If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, try scorned feminists. Anne-Marie Slaughter clearly knew what to expect when she, the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton, wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter covers all her bases in the piece – she’s self-deprecating, apologetic for her economic privilege and acknowledges the trail-blazing sacrifices of the generation of women who broke glass ceilings before we called them that. But by writing her truth, couched as it was in political correctness, she still created a fire-storm of reaction. I listened to the exchanges on my favorite radio program, Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point,” and found myself thinking of a trail-blazing woman of another generation: Byrne Miller. She’s long-gone now, but Byrne would have argued that Slaughter is framing the entire question incorrectly: it isn’t that women can’t have it all; they don’t need to be it all.
I’m writing a book about Byrne – she was a radical, modern dance pioneer who raised two girls while her schizophrenic husband meandered the family from Manhattan to Santa Fe to St. Thomas and finally Beaufort, South Carolina. Her husband was one of the original Mad Men of advertising, surrounded by beautiful models and social conventions that would have driven most stay-at-home wives to a jealous distraction.
She found a way to balance Duncan’s needs (maybe more so than her daughter’s) with her artistic ambitions in a way that might shock women of my generation. She and Duncan agreed to an open marriage during the most stressful years of child-rearing (one of her daughters also had schizophrenia) and instead kept an emotional fidelity through those troubled times as well as the decades when their marriage was more conventional. They were a month short of their 60th wedding anniversary when Duncan died. Byrne always told her own daughters, and many others she “adopted” along her amazing journey, that a woman should never try to be everything to a man.
“There will always be a woman more beautiful, or more witty, or more sophisticated than you,” she told us all. “Which is why it is insane to try and be all of those things at any given time. Just trust that the right man can’t live without the unique combination of traits that define you.”
Hang on, I’m getting to a parallel to the work/life balance struggle that Slaughter points out keeps mothers from rising to the most powerful jobs in this country today. Courageous women like her try to be everything to everyone – especially to their children. Byrne would argue it can’t be done; I would add that it isn’t as necessary as societal pressure makes it seem. Mothers, just like fathers, don’t have to be at every recital, put band-aids on every boo-boo and home-cook every meal for their children to turn into functional, happy adults. Women who feel compelled to be super-moms as well as super-achievers in a competitive workplace have contributed to a generation of young adults who have never been allowed to fail, who have never had to fend for themselves.
Or, worse yet, have never had the experience I had with Byrne Miller. She became a second mother to me, one who expanded my horizons and filled different needs than my mother could. Slaughter’s own former boss Hillary Clinton might agree – it really does take a village to have it all.