Men, Women, and the Definition of 'Family'

We need to change men’s options and choices.
— Anne-Marie Slaughter

This week saw the release of Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book, Unfinished Business. Fresh from reading her husband's article, Why I Put My Wife's Career First, in the Atlantic, I was eager to get a copy. Two nights ago I did - but first I saw Slaughter interviewed about the book by former New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn.

How do we start to change the box we still have family and women’s roles in?
— Christine Quinn

Christine quinn

I'd heard Slaughter speak before, both live and on the radio, so I knew she was good. And I loved having Quinn as the moderator. She asked questions we need to hear more often, such as why our society sees 'family' as the nuclear kind, and why a married, gay woman like Quinn is seen for what she lacks (children) rather than what she has. Quinn told us that during her campaign for mayor she was quizzed about why she didn't 'have a family.' She's from a big Irish-Catholic clan and said what I've often felt like saying: Actually, I do have one (they just haven't emerged from my own body). After the campaign was over some journalist suggested that now maybe she could get started on that family. Talk about being put in a box.

I'm glad she brought up that topic of how she's viewed as a non-mother, not just because it illustrates how easily women are still stereotyped. But also because women who either choose not to have children or can't have them often feel totally left out of the conversation on women and work - yet we too are very much part of the workforce.

Back to Slaughter, who kicked the conversation about straight women and high level careers into the stratosphere three years ago with her Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can't Have It All. Her premise is that we've become a society that wildly undervalues care - whether women or men are giving it.

"We as women have sexism ourselves," Slaughter pointed out. True. Plenty of women are just as sexist about men as men have traditionally been about us. We can be inflexible in how we see their roles, such is the power of the masculine stereotype. The latest Pew Social Trends survey on stay-at-home fathers showed just 8% of Americans thought kids were better off with a dad at home full-time (51% thought kids were better off with a mother at home full-time). The idea that mother is best is in all our heads, and that father is cut out for other things. Someone I know well has occasionally received heated praise - "You're such a good dad!" - for doing pretty basic, everyday stuff with his kid. A woman would never receive a similar comment, Slaughter noted. Women are expected to be nurturers. Men aren't.

She also reminded us that young girls are usually told that they can do anything - work, work and have kids, stay home with kids, whatever. But boys are still raised with the narrative that they must become a provider - their scope is much narrower. Slaughter says she and her husband are bringing up their two sons with the idea that they too can do anything they want - including become the lead parent.

I'm about a quarter of the way into the book and hope to have Slaughter and her husband as guests on The Broad Experience. And I hope Chris Quinn doesn't mind if I call her a real broad. That's a compliment.