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Forget "All": Why Most Women Never Even Get Half

Sherrilyn Ifill is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. She is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century. Professor Ifill is nationally recognized as an advocate in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, judicial diversity and judicial decision-making. 

BigstockI am genuinely pleased by the announcement that Anne Marie Slaughter has scored a book deal following her hugely popular essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter’s piece has been appropriately praised for opening a robust and dynamic conversation about the very real difficulties women at the top face in trying to have families while pursuing elite professional careers. Critics have pointed out that Slaughter’s essay addresses only women at the top—the 1%, so to speak. But Slaughter concedes this herself in the piece, and fully recognizes that women like her operate from a position of economic and educational privilege. 

The problem with Slaughter’s piece—and now planned book—is not that she doesn’t speak for most women, but that she and other women in the 1% fail to recognize how their failure to exercise power in support of women at the economic bottom hurts all of us. Take a fictionalized, working-class black woman named Crystal living in a city like Baltimore, a town blessed with a large number of highly-ranked hospital systems. Jobs in health care are plentiful and a woman with only a high school education and who is, say, a practical nurse may be able to find employment as a home health care worker or as an aide in a hospital. If she lives in West Baltimore and has no car, she will have to leave her home early—most likely while it’s still dark to get to work at 7 or 8am when her shift begins. Baltimore has one of the most limited subway systems for a major American city. Thus, Crystal will have to wait at a bus stop and take a ride that will last about hour or more before she makes it to her job. When she leaves home in the morning, she must leave her children—ages 12, 9 and 7—to get ready for school. This means that the 12 year old will have responsibility for waking and organizing the two younger children, and ensuring that they make it to school on time. This includes seeing to it that her siblings have their notebooks and homework in their backpacks, locking the door to the home, and navigating bullies (her siblings’ and her own) on the walk to school. 

If her shift at work is 12 hours, Crystal will make it home by 8pm or 9pm. Perhaps she has a neighbor or sister or cousin look in on her children in the afternoon. Maybe not. If she has a normal 8 hour shift, she will make it home, physically exhausted, by 7 or 8, with precious little time, or perhaps even inclination, to read with her children or to spend “quality” time asking about their day and getting familiar with the names of their teachers and friends.

So what do the women of the 1% percent, who’ve just discovered that they can’t have it all, have to do with Crystal? The women in the 1% have the power to take the lead in changing the conditions that make it nearly impossible for Crystal to work and parent effectively. They are regular voters. Perhaps they work in city or state government, or they are doctors, professors or partners at a major law firm in town. Perhaps they work in the federal government like Slaughter did, taking the Amtrak Northeast Corridor train to their job at a federal agency in D.C. 

Despite Slaughter’s accurate portrayal of the difficulties these women face in balancing their home and work lives, these women actually have power. But the failure of the transportation system in Baltimore to meet the needs of working class people is not a priority for them. They drive or take the commuter train to work. They have a nanny or regular babysitter who meets their children at the bus stop and brings them home. So they did not seek to ensure that the billions of dollars in stimulus money were allocated for construction projects would go to projects that would benefit working women—like inner city transportation improvements—rather than highway construction projects more likely to benefit those at the top.

Women of the 1% vigorously supported the Lily Ledbetter Act, and are mindful at their own workplace of pay equity between men and women. But these same women are not at the forefront of efforts to increase the minimum wage, which stands at a pitiful $7.25/hr. That would give Crystal less than $300/week before taxes on which to raise her 3 children.

What role have elite women played in seeking to change oppressive criminal justice policies like stop-and-frisk, California’s “3 strikes you’re out” sentencing law or the proliferation of long criminal sentences for non-violent drug offenses that might be responsible for landing Crystal’s husband in jail for years, without the ability to contribute to the well-being and support of his children and wife? Isn’t the emotional stability of Crystal’s son—who if he lived in New York City might be stopped and frisked by police a dozen times during his teen years—just as important as that of Slaughter’s son? What choices does the working-class mom of a black, teen stop-and-frisk victim have to help her son through the emotional fallout of police harassment?

And let’s be real. Many women in the top 1% employ women at the economic bottom. All over Manhattan one sees the startling visual of black and Latina women pushing white babies in carriages and strollers. What worker protections do these women enjoy? Many of these domestic workers leave their own children all day in the care of others to take care of the children of economically elite women. Organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance have worked for years to organize and obtain basic labor protections for domestic workers. Where do 1% women stand on the efforts to afford labor rights and benefits to the women who care for their children and clean their homes?

Finally, we should remember that Crystal and women like her are not without ambition. Like Slaughter and other economically elite women, they have a strong desire to elevate their educational and professional status. Crystal enjoys working with patients and also knows that if she were able to get her degree as a registered nurse, she would make considerably more money than she is able to make now. Having children should not mean the end of education or professional development for women. How can we support the ability of working class women to move up the ladder?

Slaughter’s piece fails to recognize that women in the 1% have real power to transform the work/family reality for women at the economic bottom, who are seeking the luxury of the kind of choices about which Slaughter and I wring our hands.

As a weekly rider on the Amtrak ACELA train on the run from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, it’s been hard not to notice over the past two years how many high-powered white women on the evening train seem to unwind by reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. With briefcases tucked behind their knees and power lipstick faded after the day’s meetings, exhausted 1% women on the evening train ride seem to find a kind of perverse relaxation in reading a romanticized account about the bonds that might develop between privileged white women and their black maids. But we needn’t rely on fanciful, retro fables that elevate personal friendship over economic, educational and social transformation. Change for women in the workplace will happen from the bottom up, and will take hold when powerful women expend their capital on behalf of women in the 99%. But I suspect that we shall wait a long time before there is a book deal that tells this story.

Photo from Bigstock.