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Anne Marie Slaughter, Feminism, “Having it all” and Human Rights

Anne-Marie Slaugther’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” has come under much criticism this week for ignoring the needs and priorities of poor women, working-class women and/or women of color. Though she doesn’t really do anything about that, Slaughter at least seems aware of her article’s major flaw: “I am writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place.

And that she does. As Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her post at Racialicious, “The article seemed to not only take for granted that all women have been told that they should have it all but that all women have – if not intimate – then definitely not adversarial relationships with power..” In other words, the article persists in the assumption that all women aspire to the top rungs of society – for example, to high power leadership roles in government, academia and private industry. Not only this, but it also assumes that women in generally define success entirely in terms of attaining power.

Equal opportunity in other words, is the sum total of the feminist project, the very definition of gender “equality.” Sure, Slaughter wants more women in top positions so they can change things on behalf of younger women entering the workforce (McMillan Cottom brilliantly captures the neoliberal assumptions entrenched in this thinking with the term, “trickle-down feminism.”). But on the whole, equality will be with us once women and men finally get to be treated the same, and “equal treatment” is ostensibly all it takes to raise women’s status to that of men. Ultimately, the measure of feminism is whether or not women has as much power and prestige in the ordering of society. As Flavia Dzodan puts it at , “We want full participation in what already is,” and this is hardly a transformative emancipatory project.

Yet it’s also the logic that undergirds most human rights theory and scholarship, including Slaughter’s mainstream contributions at Princeton. In fact, we assume that this is the goal of all oppressed groups everywhere in the world: “We want full participation in what already is.” Human rights theory in particular usually presumes that all humans, simply by virtue of being human – in the parlance of the Universal Declaration for Human Rightsdeserve, “all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Rights and justice, in this sort of framework, are things that can easily be granted to others by the powerful, and those without power are expected to entrust their well-being to the ones who rule.

Consider states like South Africa, where gay marriage is legal and “equal protection under the law” for LGBT South Africans is written into the constitution. The logic is that, because a legal document suggests that LGBT people are equal to non-LGBT people, LGBT people must suddenly enjoy societal equality. The only thing needed to ensure equality, once again, is equal opportunity. When LGBT people are allowed to marry and obtain employment, we are led to believe, they have really arrived.

But in spite of South Africa’s constitution – sometimes cast as the most progressive constitution in the world – LGBT people in South Africa do not enjoy full equality. If you don’t believe me, you might do a bit of research on the widespread problem of “corrective” lesbian rape in the country. Of course, lesbians in South Africa ostensibly enjoy “equal protection under the law” relative to everyone else. But this is the ultimate cruelty of the pretense that everyone in society comes to the table on equal footing, or that the right kind of law is the sum total of LGBT emancipation. In life, LGBT people emphatically lack equality in South African society. Legal human rights “protections” fall flat in the face of the dearth of political will for equality. And because we are all differently situated when it comes to power, privilege and historical context, the idea of “equality” is always going to be a beautiful, seductive and brutal lie.

The international human rights regime is one in which we all merely want “equal participation in what already is.” In international relation, incidentally Slaughter’s subfield, this is particularly true. In dominant international human rights discourses, the equal protection we all get thanks to our shared humanness obscures the real power relations that shape the ways in which countries interact. That way, countries like the United States can mount unilateral invasions of postcolonial countries like Iraq without circumspection. The United States is not guilty of reconquest within this framework. Instead, it means to protect the human rights of the also-universally human Iraqis. The US and Iraq come to the table on equal terms, and there is no need for any deconstrution of power relations.

This kind of thinking serves as a justification for the neoconservative expansion of American empire, in which the United States just wants to help spread freedom and democracy. And let’s face it – this is a justification used within both parties. True to form, Anne-Marie Slaughter is a widespread proponent of “humanitarian interventionism” on the part of the United States. Most recently, she argued for military intervention in Syria without any regard for US-Syrian power relations or the various ways in which American intervention may be experienced in yet another Muslim country.

For Slaughter, we get to justice once we’ve established equal opportunity. Life in a free and democratic Syria, in other words, will undo centuries of power imbalance between colonizers in the West and the people Fanon angrily called “the wretched of the earth.” Amazingly still, it will not smack of paternalism! We will all be free and equal human citizens of the world. There is no need, in such a worldview, for the powerful to pay reparations or make any attempts to undo the privileges brought by the material and political power they have always horded. Good laws and strong institutions can apparently exist outside of power.

So, apparently, does feminism, at least in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s conceptualization. And feminism, for Slaughter, is nothing but “equal participation in what already is” – equal opportunity to exploit, govern and control from a position of great power. McMillan Cottom is right when she says this debate is really about ideological orientation: Who is promoting the dangerous lie of equality? Who keeps insisting that we are actually all equal in spite of material relationships that blatantly suggest otherwise? And who is talking about what needs to be done to ensure more substantive transformation? Something a little more meaningful than the fact that we’re abstractly equal to each other.
In the introduction to her piece, Slaughter writes, “I had always assumed that if I could get a foreign-policy job in the State Department or the White House while my party was in power, I would stay the course as long as I had the opportunity to do work I loved.” How many women – nay, how many people – always have high-ranking government advisory positions to fall back on? And how many women are going to be helped when Slaughter helps make “work-life” balance more achievable in other such high-power jobs?

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to those of us who’ve read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s human rights work that she treats poor women and women of color with heavy-handed paternalism, expecting equality to “trickle down” based on nothing but faith in women who have power. But if this is all feminism has to offer in 2012, then do count me – and probably the rest of my student-debt beleaguered, under-employed, downwardly mobile generation – the hell out of it.