Anne-Marie Slaughter on family, career and what she tells 25-year-olds
September 23 2016

Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune

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Most of us don’t have to evolve our deeply held values under the watchful eye of the public. We believe what we believe until circumstances or knowledge steer us in a new direction — and then we head there without much fanfare.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s evolution was quite the opposite.

In 2012, she wrote, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” one of the most-read Atlantic essays of all time, about her decision to leave her job as director of policy planning at the State Department — she was the first woman to hold the position — to devote more time to her teenage son.

“I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet,” she wrote.

In 2015, she wrote “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family” (Random House), which explored a further shift — namely, toward the belief that caretaker is as prestigious a role as any achieved in the workplace.

“I couldn’t have written this book three years ago because I didn’t believe then what I believe now,” Slaughter told me when the book was published. “I grew up believing my father’s work was more important than my mother’s work and that to be a liberated woman was to be like my dad and become a lawyer. I no longer think my dad’s work was more important than my mom’s. I see the way my mother invested in all of us — her three children and her extended family — and I think that is an equal achievement.”

On Thursday, Slaughter was the keynote speaker at the Chicago Foundation for Women’s annual luncheon, where close to 2,000 people gathered to hear her in conversation with longtime Chicago newscaster Robin Robinson.

“I had spent years in auditoriums with audiences telling women, ‘Of course you can do it. You just need to want it enough,'” Slaughter said. “And then I realized, I wanted it plenty. I have lots of ambition, and I had all the advantages — I had money, I had a supportive husband. And I still ended up making a choice that put my family ahead of my career.

“And when I realized that, I thought, A: All those women out there who’ve done that? They haven’t failed. They’ve made important choices, often necessary choices, for their families. I also realized: If I couldn’t make it, with all of that? Just look how hard it is for the vast majority of women. … My eyes were opened about what it’s going to take for women and men to have work and family.”

Before the luncheon, I asked Slaughter: Given your own evolution, what do you say to young women who are just starting to make decisions that will set the course for their work/life balance?

“The first thing is, ‘When you’re 25, remember what you were like at 15 and think about how different you are now,'” she said, “‘Your 35-year-old self will be as different from your 25-year-old self.’ We just assume we’ll be the same, but you want to prepare for the idea that you’ll want very different things in a decade.”

She encourages young women to have detailed conversations with their partners — before marriage, before kids — about career priorities.

“Don’t just ask, ‘Are we going to support each other’s careers?’ Ask him, if it’s a him, ‘Will you move for me if I get a promotion?'”

And plan for the possibility, she said, that you may want to slow down your career at some point in life — to raise children, to care for aging parents, to help an injured spouse, to write a book. And, equally important, remember that you’ll likely want to speed back up.

“A girl today has a life expectancy of 86 — that’s the median, so plenty will live to 100,” she told the lunch crowd. “We think about working until we’re roughly 65. You are not going to knit between 65 and 100.”

The crowd laughed. Slaughter continued:

“Look at Hillary Clinton, who ran for office for the first time after Chelsea went to college. She started her entire political career — running for the Senate, re-elected to the Senate, running for president, serving as secretary of state, running for president again — after her daughter went to college.”

Slaughter was a senior adviser to Clinton when she was secretary of state. She’s now the president and CEO of New America, a nonpartisan public policy institute, which prevents her from publicly endorsing a presidential candidate.

But I asked her if Clinton lived up to her reputation as a boss who prioritized her employees’ family time.

“In all of her emails that got published, there are two from me,” Slaughter answered. “One saying, ‘Please go home on the 22nd of December, so that a lot of us can go home for Christmas.’ And another during Snowmageddon saying, ‘Don’t come in because if you come in a lot of us will feel like we have to come in.’

“People read those as ‘Secretary Clinton needed to be pushed for work-life balance,'” Slaughter said. “Quite the opposite. I was writing because I knew if I framed them as work/life balance issues, she’d be receptive. She had her first meeting every morning at 8:15, which, by Washington, D.C., standards is practically noon. Lots of people have their first meeting at 6:30. But she did that because lots of people had to get their kids to school and she understood that.”

In the State Department, Slaughter said, there are no off-hours. Your colleagues live all across the globe.

“The world never stops sending you thing to do,” Slaughter said. “But it’s possible to do things differently, and she proved that.”

It’s possible for all of us to do things differently. I’m grateful for people who use their power and their pulpit to lead us in a better direction.

Read the original article here.

hstevens@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13