Slaughter’s argument implicitly holds women to a different standard than men, overlooking the many men who fail at fatherhood and focussing on the relatively minor ways in which everywoman may fail at motherhood.

The fact is that women have come in late to the workplace. We weren’t at the table when the rules were being made, and so there is some pressure on those of us starting out to conform to the pre-determined standard of professionalism. Slaughter is right that “The Workplace” can do a great deal to accommodate the peculiar needs of working mothers, but Sandberg’s point that women also shouldn’t curb their ambition in response to resistance is a valid one. Furthermore, it’s not just women who “can’t have it all” – no one can. Making this a “women’s problem” unfairly overlooks the fact that there are many men who would also love to collaborate on this project so that they, too, can spend time with their families.

Helicopter parenting

Second, Slaughter implies that helicopter parenting is the only way in which a busy professional woman can raise successful children. I don’t have children of my own, but having only recently been a child myself, I’d like to reassure Slaughter that being emotionally and psychologically present for your children is far more important than being physically present. I was raised by a working single parent who never came to prize-giving days and avoided parent-teacher conferences because they always clashed with work – all outwardly the hallmarks of bad parenting. However, from a young age, my mother was open and honest with all of us – we knew that if she didn’t work, we didn’t eat. More importantly, I learned to work and desire to succeed without the constant need for attention and affirmation. I learned to do the right thing and work hard because it’s the right thing to do, not because I wanted mommy’s approval.

Finally, and this is an overarching point that Slaughter briefly reflects on, is that the argument tries to make a broad generalisation from a set of issues that only affects a sliver of the world’s female population. Slaughter concedes that she is writing for women of her demographic, “highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place… who could be leading and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks”. It takes some humility to acknowledge one’s privilege, and I commend Slaughter for doing that, but this may be an opportunity in which the many poorer women who have benefited from outreach and educational initiatives piloted by better-off women could return the favour.

The majority of the world’s women are working and raising children on nothing but hope and a desire to watch them succeed. They are able to do this because they are willing to seek help, whether from grandparents living in the home, or from distant relatives who move in to help with household chores. The system is far from perfect – stories of cruelty and stinginess against child-minders are a dime a dozen – but these are things that can be fixed through legislative action. Going through motherhood miserable and crushed by guilt for not being able to tuck your kids in at night is not.

For many, the prospect of having a happy, stable life is far more important than ‘career’, and it’s hard to fault their logic.

It is the curse of Western feminism that far from rejecting the patriarchal standard for good motherhood – super-wife, super-mother and just generally super – women have only managed to acquire another layer of responsibility to an already full plate – super-worker. The lesson of “third-world feminism” is something that would serve Slaughter and her peers well. Be present when you can – be the one who sets the rules and determines the boundaries – but be willing to outsource the minutiae if it helps protect your sanity.

Slaughter did a brave thing by acknowledging her perceived shortcomings as a mother to such a broad audience, but such public self-flagellation is unnecessary. Working women who pay people to pick up their children from school, or to do their laundry or to cook dinner have nothing at all to be ashamed of. It’s okay for grandma to braid your daughter’s hair if you can’t be there, or for a teacher to discipline your children if you can’t make a parent-teacher meeting.

Similarly, much like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, both Sandberg and Slaughter are right and yet both of them are wrong. There are indeed many women who check their ambitions in the name of family and some who end up regretting it. Even as a student, I met several of my classmates’ partners who had given up successful careers to be with their partners as they pursue their Harvard dreams, some having moved across the continental United States to make that happen. For many, the prospect of having a happy, stable life is far more important than “career”, and it’s hard to fault their logic. On the other hand, I also know many women who stay focussed, and do everything right only to hit that dreaded glass ceiling or to end up in a workplace that prefers all their senior officials to have families but doesn’t seem to get that you need weekends off to date and meet people that you may want to marry.

Most women have good reasons for choosing either, and in disagreeing with these choices, it may serve Western feminists well to avoid layering guilt over what must already be a difficult decision-making process.

Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst, is currently a graduate student at Harvard Law School.

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