Trickle-Down Feminism, Revisited

Trickle-Down Feminism, Revisited

“Having it all” is not a feminist theory of change.

Anne-Marie Slaughter speaking in 2011 (kris krüg / Flickr)

In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a showstopper of a popular press article for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The digital version shot across my social media feeds like a cannon. The article’s media resonance was not an accident, as Slaughter hints at in her follow-up book, Unfinished Business. According to the introduction of the book, the Atlantic editors chose a title Slaughter now wishes had more nuance. The article’s artwork, featuring an adorable white toddler in an expensive leather attaché case spoke volumes about the article’s intended impact and audience: this was an article aimed at upwardly mobile white middle-class women’s anxieties about precarity, status competition, and reproduction.

The article held up its end of that bargain. For several pages, Slaughter’s article described the structural conditions that inhibit white women’s Talented Tenth from realizing their full economic potential. An older generation of highly educated, well-groomed, white feminists had made the mistake of glossing over the social-psychological distress of living in the gender wage gap. They told younger generations of similarly highly educated, well-groomed, mostly white feminists that it was possible to have everything, only “not all at the same time.” Life was about balance and choices and, for these women, especially about realizing the potential of their professional ambitions.

Slaughter, herself the cream of a creamy crop of such women, had bumped up against the realities. Even with a supportive husband, a high-status job at an elite university, appointments to the State Department, household help, and supportive friends, Slaughter found it impossible to balance the demands of high achievement with motherhood and marriage. She outlined several well-known facts about the United States’ abysmal showing in comparative global childcare policies. Slaughter’s consequent argument was that these were feminist ideas that even the economy could love because they would make powerful women more productive.

I watched Slaughter’s article became a media tour de force. Every outlet had someone responding to the article. I entered the fray with an essay that still gets a fair amount of traffic, even after three years on the shelf. I called Slaughter’s thesis a version of trickle-down feminism. Much like the economic ideology that generating wealth for a few will trickle down to improve the relative prosperity of the many, trickle-down feminism assumes that better options for elite white women will trickle down to the rest of us. Slaughter says as much in her Atlantic article, arguing that caring about the well-being of elite women means elevating powerful women who will take care of the interests of less powerful women.

As someone who clearly remembers Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race, and Class, I am skeptical that elite white women will do anything different to or for brown women, poor women, black women, queer people, and differently able-bodied women than would elite white men. In fact, Davis argues that given the political economy of mate competition, interpersonal gendered aggression, and greater intimate contact, elite white women may actually be more intimately violent to nonwhite women than elite white men are. The idea that I wouldn’t turn over the theorizing and politicizing of feminist lives to those who want to have it all generated a lot of feedback on my blog. It became such a distraction that I eventually posted a comment conceding that I wouldn’t engage the idea anymore. There was no way forward.

That was the fatigue I brought to Slaughter’s follow-up book. Slaughter should be commended for hearing some of the critiques of her work. She makes it clear at the outset that race, class, and gender mean that mobility is different for different groups of women. She acknowledges the argument from men that they, too, are squeezed in the two-income trap. And she nods to the value of gendered care work as a cause and consequence of gender inequality writ large. These are what op-ed pros call “to be sures.” It is a rhetorical device. “To-be-sures” move one’s argument forward by nominally engaging the most common criticisms. Nominal is the key. Slaughter does nod to these important criticisms, but the nods never go so far as to inform her theory of change.

Take, for example, the treatment of race in the book. Slaughter includes a set of data points about race (and class) in her discussion of wage earnings. She rightly points out that black, brown, and poor women do most of the nation’s low-paid service-sector work. She also points out that many of her proposals for narrowing the high-status gender gap might not be feasible for these women. That’s a to-be-sure. But then Slaughter returns to her theory of change, arguing that women are less likely to speak up at work and in class. This gendered deference to masculine authority plagued Slaughter early in her career until her husband taught her to “act like a man”—that is, how to speak up with authority. But there is ample data that black women don’t have the same problem of speaking up. “Acting like a man” is an unfortunate allusion. What they have is a problem of disproportionate, and racist, approbation for speaking up and the racist-sexist double standard that they should speak up on behalf of the nonblack women who are just too painfully afflicted to do so.

If the data on race and class had informed her theory of change, Slaughter might have critiqued the racist, gendered, and classed dimensions of speech and behavior. Data show these social patterns of what is considered acceptable behavior privilege well-to-do white women in mate selection but penalize them at work while also penalizing all other women across the board. Despite minimal engagement with data on race, class, and gender, Slaughter’s revised have-it-all thesis never goes so far as to interrogate the power relations of her positionality. Nor does she allow anything like empirical reality to alter her theory of tipping status competition in favor of highly educated, mostly white women.

There is no more persistent debate in feminist theory and praxis than ones about inclusion. “Big-tent feminism” has been critiqued and, to be fair, has responded, however marginally, to some of the critiques of its elitism, racism, capitalist impulses, and normative social reproduction. All versions of the have-it-all thesis are susceptible to the same critiques because the thesis is just a manifestation of capital’s creative translation of our precarious, post-work political economy. At its heart, for some women to have it all, most women cannot ever have enough. In practice this looks like extracting loyalty from poor women in the service sector while using service-sector labor to negotiate economic elite parity with men in the contracting, competitive good-jobs sector of a global knowledge economy.

The veneer of feminist talk is just that—a veneer and just talk. Even in her revision, Slaughter does not present a feminist theory of change. She presents policy prescriptions for coping with precarity and stratification, not challenges to precarity and stratification. The good news is that there are theories of feminist change for this moment. Take the intersectional politics of Black Lives Matter or the interethnic coalition of the Fight for $15 labor movement for a higher minimum wage. Those debates are happening, and we are all better for holding them to the extent that some of us are actually holding them.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a contributing editor at Dissent. This essay was originally published under the title “Having It All is Not a Feminist Theory of Change” on the website of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society as part of the series Short Takes, which also features contributions from Heather Boushey, Kimberly Freeman Brown, Stephanie Coontz, Nancy Folbre, Kathleen Geier, Premilla Nadasen, Ai-jen Poo, and Joan C. Williams, with a response from Anne-Marie Slaughter. It will appear in the Winter 2017 issue of Signs. © 2016 University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

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