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Men, Women, and Our Limiting Mythology of Success

A courageous challenge to the stories we tell ourselves about what should make us happy.

Men, Women, and Our Limiting Mythology of Success

In 1926, Nikola Tesla gave an interview later published under the title “When Woman Is Boss,” in which he predicted women’s “gradual usurpation of leadership.” His vision was enormously progressive and prescient half a century before the pinnacle of the equality movement, but it also presaged a more ominous cultural groundswell — the rise of workaholism as the accepted path to a dignified life.

Nearly a century after Tesla’s proclamation, Anne-Marie Slaughter — a visionary mind of our own era — set out to reclaim that narrative in a powerful piece titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which soon became one of the most read articles in the 150-year history of The Atlantic. It was a masterwork in the art of putting language and validity around an experience so common yet so shrouded in shame that the very act of naming it is a tremendous public service. Three years later, Slaughter — who became America’s first female director of policy planning, then walked away from political office to focus on her family and her teaching position at Princeton — expands on her ideas in Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family (public library).

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Anne-Marie Slaughter

Although the book explores question of equality, it isn’t so much about our cultural narratives of feminism or gender roles as it is about our cultural mythology of success, the stories we tell ourselves about what should make us happy, and the struggle to reconcile those with what does make us happy on a most private and primordial level.

Slaughter, whose young son once depicted her in a drawing of the family not as a woman with a laptop but as the laptop itself, points out that she never thought of walking away from office as “quitting” or “dropping out” but as “making a decision to move sideways rather than up.” And yet her experience emanates a larger lamentation about the tyranny of the success ladder in modern life. She writes:

If you are a political appointee and your party is in power for eight full years when you are at the height of your career, that’s your time to reach for the stars.


It had never occurred to me not to put my career first, as long as my family could handle it, but now I had to be dead honest with myself. This crisis had forced me to confront what was most important to me, rather than what I was conditioned to want, or perhaps what I had conditioned myself to want. That realization led me to question the feminist narrative I grew up with and have always championed. I began to wonder why success as a woman, or indeed as a man, meant privileging career achievement above all else.

Illustration from I’m Glad I’m a Boy!: I’m Glad I’m a Girl!, a parodic 1970 children’s book by New Yorker cartoonist Whitney Darrow, Jr. satirizing limiting gender norms

Having come of age in the 1970s, electrified by the power and possibility of the women’s movement, Slaughter found herself making a choice that yesteryear’s trailblazing feminists would have dismissed as heresy — and yet one she had no doubt was right. The disorientation of this dissonance led her to question some of the most fundamental assumptions upon which our society is built. She recounts:

Even as a woman who was still working full-time as a tenured professor, I had suddenly become categorized and subtly devalued as just another one of the many talented and well-educated women who showed great promise at the start of their careers and reached the early levels of success but then made a choice to take a less demanding job, work part-time, or stop working entirely to have more time for caregiving. I continually sensed that I had disappointed the expectations of the many people in my life — older women, my male and female peers, even a few friends — who had somehow invested in the arc of my career.

All my life I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the ever so faintly superior smile in the face of another woman telling me that she had decided to take time out to stay at home or pursue a different, less competitive career track to have more time with her family. I’d been the woman hanging out with the dwindling number of friends from college or law school who had never compromised our career aspirations, congratulating one another on our unswerving commitment to the feminist cause. I’d been the one telling female students and audience members at my lectures that it is possible to have it all and do it all regardless of what job you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making women feel that it is their fault if they cannot manage full-time careers and climb the ladder as fast as men while simultaneously maintaining a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot). The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me profoundly wrong that the millions of women and a growing number of men who made choices similar to my own should not be affirmed and even celebrated for insisting that professional success is not the only measure of human happiness and achievement.

Illustration by Vahram Muratyan from About Time

But Slaughter’s most paradoxical point is also her most poignant and socially significant one — that what appears to be a regressive move is in fact an evolutionary step in the cultural continuity of all movements for meaningful change, which must necessarily account for the coexistence of parallel but opposing truths and must refuse to imprison us in the limiting polarities Susan Sontag lamented a generation earlier. To define one’s own success, as Thoreau knew, is one of life’s greatest acts of courage and empowerment. Slaughter writes:

Feminist pioneers like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem broke free of stifling stereotypes that confined women to a world in which their identities were defined almost entirely by their relationships to others: daughter, sister, wife, mother. The movement Friedan and Steinem led, following in the nineteenth-century footsteps of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their fellow revolutionaries, takes its place with the civil rights movement, the global human rights movement, the anti-colonial movement, and the gay rights movement as one of the great struggles for human freedom of the twentieth century.

But it is a movement that remains unfinished in many ways. And at the turn of the twenty-first century, I am increasingly convinced that advancing women means breaking free of a new set of stereotypes and assumptions, not only for women, but also for men. It means challenging a much wider range of conventional wisdom about what we value and why, about measures of success, about the wellsprings of human nature and what equality really means. It means rethinking everything from workplace design to life stages to leadership styles.

I want a society that opens the possibility for every one of us to have a fulfilling career, or simply a good job with good wages if that’s what we choose, along with a personal life that allows for the deep satisfactions of loving and caring for others.

Unfinished Business is a magnificent read in its totality, revising the familiar “you can have it all” refrain with extraordinary candor and clarity to reveal a more dimensional and complex picture of what it means to live a meaningful life in the modern world. Complement it with Shonda Rhimes’s terrific Dartmouth commencement address on the mythology of having it all, Margaret Mead on equality in parenting, and Virginia Woolf on why the best mind is the androgynous mind.

Published November 16, 2015




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