‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All:’ What’s Wrong With Sticking a Baby in a Briefcase?


Women still can’t have it all, at least according to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new Atlantic cover story.

The article basically details women’s difficulties with career-family balance, but says that better balance (“having it all”) can be achieved if broad societal changes take place.

As with any article that makes bold claims about men and women’s changing roles — such as other Atlantic covers “The End of Men” and “What, Me Marry? (All The Single Ladies)” — Slaughter’s work is generating lots of talk. Some — including Feministing’s Jessica Valenti — have taken issue with the cover art and not necessarily the content. “I haven’t read the piece (it’s not out yet) and for all I know is a scorchingly awesome piece of feminist writing,” she wrote earlier this week. “But the headline/art/cover is just too awful and (knowingly) plays into the anti-feminist cliche the search for work/life balance is greedily trying to have ‘it all.’

She then collected some of her “favorite images that are often the art in these kinds of articles: The mean/frazzled/distracted working white mom” to illustrate, as Forbes‘ Bryce Covert puts it, “the tired trope of the woman who fails to balance work and family.”

But is this actually true?

Let’s start with some context.

Remember these two recent covers:

Now, we’re not saying that the Atlantic cover is OK because these other two covers are so much worse: We’re saying it doesn’t commit the kinds of grave errors these other covers do.

The Newsweek mommy porn annoys because the photo — a blindfolded hot chick — arguably distracts us from having a meaningful discussion about BDSM’s role in culture.

The Time mommy porn merits criticism because that image — a “MILF” breastfeeding a toddler — is played up to be super weird that all we can do is talk about that, rather than thoughtfully examine attachment parenting.

On the other hand, the Atlantic cover doesn’t seem to take away from article itself and doesn’t seem to perpetuate stereotypes about working moms, as claimed.

To be perfectly clear, we have no problem calling bullshit on offensive images.

Even as a woman who is very tuned in to this kind of stuff and who frequently writes about gender issues — OK, I’m ditching the ‘we,’ here — I don’t see what the big deal is.

Again, it’s not the most innovative aesthetic — there are a gagillion stock photos just like that — but nothing about that particular picture screams: “Women who work are bad parents! You can’t have it all!”

I’m not even sure if the hurried, harried moms in other depictions are that much of an issue, either.

My reasoning on this one isn’t all too formal, but here it is: My mom was a working mom and as un-P.C. as it sounds to some, she looked like these photos during my early childhood — kid on her hip, briefcase in hand, constantly on the verge of insanity. She looked even more like the photos when she went back to school to complete her degree. So did other working moms I knew growing up. So to me, something like a briefcase baby next to a woman in a suit is just a simplistic visual way of showing this juggling act.

Let me emphasize: I’m not saying it’s OK to stereotype people because some people happen to fit stereotypes — and I’m def not saying that all working moms look like this or should necessarily be portrayed this way, etc.

However, I don’t buy that this imagery conveys “mean feminist mommies,” as Valenti puts it, as much as (badly) tries to convey the difficulties of balancing our work and non-work lives.

The Atlantic‘s cover doesn’t suggest that it’s impossible or necessarily play “into the anti-feminist cliche,” as Valenti incorrectly says. Sure, it’s uncreative, but that’s about its worst offense.