In case you managed to avoid your inbox all summer, Slaughter published a much-forwarded Atlantic article in July entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” As the title suggests, the article deals with the well-worn topic of women struggling to balance their family and work lives. At first glance, the concerns of the working mother might not seem like they have much to do with Princeton’s ongoing discussion about gender roles on the Street and in Small World. But just as Slaughter struggled — and, I’ll bet, continues to struggle — with how to negotiate her traditionally feminine role as mother with her traditionally masculine role as working parent, so too will many Princeton women come to face this same problem of conflicting gender roles after graduation.
To back up for a moment, I want to say that, in the context of the on campus concerns, I think our current conversation about hookup culture and gender roles does a great job of moving the conversation forward. I think Sarah Schwartz and Vivienne Chen, in their recent columns, are right to point out that the female voice on campus holds widely differing opinions about hookup culture, and that any generalization about women that equates them to — say it with me — damsels in distress is problematic. But for those of us who will leave the Orange Bubble and ultimately marry and have kids, we are likely to find ourselves in a situation where we, like Slaughter, actually feel something quite like damsels in distress, torn between our roles as mothers and working women. And unlike on campus, where we can enjoy a nice DFMO one night and a coffee date the next without consequence, our competing desires to both embrace and explode traditional notions of femininity — to be both a mother and a breadwinner — will come to a head in the workplace. In this context, Schwartz’s notion that Princeton women “know what they want” starts to become a little more flimsy — we will want things that, at least in today’s world, are often mutually exclusive.
And yet, despite the importance of these concerns, rarely are Princeton women encouraged to talk about a future desire for children or about how to reconcile that with their career ambitions. It seems that the assumption is that, as with hookup culture, we’ll just be able to make it work for us. But as Slaughter’s article points out, the reality is unlikely to be so easy, and certainly not for women as driven as Princeton students. I think often enough about what I want to do with the rest of my life, career-wise, and the sheer number of emails I receive from Career Services suggests I’m not the only one. In the same way that we think about our working life post-graduation, we should be thinking about how our conversation about gender roles can be moved forward into the working world.
Unfortunately, this works against everything we’ve been told as modern women. Just as we have been cultured to believe that we can take the hookup culture head-on (but only if we want to), we have been taught to believe that we can be a doctor, an astronaut and a mother. Admitting that all of these responsibilities might prove to be too much means admitting our weaknesses and limitations, and this is a first step that sounds uncomfortably like admitting to being a damsel in distress. Instead of being victimized by men, however, we are victimized by a workplace that still operates as if only men made an income — and this means that men with working wives are victims too.
In pointing this out, Slaughter does an effective job of moving this conversation forward: She moves the burden of discussion away from women and toward a dialogue between the sexes. Rather than marriages that look like Kurz’s traditional damsel/knight model, Slaughter’s was a partnership in which individual needs, rather than some societal concept of gender roles, dictated how they made it work. At the end of the day, even Slaughter’s husband’s willingness to play Mr. Mom for two years didn’t solve all of Slaughter’s problems as a working mother, but their willingness to negotiate a new normal was a step in the right direction.
So let’s start talking about how we can take our current conversation about gender roles beyond the Orange Bubble. Admitting a desire to be a working mother and a fear that you might not be able to make it work doesn’t mean you’re a damsel; it means you’re that much closer to a solution.
Slaughter finishes her article thus: “[Ultimately], we will stop talking about whether women can have it all. We will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as they success they seek.” Not all of us will embrace her 50/50 balance between work and family, but with any luck, we will have the right, and the ability, to negotiate our own.
Cameron Langford is a sophomore from Davidson, N.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.