In a recent Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, Anne-Marie Slaughter, newly departed from the Department of State and returning to her tenured job at Princeton writes: “Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by irresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”
Really, really?? Where did Ms. Slaughter imbibe this so-called feminist credo? Not in any women’s studies class I taught during my thirty-year career. Or was she asleep during those parts of the lectures and discussions distinguishing “careerism” masquerading as feminism from feminism as a social movement pushing for changing social structures. The feminists I knew were arguing for a world where NEITHER men nor women would have to choose between family and work; we wanted to alter our mad consumerist society’s penchant for “having it all”.
Slaughter claims that “the pioneer generation of feminists walled off their personal lives from their professional personas.” Unfortunately, her examples are drawn from “women climbing the legal hierarchy in New York law firms” in the 1980s. That may have been the culture in those settings—and still is. But during that same time, feminists like me were writing critiques of this “time macho” culture. Awareness and acknowledgment of those critiques constitutes a major research blind spot in Slaughter’s slaughtering of feminism tout court.
How long ago it was that Arlie Hochschild’s essay “Inside the Clockwork of Male Careers” appeared. In that 1975 essay Hochschild called not only for women to stop accepting male behavior as the default standard, but for men and women together to reflect on the kind of society we were building. She challenged the assumption that the “best society” was one where intimacy and a more genuine public life both were sacrificed on the altar of productivity measured in corporatist terms. Slaughter’s essay, and its accompanying mantra that feminists sold women the fiction that they could “have it all,” ignores the real social history of feminism—it was always a wider movement than one represented by the individualist demands of professional women for better career opportunities for themselves. But this is too a complicated fact for Slaughter to consider; it wouldn’t draw as much publicity as an article blaming feminists (again) for hoodwinking women into “choosing” a male-modeled career that runs roughshod over women’s desire for balance in our lives. Had she studied the real history of feminism she would have had to modify her concluding remarks that “now is the time to revisit the assumption that women must rush to adapt to the ‘man’s world’ that our mothers and mentors warned us about” to read: “now AGAIN is the time to revisit the assumption that women must rush to adapt to the ‘man’s world’ that feminists warned was a trap that neither men nor women should have to endure.”
Yet, equally important as noting these mistakes in recounting what feminism was about, I wonder what effect Slaughter’s essay can possibly have to improve the lives of women who, unlike her, don’t have a tenured job at Princeton with flexible hours and summers off to allow them to attend their children’s baseball games. Slaughter claims to recognize these more
economically disadvantaged women’s issues—they may not be able to demand flex-time schedules without losing their jobs. But while she nods in their direction, she offers little solace besides citations that firms announcing “family-friendly” policies have seen their share prices rise. Cold comfort for the women at Walmart is to be found in her caveat that “we may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of women working at Walmart.”
In the end, Slaughter’s “pursuit of happiness” in returning to the “simple pleasures of parenting” will remain a fleeting mirage for the millions of women and men struggling long hours at unsatisfying jobs (not careers) just to put food on a yard sale table in the small rental unit they’ve downsized to, now that their home has been foreclosed. While she’s attending her children’s piano recitals and finishing her next academic book, will Slaughter even be thinking of them? Does she have any leadership pearls to share among the brigade of part-time workers, women and men, who toil long hours at two different jobs without benefit of health insurance or extended vacation time, advising them how to bring flexi-time PLUS adequate pay to their work worlds? Unfortunately, I doubt they’ll be in the audience when she gives her next speech at Vassar.
Still, if Slaughter were to venture and give a talk about work-life balance at one of the vast strip malls increasingly dotting the American landscape, she just might re-ignite the feminist revolution those of us in the “pioneering” generation, like myself, envisioned. (And, by the way, its banner cry was not “You can have it all!”) That is, if her talk includes any ideas for how to address what Susan Sontag once called the “immediate plight of women [and men].”
Slaughter rightly contends that seeking a balanced life is “not a women’s issue.” But neither is it an “individual issue.” It’s a political issue that demands concerted effort on all our parts to change the way we organize society, what we decide to produce and consume and how, and what core human values we choose to include in our measures of “success”. But that requires changing our priorities both nationally and globally and beginning to address seriously and with an expanded imagination a scope of concerns much wider than whether one gets home in time to share supper around the family hearth.
A few months ago I spent some time in the archives of Elzbieta Ettinger, author of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, a book about the intimate relationship between Arendt, a Jewish woman who wrote about totalitarianism and the Holocaust, and Heidegger, who had once been her teacher and who later became a member of the Nazi party. When it was published, Ettinger’s book caused a scandal in the world of Arendt scholars and set off a debate almost as heated as the affair itself had created when it first became publicly known. How could Arendt have become involved with such a man? More to the point, how could she have rekindled a friendship with him long after the war had ended?
Since I have been working on a memoir (Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt) that tracks Arendt’s influence in my own life and thinking, taking up, among other subjects, the meaning this affair had in Arendt’s life, and what it has made me think about my own life, I was familiar with, and critical of, Ettinger’s interpretation of the event. I also knew that Ettinger had intended to write a fuller biography of Arendt. But, for various reasons, she had separated out the Arendt/Heidegger story, publishing it in a short book. She never completed the longer biography. So when I learned of the availability of Ettinger’s archives I wondered whether anything else she might have discovered in her research would prove valuable for the book on which I was still working.
It turns out that the trip I made this past fall to the Schlesinger Library of Harvard University, where the Ettinger archives are housed, was both a boon and a burden. What I uncovered in the archives is invaluable to my work. Interviews, letters, and other materials Ettinger gathered from those who knew Arendt will help me craft a more fully realized portrait of the person Hannah Arendt, who assumes the role of interlocutor in my memoir. But such bounty also proves a burden.
A few months earlier, thinking I was near the end of the revision process, I had determined to pursue self-publishing the manuscript in its then current form. But the wealth of materials I have just added to my ever-expanding research files has forced me to confront the difficult question of how these new documents might reshape my manuscript.
Part of the joy of writing is what you discover about what you really want to say in the process of revision. Searching for exactly the right phrase and precisely the correct shape for a paragraph you begin to uncover what you have been trying to say all along. My immersion of the Ettinger archives has brought me face to face with this process in the work of another.
Reading through several drafts of her unpublished work, and comparing these drafts with the research materials she used to create her work, I could literally see the author’s formation of her subject, watch her confront her resistance to an interpretation of her subject at odds with her own, and discover the places where she resolved to draw her own conclusions.
So, I am taking a deep breath and diving back into my manuscript again, convinced that the changes I will make will add depth to my story without fundamentally altering its shape. And since the story I am trying to tell is about the thinking relationship I have had for nearly thirty years now with Hannah Arendt, a woman long dead but one who has become even more alive to me now as a provocative, yet irksome, companion, whose life and work continue to make me think and rethink, write and revise my own, revising my manuscript one more time seems fitting. I do hope, though, it will be the last!
Getting ready to leave for a writing workshop I will be directing at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (yes, that’s a mouthful! It’s called ISPSO for short), I have been gathering together writing prompts and other inspirations to jump start the work of a group of nine women who will join me in this two-day event in Melbourne, Australia, designed to get them fired up about writing and motivated to continue after the workshop ends.
But I am also in the middle of preparing to spend time at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley for the rest of the summer, where I will be directing my NEH seminar on the political theory of Hannah Arendt again, but this time under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.
Maybe all roads do lead to Rome, as the saying goes. But in my case, Rome will always be New York City and I found myself mesmerized by the city all over again, but for different reasons, when today, I came across a wonderful essay posted on The New Yorker blog about a video of Manhattan called “Manhattan in Motion” created by Josh Owens.
Owens is a videographer from Rochester, New York, who once worked at the University of Rochester’s Department of Transportation, and now makes his living doing what he obviously loves—shooting time-lapse photography and animating into video.
But it’s more than just my love of the city that connects Owens’ video to my preparations both for the writing workshop and the seminar on Arendt.
As I watched the New York skyline awaken it seemed as if the caress of a rising sun sweeping across the landscape had made the buildings themselves breathe and come alive. And the way the water glistened at the foot of Manhattan made apparent the island’s existence as a natural landscape and not only an urban footprint of human endeavor. No matter how bright the lights are, night descends on the city as the earth turns in space.
The artifice of the city and the earth on which it rests and this planet’s spinning through space are simultaneous perspectives not so much “captured” as evoked in Owens’ poetic montage. Brought together in this film they create in the viewer an awareness of both the extraordinary achievements of what Arendt called homo faber—who “fabricates the sheer unending variety of things…that give the human artifice the stability and solidity without which it could not [reliably] house the unstable and mortal creature” that we humans are—and the utter vulnerability and common fate we humans share with all other living organisms.
Owens says “Anyone who shoots time lapse can most likely tell you what phase the moon is in, what time to the minute the sun rises and sets.” (New Yorker blog) Awareness of connection to the natural environment and its rhythms is possible regardless of whether one is an urban or rural dweller. But it comes harder to consciousness in cityscapes. And yet, ironically, by first slowing things down, fragmenting time and space and then reassembling them, Josh Owens’ Manhattan in Motion reminds us city lovers that we are surrounded, in fact, embedded in and dependent on the eternal motion and rhythm of things we haven’t made ourselves.
Slowing things down, focusing first on the fragments also reminds me of the writing process. “You don’t really know what you shot until you’re able to get home and animate all the stills together,” Owen comments about his art. That’s true of writing too. You don’t really know what you have in the sentences or paragraphs or even on pages you compose until you begin to rework them in the editing process, animating all the pieces together into prose or poetry, making fragments whole, capable of conveying meaning that the parts alone couldn’t yield.
Perhaps I’ll show this video on my workshop—and maybe the seminar—and see where the conversation about it might carry us.