Last month The Atlantic magazine published one of the most controversial articles to come down the pike in years: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor who left a prestigious position with the State Department in order to achieve a better balance between her work and family life. She argues that it is the failure of society to really support women’s choices and provide fair opportunities for all citizens to create balanced and happy lives. Because of this, women are forced to make difficult decisions and sacrifices, so that current conditions are unfairly tipped against women. She wrote,
I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged-and quickly changed.
I must confess that the minute I saw this article staring out at me from the cover of the magazine in my mailbox, I avoided it. No, more like ran from it: it deals with such a personal and painful issue that I knew it would be an agonizing read, forcing me to question all the choices and sacrifices I’ve made-including those things I was forced to sacrifice in order to have a career that keeps me intellectually and personally fulfilled. It would also force me to realize, and get angry about, the fact that these were choices the men I knew never had to make.
In addition, the mere mention of this article brought to mind all the strange and bizarre things that would happen whenever I told someone that I was working on a doctorate, including one fairly enlightened man who said, “What are you going to do with a Ph.D. after you have kids?” It never occurred to him that such a question was rooted in sexist assumptions that worked against both women AND men: that all women want to have children; that the only good parent is a stay-at-home mother; that I would be the one to sacrifice my career, not my partner. These ingrained societal attitudes are everyday realities to millions of women, whether they realize it or not.
In her article, Slaughter outlines the 3 biggest myths upon which most women’s pursuit of success can founder:
- A woman can achieve anything as long as she is committed enough.
- The only way a woman can succeed is if she marries someone who will fully support her.
- Timing is everything: if you want children, you must do it at a specific point in your career or it won’t work.
None of these are true or helpful. The first, she explains, results in blaming women when they cannot manage family, school, and career like a superhero. Also, while a woman may benefit from having a supportive partner, if she doesn’t have one, does that mean she’s doomed to failure? The last is a real doozy, because it suggests that as long as you have everything worked out in an organized “sequence,” you can manage a career and children with no problems whatsoever. If that’s not a myth, I don’t know what is. Slaughter’s article concludes with her position that women need to achieve leadership roles and then work to change the system to make it easier for women in our society to accomplish their goals and not compromise the normal desire to have a happy family life, too.
When I finally did get the courage to sit down and read the article, it got me thinking about how female students manage their college course loads and make decisions about their education. The stereotype of the traditional college student is giving way to a reality that is far more complex and diverse: today’s college students include many single parents, students who work 40 hours a week in order to pay for school and life expenses, and students older than the traditional 18-22 age bracket. In every course I’ve taught, I have had single parents, usually mothers, who struggle to balance child care with their academic work, and usually do so unsuccessfully. More often than not, the statistics are sad: Women Employed.org’s recent Single Mothers and College Success report pointed out that
Single mothers often live at the intersection of a number of risk factors, which combine to create barriers that would be difficult for any college student to overcome. Single-parent students are more likely than “traditional” students to need to support themselves and their families, have low incomes, work full-time, attend school part-time, need remedial coursework, survive domestic violence, and be the first in their families to attend college. These factors make balancing three main responsibilities-family care, employment, and education- precarious, making it difficult to manage even small unexpected changes. Like other financially independent students, many single mothers may “stop out,” or take a break when finances or family issues make it impossible to continue in their studies. For many, completing a degree can take anywhere from six to fifteen years. This winding path to graduation is made more difficult by changing major requirements, unclear or insufficient academic advisement, or loss of financial aid. All of these factors result in persistence and completion rates well below students overall.
Clearly, this situation stacks the decks against female students who are single parents in ways that female professionals should understand. Slaughter’s main points about our society’s blind acceptance of the myth that women can “have it all” if they just work hard enough is not only supported by her examination of professional women, but by the experiences of all women trying to improve their lives, including single mothers who are working hard to put themselves through college. No simple recipe for success can be given to these women; we cannot tell them to just “work out a schedule,” or “find a babysitter,” because it’s not that they aren’t working hard enough or aren’t organized. It’s that they do not have societal support.
One place to build that support is at the colleges themselves. The expansion of online courses is a good start, though it still requires parents to arrange child care so that they can focus on their schoolwork. Also, there are very few child care services available at colleges. With the high drop-out rate at community and for-profit colleges, why not create child care centers where single parents can drop their children off for the few hours a week they are in class? The usual excuse has to do with the expense of insurance and personnel, but what is more expensive: these short-term costs or the long-term consequences of an uneducated citizenry living at poverty levels?
It’s time for colleges, too, to get creative and address systemic issues that prevent women from “having it all.” What other ways can they do this? Submit your suggestions here!