Is the Atlantic Magazine Making Its Readers More Stupid?
Continued from previous page
Slaughter’s stated intention was to show that even the most powerful, talented, and ambitious women butt up against workplace rigidities that cause them to drop out. That is a point worth discussing, and without question there are many problems with the status quo. But a rigid workplace is not really why Anne-Marie Slaughter ended up quitting her State Department job. By her own testimony, she left that job because she had a 14-year-old son in New Jersey with behavioral problems. No flexible working arrangements would have made it possible not to be in the nation’s capital, 200 miles from home, for an extremely demanding government position, or to have 36 rather than 24 hours in the day. Slaughter even had a husband whose schedule allowed him to be “the wife” much of the time (and presumably some outside help, although she doesn’t mention it specifically). There are certain jobs that simply don’t work for certain people at certain times in their lives.
But by giving the article the title “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” Slaughter, or her editors, cannily marketed the piece as a contribution to feminist debates stretching back over decades. And here I need to take a slight detour into the sad fate, in The Atlantic, of this oh-so-simple yet much-abused and misused term: feminism. Slaughter invokes it. Gottlieb invokes it. Flanagan and Bolick invoke it. Slaughter:
For the remainder of my stint in Washington, I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet.
To the outside world, of course, [single women] still call ourselves feminists and insist – vehemently, even – that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.
The elevation of independence over coupling […] is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.
As for Flanagan, let me sum up her stance by noting that on a 2006 segment of The Colbert Report, she described herself as “vehemently” critical of the modern feminist movement and revealed that her original title for To Hell With All That was How Feminism Short-Changed a Generation.
Now, let’s look at the definition of the term “feminism” and think about the possible responsibilities of a magazine like The Atlantic when its writers invoke it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Or, if you prefer Wikipedia (I do): “a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.”
But when many of The Atlantic writers use the words feminist or feminism (I except Loh, who seems to have read her women’s movement history, and Rosin, who mostly avoids the terms), they are using them in the debased, wholly inaccurate sense of “people who promised that I wouldn’t run into agonizing conflicts between the health of my children and my career” (Slaughter) or “ideology that says women don’t desire and need men or that being single is morally superior to marriage” (Gottlieb and Bolick). Where are the editorial pencils addressing this sloppiness, this kind of not-thinking? I don’t believe that The Atlantic editors don’t know any better. I think they realize there’s more potential buzz in an article that seems to be contra something – contra, in this case, what “feminism” has “promised” us or “told” us to do or choose or believe. Flanagan achieves her frissons by positing herself as the heroic warrior against feminism’s constricting ideals (equal political, economic, and social rights for women! Slay those dragons, Caitlin!), Gottlieb by telling women they have to “get over themselves” (with the implication that feminism has “taught” women to expect too much), Slaughter by being terribly disappointed that those feminists just didn’t come through for us yet again.