It’s the debate a million American women are slugging out on Twitter, Facebook, TV and through commentary pages… and one we in Australia should be having too.
Can women “have it all”? Is life/work balance an almighty myth?
The first incendiary device was hurled by Princeton University professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter in a cover story in The Atlantic.
“It is time, “Slaughter said, “for us to acknowledge the conflict between personal and professional life, for parents to admit plainly when they are leaving work to pick up their kids, and for workplaces to use technology to bring their schedules into the twenty-first century.
“It’s time for women to stop blaming themselves when they can’t do “it all”.
At the moment of writing this, her article has 137,000 Facebook likes and a million women have logged on to read it.
It’s a long piece, so to précis: Slaughter, as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department, wrote that her 14-year-old son was in trouble.
“I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs. Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History.
“I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.
“When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All’, ” she said to a colleague.
“She was horrified,” wrote Slaughter. “You can’t write that,” she (her colleague) said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman – a role model – would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women.”
Slaughter did leave her job and in a subsequent public lecture to a group of 20-something women at Oxford found herself pouring her heart out:
“What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington).
“I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home.”
The young women in attendance thanked her for her frankness, and, struck by their responses, she started to wonder.
She concluded that her peers were clinging to a “feminist credo” and, even as one by one, they were falling over with exhaustion and stress, were determined “not to drop the flag for the next generation”.
It was, she decided “time to talk”.
And, as it turns out, put a match to a bonfire.