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FIELDS: The fall from having it all

Feminist utopia is both tempting and unattainable

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I am woman, hear me whine. With apologies to Helen Reddy, whose "roar" was heard 'round the world from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972.

The new line, replacing roar with whine, hasn't found a place on the 21st century hit parade, but we've all heard versions of it. This latest wail was inspired by the latest feminist cause celebre, an Atlantic magazine cover story titled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." The article (and the controversy) by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a 53-year-old onetime star in the Obama constellation, has gone viral.

She was the first woman to be director of policy planning at the State Department, and she dropped out after 18 months to return to a more leisurely tenured professorship at Princeton, where she can spend more time with her family. Now she can teach, write articles, work on a book, make 40 or 50 speeches a year, appear regularly on radio and television, and not feel guilty about neglecting her children. Ah, for the velvet-lined rigors of academe.

What precipitated her return to the hearth was a troubled and troublesome son, 14, and his 12-year old brother, whose weekday care had been left to their father, a tenured Princeton professor. Mom commuted on weekends from her day job in Washington. She rediscovered the wheel of maternal misfortune and decided that a teenager can be more complicated than politics in the Middle East, and her 14-year-old son's "rocky adolescence" required more attention than the rocky affairs of state.

By the eighth grade he was skipping homework, failing math, disrupting classes and dissing every adult near home or school. No maternity leave was available for dealing with that, and teenage emergencies required her to make several unexpected train rides back home, "invariably on the day of an important meeting."

Her return to domestic tranquility was assisted by Princeton rules of tenure, which she would automatically lose after two years of working elsewhere, even for Barack Obama. Her solution sounds like a common-sense compromise with its own rewards, but it has set off a ferocious debate among feminists: "Say it ain't so!"

Her problems aren't those of her foremothers, as depicted on AMC's hit "Mad Men," how women in the 1960s couldn't succeed in advertising without acting like men. She understands that her cushy choices hardly resemble those of her less fortunate sisters, the single mothers who have trouble finding a job or are supporting an unemployed husband. Not many working wives get a sabbatical year in Shanghai, as she did, with her family so the children could learn Mandarin.

She repeats the naive suggestion that the best hope for helping all women to feel better about themselves is "to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders." But even a Princeton professor knows that's not likely to happen.

She's not the first nor will she be the last educated woman to slink away from visions of utopia when motherhood clashes with career. There are too many paradoxes in such a paradise of parental desire. You might call these the unintended consequences of female reality.

She thinks a supportive mate "may be a necessary condition" for raising children - and she has one - but that's far from enough. Consider how feminist ascendancy coincides with the diminishing pool of eligible men. She observes how career women of her generation chose to establish themselves professionally before having children, and then many of them confronted unexpected fertility problems that further delayed pregnancy and often required expensive procedures for conception in a womb of one's own. Mother Nature is not particularly a fan of feminist rhetoric.

Ms. Slaughter is criticized for condescension because she lectures her sisters from the perspective of a job with lots of flex time. But she insists that society can change values, too. Research paves the way for further opportunities for women, showing positive performance levels, as well as job satisfaction in organizations with family-friendly policies. High-tech innovations make it easier for women to work at home.

The most strident cries of the feminists against Ms. Slaughter's solution are that it's reactionary, a backlash, a setback for women everywhere who want both career and children. Jonathan Swift might update his classic, "A Modest Proposal," which suggested solving the Irish famine by eating the children, by adding recipes for gourmet sauces.

Ironically, the feminists who have stirred this tempest in a teacup with their furious emailing have been taking time away from their jobs and children. Utopia is as distant as ever.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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