Having it all

11.15.13

The Accidental Feminist Icon

Anne-Marie Slaughter talks her new job at the New America Foundation and the article that changed her life.

It was the article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” that put Anne-Marie Slaughter on the map. She wrote it for The Atlantic in July of 2012, after two pressure cooker years in a top spot of the Obama administration.

Two days later, she was on the front page of The New York Times—an instant celebrity.

Her screed galvanized women of all ages, even her own mother who called to ask, “What have you done?” And it begat a question she repeats to herself over and over again: How did a Princeton political science professor become a feminist leader?

“It was like watching my foreign policy career get erased,” says Slaughter, in her new office as President and CEO of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Everywhere I go everybody asks about THE ARTICLE. I’m now much better known for something very different, something I really believe, but that is definitely not my day job.”

When Slaughter left Washington three years ago to return to her two young sons, husband and tenure at Princeton, she had been first female to hold the prestigious Policy Planning post in the Department of State. During that period she commuted most weekends and worked 24/7. Even with a super-dad husband, she was continually stressed by crises at home. Her schedule was punishing. The demands almost untenable .

“You’d have to be a wonder woman. Rich, super human and in charge of your time—and even then, you have to make major trade-offs. I don’t know what having it all really is,” she says.

Unlike her confrere, Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg, who urges women to lean in and hang in, Slaughter’s aim is to redefine the work place for both sexes—to create a more compassionate and caring infrastructure focused on flex time to deal with family complications, illnesses and other types of personal problems without reproach or fear of failure.

Her mantra: If you are caught up on your email, your priorities are in the wrong place. "I really believe that. I do the best I can and if I can’t get to something I don’t beat myself up about it.”

Downtime is a crucial part of her routine. She spends hours walking in the woods around her home and to and from speaking gigs in various cities, often lugging her metallic roll-on suitcase behind her. “Most of my great ideas come to me when I’m walking,” she says. To decompress she reads novels before going to sleep Phillippa Gregory’s The White Princess is currently on her night table. “It’s not all highbrow,” she notes. And Sunday evening family dinner is a ritual. “It’s the oasis of the weekend.”

Building on her own experience, she has developed a social policy based on human issues, and a balance between competition and care, which is the theme of her next book, due out in the spring. "Sounds a little policy wonkish,” she admits. "But I still think most workplaces are not suited for women or men to be both breadwinners and caregivers.”

In a surprise move in September, Slaughter, 55, relinquished her tenure at Princeton and came back to DC to head the innovative New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.

“Everywhere I go everybody asks about THE ARTICLE. I’m now much better known for something very different, something I really believe, but that is definitely not my day job.”

Her kids are now 15 and 17, and she is on her own schedule—in town two and a half days a week, blending her varied interests and applying her scholastic, administrative and foreign policy expertise across a whole new spectrum.

Foreign affairs remains at the core of her career. She faults the Obama administration for not moving into Syria more than two years ago. “It was never going to be easy, but I think we could have avoided where we are now,” she says, warning, “I don’t think we have the kind of tools to do the foreign policy we need to do. Our policy is aimed at negotiations in oak-paneled rooms. The kind of thing John Kerry is trying to do. I don’t think that works very well anymore. “Treating diplomacy as a chess game, she says, is reflexive and outmoded.

Instead, she applauds Hillary Clinton’s approach of building deep networks within societies in order to establish people-to-people contact rather than depending on government-to-government negations to solve a sudden crisis.

“I really think Hillary Clinton understood that the U.S. is going to have act differently in the world for the next century and we have to focus on people as much as other states. This is not the way most policy thinkers think at least not traditional politicians who are mostly male.”

Nevertheless, she is optimistic about the ongoing talks with Iran. “I do believe a deal can be had. But their domestic policies and our domestic policies may yet prevent it. We’ve been very careful to say all options are on the table. I think we are in a good place.”

Interestingly, two women head the negotiating team: Wendy Sherman U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and Catherine Ashton, the Representative for Foreign Affairs for the EU. “Nobody focuses on that fact,” she points out. “Somehow it just doesn’t get noticed.”

Enthusiastic about her new day job and platform, the self-styled policy entrepreneur admits leaving Princeton posed a tremendous risk. “It’s a huge thing to give up tenure,” she says. “And I really got scared to do it. But I always tell young people to follow their instincts and I couldn’t be a hypocrite. I wasn’t sure I had the guts. Once I got to that point, I had to do it.”