Sunday, August 19, 2012

Anne-Marie Slaughter on “having it all” (Socioeconomic and Cultural Biases)

I’d like to address one final point in Dr. Slaughter’s article.  It is fascinating when she writes about hiring “the help that can be indispensible to your juggling act.”  This statement is quite telling.  It assumes two things: (1) significant disposable income at some point in one’s career and (2) no extended family to assist in the care of children.  As a result, this statement seems to envision a white Anglo mother in a high-prestige career.  That is a rather narrow socioeconomic and cultural perspective from which to advocate on behalf of women.

A mom who is a waitress at Denny’s or a Wal-Mart cashier, or a mom who is working in a meat packing plant or picking produce in the fields is not likely to ever earn enough to hire the nannies and other domestic help that Dr. Slaughter seems to be referencing.  So, in reality, her analysis and her prescriptions are about doctors, lawyers, business executives and certain other very privileged workers.  That is a pretty small slice of the total female population.

My husband and I are both white and Anglo.  I’m also a lawyer.  So, I probably fit well into Dr. Slaughter’s target audience.  Before my husband sacrificed his accounting career, we were spending our ample disposable income on hiring people to care for our children, to mow our yard and clean our bathrooms.  That “help” was indeed indispensible to our attempt at juggling professional and family responsibilities.  So the statement in question in the article does resonate with me personally.  But I’m cognizant that Dr. Slaughter is not describing everyone’s reality. 

Over the course of our careers, my husband and I have both had lots of friends who were women of color—women who have been raised with very different cultural attitudes about family than my husband and I.  When such female friends have had children, their parents or their in-laws frequently have made themselves available on an on-going basis to care for the new grandchildren.  Often these grandparents even took their grandkids to pediatrician appointments so the new moms can go back to work and focus on their professional responsibilities.  And I’m not just talking about grandmas in our friends’ families—plenty of grandpas also make great sacrifices to help the sandwich generation out.  I even had one Asian American friend whose in-laws sold their family home and relocated to another city in order to be full-time, live-in babysitters to their grandchildren. 

I’ve spoken about this type of amazing support with other Anglo moms and frankly we are envious!  In Anglo culture, there seems to be much more emphasis on individualism, less on family.  Anglo grandparents might occasionally be available for babysitting, but I don’t know any who do it full-time or would relocate specifically to help their adult kids with childcare.  Culturally, that is not common—at least in the other Anglo families my husband and I know.

I understand Dr. Slaughter to also be white and Anglo, so I assume she has the same cultural biases I do.  As a result, when she writes about having to hire “the help that can be indispensible to your juggling act,” that statement is consistent with my own experience before my husband resigned to be a stay-at-home dad.  But I’m surprised that a woman of Dr. Slaughter’s sophistication and education would apparently not realize the cultural biases of her phrasing.

I flag this language not to pick on Dr. Slaughter because I’m quite grateful that she has used her ample talents and her relative fame to focus on these issues that are so important to women and families.  Instead, I flag this language in her article to point out certain problematic implications of her baseline assumptions. 

First, her writing seems to envision readers who are in elite professions, not the bulk of working women.  Dr. Slaughter seems to focus on the professional “1%” and not everyone else.  Second, her writing also seems to envision a white, Anglo audience, and not recognize that in our multicultural society, that perspective is not shared by everyone.  Heck, if you pay attention to census data, it appears to be shared at most by a quickly shrinking segment of our population. 

As a result, this narrow audience may be a pretty weak paradigm from which to begin one’s advocacy.  If one’s focus is structural change to empower women professionally, then it doesn’t seem wise to target one’s arguments only to such a narrow socioeconomic and cultural minority.  To achieve the kind of change Dr. Slaughter advocates, a much bigger tent is necessary.

Indeed, it is this lack of a big tent that has alienated the women’s movement in recent decades and made feminism a four letter word to many.  A large segment of the population has viewed feminism as a movement of cultural and socioeconomic elites, which glosses over the challenges and needs of poor and middle-class women, as well as women of color.  Feminism is criticized by many as grounded in paradigms reflective only of upper-middle class white women.  Sadly, Dr. Slaughter’s article is vulnerable to the same criticisms.  If feminism or a women’s movement is ever to achieve traction, it must appeal to a much wider base.

Matthew 11:5

The blind are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news.

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