In a thoughtful coda to a June essay in The Atlantic about why she left a high-profile position at the U.S. State Department to return to her teaching position at Princeton University and take care of her two teenage sons, Ann-Marie Slaughter writes about why family needs to be a foreign policy issue.
I have never considered a career in foreign policy; I am, like Slaughter, an academic, though not at a world-renowned university. But her Foreign Policy essay about family being a foreign policy issue resonates with many, and any, women who’s struggled to manage a career with raising children.
Why We Need More Women in Foreign Policy
As Slaughter writes, at just the time when men in their early thirties are entering “positions as National Security Council directors, speechwriters, or special assistants — jobs that prepare them for more senior positions,” women (biology is biology) are “stepping out, not up” to have children.
Yes, there have been three women serving as secretaries of state in the past twelve years. But as Slaughter points out, a Foreign Policy list of the top 50 foreign-policy Democrats shows “we have a problem”:
Below cabinet level, it is men who surround the president as foreign-policy advisors. Only one woman from inside the White House is even listed.
Foreign policy is not a “family-friendly” career as it necessarily involves “endless amounts of travel and a work schedule at the mercy of world events.” Slaughter offers concrete changes to make such careers more flexible, so that women can step off such a career path temporarily and still be contenders for higher-level positions.
Even more, we absolutely need something other than an “all-testosterone team shaping America’s place in the world” that can, writes Slaughter, focus not only on the realpolitik of states and military power, but on societies:
… I am not saying that women are not perfectly capable of realpolitik chess-game strategizing about how to best adversaries and counter potential threats in the world of state power. And some men, of course, do focus on a wide range of social, economic, and humanitarian issues. But many women are more likely than many men to see the world from the bottom up and connect the dots, for example, between America’s living up to its word by preventing mass killing on a horrific scale in supporting the Libyan opposition against a murderous regime and beginning to change perceptions of the United States among young people not only in Libya but across the Middle East. And women add sheer diversity to the mix of issues we should rate as important; I well remember the horror of a male colleague at the idea that we would be working on food security, one of Clinton’s priorities.
In reports predicting future food and water shortages, with the world’s population set to increase to 9 billion by 2050, a “bottom up” focus is not an alternative; it is necessary.
It Would Be Nice to “Have It All,” But Motherhood Takes Precedence
My son Charlie is, like Slaughter’s sons, now a teenager. Charlie was diagnosed with autism in the first year of my first tenure-track job as an assistant professor of Classics in the Midwest, with a definite effect on my career path.
I have been able to work most of the time but have been focused on teaching instead of the research I had envisioned I would do while in graduate school. Academic scholarship takes years spent in archives and libraries and can be never-ending. In contrast, teaching is something that, while of course one needs to be prepared, is over and done with once the students have left the classroom. Grading papers and tests is a finite task; writing an essay assignment requires thought and care but is of a scope far more limited than conceiving of a book that would involve reading and synthesizing several hundred years of scholarship in several languages on Homer.
Charlie is on the more severe end of the autism spectrum. For the past 15 years, I have — I realize now, as I attempt to work my way through some of that scholarship — devoted every bit of my brain power to his care and education. I’d like to say I can “do it all” but tend to find myself reading (literally) one sentence of an article on oral composition at a time amid restoring all the music Charlie somehow deleted from his iPad and trying to solve his latest bout of stomach agony. I can’t find most of Classics books because they’re heaped in boxes in the basement after, two years ago, Charlie pulled down all the bookshelves.
But as I said, I have been able to start up my academic research again. Charlie’s life is and will be one of many challenges but, very recently, he has been making some small progress, of which we are beyond proud.
It would be nice to “have it all,” but as Slaughter (courageously, I think) wrote earlier this year, the world is not (yet) set up for that to occur. A mother can dream, and mothers and women wanting to be mothers should be given the opportunity to draw not on realpolitik but on their ideas, ideals and real experiences to change societies and lives.
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