How should a person be?
Late in June the Internet was possessed by one of its periodic tizzies, this time over an article in The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, professor of international affairs at Princeton, and, as she makes a point of insisting, mother of two sons. Slaughter drew on her privileged experience to revisit the classic problem of balancing motherhood and career, suggesting that what’s needed is a package of European-style, family-friendly workplace reforms.
Though her argument was not terribly original, the response was visceral – amassing over a million views in just a few days, the article swiftly rose to become the most-visited in the magazine’s online history. Most of the debate was mired in the shallows, ripping on the “feminist-baiting” title and back-to-the-past cover image (a coy baby peeking out of a briefcase). Other critics misconstrued Slaughter as “blaming feminism” rather than patriarchy. A few marginalized voices cried that “having it all” depends on the have-nots hired as nannies and maids.
Only four days after the piece came out, Slaughter recanted the “have it all” frame. Yet the title keenly reflects the bankruptcy of previous feminist goals in the present age of austerity … the vacancy of a political ambition expressed in the main verbs of consumerism: having, getting and giving up so as to get and have some more.
Meanwhile, the younger generation of women sidesteps Slaughter’s dilemma altogether. They mostly refuse to bear children at all – perhaps in an instinctive response to cataclysmic overpopulation – and they’re not seduced by high-powered careers. “Neoliberal capitalism is patriarchal to the core … Women are the other 99%,” wrote one anonymous fourth-wave feminist in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, presaging the Feminist General Assemblies that have since become a movement mainstay. Instead of agonizing over how to be both an ideal mother and an ideal worker, emerging feminists are worrying, as the title of breakout writer Sheila Heti’s book puts it, “How should a person be?” Heti’s novel-from-life, like the work of young filmmaker Lena Dunham, mines the personal to disclose, and then transcend, the intimate and universal degradations of life in today’s fully pornified male culture. That same spirited, self-exposing courage propels the naked activists known as Femen in Europe and the Slut Walk marches worldwide. In the public sphere, their bodies’ vulnerability transforms into adamantine solidarity.
While Slaughter and her establishment cohort rent their talent to the one percent for cheap, a counter-tide of women is redefining the direction of the next decade of feminist dreams. From the turmoil may emerge a revolutionary women’s struggle … a tidal wave concerned with how to be, not how much to have … and perhaps, one day, a landmark victory that will outshine even the suffragettes’ triumph.