Unfinished Business: A Book Review



In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Secretary of State Clinton’s director of policy planning, wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the article, she discussed the difficulties she experienced in working a highly demanding job while meeting the needs of her sons; she chose to leave the State Department and return to teaching at Princeton (a far more flexible, though still demanding, job) so that she could be near her sons at a critical point in their development. Her article ignited a heated and passionate national conversation. Ms. Slaughter received many responses (including my own open letter) and spent thoughtful time with them. She then created a vision for moving forward as a nation of people who must fit both work and care into their lives. That vision is articulated in her new book, Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family.

Unfinished Business provides the tools we need to create change, which always flows from the inside out. We cannot create a new society from old ways of thinking, and Ms. Slaughter provides a paradigm shift—an internal shift in the way we view ourselves, the work of caring for other people (children or older relatives or sick friends), and the work we do to earn a living and manifest our gifts in the world. What she is doing in this book is something we desperately need—consciousness raising. For until we see how and why we are getting in our own way, we won’t be able to navigate new terrain. I am deeply grateful for this book, as a mother, a writer, and a feminist. However, I believe the book downplays the political elements of the paradigm shift it describes.

The Necessary Truth in Unfinished Business

Ms. Slaughter begins by debunking our myths, including the idea of “having it all.” She unpacks the half-truths behind our cultural beliefs, such as “You Can Have It All If You’re Just Committed Enough to Your Career” and “You Can Have It All If You Marry the Right Person.” She acknowledges the ways in which these ideas—and others like them—are true, and then she analyzes the ways in which they fail us by asking us to do the impossible. She also addresses half-truths about men—beginning with the idea that care is a “women’s issue.” In speaking to and about men, Ms. Slaughter recognizes them as caregivers and workers, and discusses the ways in which our cultural attitudes dismiss this fact—and what we can do to remedy it.

Unfinished Business considers everyone—working mothers, working fathers, heterosexual couples and gay couples, single people caring for a sick friend or an aging parent, people who work in Silicon Valley and people who work at Starbucks. At the core of the discussion about work is a discussion about care—how we devalue it in word and deed because it has been seen as “women’s work,” and how it is instead a human issue. Ms. Slaughter asks us to examine our language, our deeply held beliefs about gender and care, and our need to let go of the old to make way for the new. I love what she has done here, as much of what she says resonates with my own work/life path, as well as my experiences as a caregiver in a society that devalues caregiving.

Ms. Slaughter’s message is truly transformational: in valuing care, we create a culture that allows people to fit work and life together rather than pitting them against one another. She emphasizes that she also values competition, and that it is the fit that matters—care and competition must be valued equally if we are to reach equality at home and at work. I love this message, and I love it that she applies it across boundaries of class, acknowledging that work and care play out very differently for middle and upper-class women than for poor and working-class women.

The Unfinished Business in Unfinished Business

While the paradigm shift Ms. Slaughter provides is vital, her discussion of how we apply this shift relies heavily on corporate decisions. She acknowledges a political element to change—even going so far as to list several things that would require political action (including high-quality, affordable daycare and paid family and medical leave for both women and men). However, most of her discussion about change dwells on the marketplace, discussing corporations that have successfully implemented policies that allow for work/life flexibility, and that value care. Corporate policies are indeed part of the solution, but to depend on the free market and look for a trial and error approach in which employees negotiate for their needs ignores one of the basic problems in our current political climate: some who run corporations, and who set policies, are very much against the paradigm shift that Ms. Slaughter proposes. This is a political, not just a corporate, reality—and must be faced on political ground.

So it has been since 1976, when President Ford vetoed the Child Day Care Standards Act—this veto followed another torpedoed attempt at nationally affordable childcare, the Child and Family Services Act of 1975. If we don’t acknowledge the history of our previous attempts to value care as a society, we are doomed to repeat it.

My biggest concern about Unfinished Business is that, while the book acknowledges differences in class, it fails to fully consider the ways in which institutionalized sexism and racism create an unequal marketplace. Ms. Slaughter does acknowledge this situation—for example, the ways in which middle and upper-class women who employ housecleaners are relying on poor women, thus perpetuating inequality—but stops short of stating that some corporations simply won’t be flexible. The employees who bear the brunt of this refusal are  the ones who can least afford it and have the fewest life choices—poor women of color, many of them mothers.

Unfinished Business is a political book—it claims feminism, addresses the concerns of all working people, and asks us to see the next phase of the women’s movement as a men’s movement. While acknowledging the political dimension to these changes, however, it puts most of the weight of a paradigm shift on cultural attitudes and corporate policies. To create a firm foundation for change, we need a third element—one that Ms. Slaughter names, but presents as a bipartisan question rather than an unequivocal fact.

Although change requires us to push political boundaries, before we can do so we have to transcend personal ones. Unfinished Business is a fabulous handbook for doing just that—I hope you’ll read it and recommend it to anyone who is struggling with the dilemma of working while caring for others.

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