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June 26, 2012

Women Have Plenty to Say About 'Having it All'

Professional women of all types - bankers and lawyers and bureaucrats - are taking to the Internet to freak out, or at the very least, ponder the dreaded third rail of feminism, thanks to a viral story in the Atlantic that dredged up the classic, woman-baiting query.

 Can women have it all? the cover asks. (Spoiler alert: No.)

 The magazine's July/August cover story, published last week, was written by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a 53-year-old former State Department official and mother of two who asks how one can hold down a demanding, high-stress job while raising a family. It's a worry that plagues women in high-powered careers, for whom work is often an option or obsession, not an obligation. Her conclusion is that the privileged subset of working American women might not achieve the balance they yearn for unless they push for changes in society.

  Despite her call to action, women have yet to bring out the tents. Zuccotti Park is still vacant and awaiting its next tenants.

  Instead, the masses took to Facebook and Twitter, starting a digital conversation about the difficulties of balancing work and family. A range of reactions followed.

  "I think I wrote, 'If Anne-Marie Slaughter, the woman who wrote 'A New World Order,' is telling me I can't have it all, that's just depressing," said Emily Sandler, 25, a nonprofit fundraiser from Redondo Beach, Calif., who shared the piece on Facebook. "If it can't work for her, how will it ever work for us lesser mortals?"

  "It scared me, but men should be scared, too, because work-life balance is a human problem, not just a woman problem," said Veronica Percia, 27, a lawyer in Boston.

 Even men joined the chatter. Richard Gurley, 33, a managing director at a health-care start-up in the District, emailed it to his fiancee. "What was most interesting to me was the conversation it was generating in a public way," he said. "It didn't seem like anything she said was new, but she said it very publicly."

 According to Atlantic spokeswoman Natalie Raabe, the piece has attracted nearly 725,000 readers to the Atlantic's Web site, and by Sunday it had been recommended on Facebook 119,000 times, making it the most "liked" Atlantic piece ever.

 In an age of unemployment, global debt crises and sky-high college debt, a public debate over how elites can find fulfillment in career and home might seem quaint, even a bit self-absorbed, like an "Eat, Pray, Love" for the Davos set. But the article's impact and nuances have resonated among both men and women.

 "I knew it would strike a chord, because I teach younger women and every time I've given a preview of the piece, women have said 'I'm so glad you're writing it,' " Slaughter said. "But hundreds of thousands? I didn't think it would bring about a symphony overnight."

 And that symphony, or cacophony if one includes the dissenters, has posed further questions surrounding that elusive phrase "it all": Didn't we almost have it all? Just how much can we have? And how guilty should we feel that most Americans have none of it?

 "I know that relative to the vast majority of American women, I have it all and more, but within my group of well-educated, privileged women, there's a lot that's wrong," Slaughter said. "I do think there was this vast silent majority of women who were dying to have someone speak for them, to say that men and women can have the careers they want and the families they want if we make changes."

 For the past few years, the Atlantic, along with magazines such as New York and Time, have explored so-called women's issues, publishing rigorously researched essays that accompany personal narrative. The stories go viral, and are often accompanied by provocative cover shots, such as Time's breast-feeding cover, or doomsday titles such as "The End of Men" by the Atlantic's Hanna Rosin - shared 43,000 times on Facebook. Or Kate Bolick's "All the Single Ladies," shared 55,000 times since November.

 The images and titles can be jarring, and the content, well, depressing. Indeed, Slaughter acknowledges that her article can be "painful to read." Is the Atlantic purposefully causing panic attacks among its young women readers?

  "We certainly know our readers react strongly," said James Bennet, editor in chief of the magazine. "We get a huge range of reactions, but I wouldn't put fear at the top of the list. Our hope is to start the conversation. . . . I really think you can read these pieces as talking to each other over the years."

  "Even a woman like Anne-Marie Slaughter is wrestling with the same questions we are," Bennet said, "and we never see the sweat, but she's suffering from the same agonizing trade-offs, feeling the same sense of compromise."

  Slaughter is well aware of her demographic, but she's also hyperaware that her elite, sympathetic audience, one that champions global issues of vast importance in boardrooms and courthouses by day, "liked" her article on "having it all" more than they've shared stories on Syrian bloodshed, the Dream Act or poverty in America.

  Is that embarrassing?

 "At one point, I tweeted, 'Why can't I make people this passionate about foreign policy?' Slaughter said, laughing.

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