Having It All

Understanding the struggles of American women requires getting real

Our issue of The Atlantic came the other day, and the cover story sent me scurrying to find my copy of the famous Becky Klemt letter. (More on Becky to come.)

Entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” it was written by one Anne-Marie Slaughter. There she was, newly into her “dream job,” appointed by Hillary Clinton as the “first woman director of policy planning at the State Department.” Slaughter was “having it all.”

Or so she thought.

Right off she informs us about the importance of her “dream job.” In her words, it “traces its origins back to George Kennan.” (You remember; State Department, the Cold War, “Father of Containment,” a really big deal in his day.)

OK, stop right there: Pretension alert!

When I read her opening, I immediately thought of Albert Finney as Ed in the film Erin Brockovich. Recall the scene, the flunky from PG&E warns Ed that he had better not take on PG&E, and then follows with how much the company is worth. Finney responds with “WOW! I didn’t know they had that much money.” Now that’s how you slap down pretentiousness.

So back to Slaughter: Having confused name-dropping for pretension avoidance, she goes on to explain why she had to quit. Yes, she wanted it all, but her children needed her at home. Especially her eighth-grade son who was — well, acting like an eighth-grade boy. Sullen and all that.

It’s about here we learn that to move to D.C. she gave up being… Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School!? There’s more: She informs us that she also went home because if she stayed in D.C. another year she would lose tenure.

Anyway, whether for her kids or to keep her tenure or both, Anne-Marie Slaughter is back home, slumming… at Princeton, where she has resigned herself to “not being able to have it all.”

My read on the moral to the story? “Darn it, all those wonderful things the feminist movement promised? Guess what, don’t believe them, not if super-high achievers like me still can’t have it all.”

Now, about the Becky Klemt letter: Ms. Klemt was an attorney in Laramie and had won a small judgment for a client — a little over $4,000, which she needed to have collected in Los Angeles. In 1988, she contacted one Stephen Corris, Esq., of Irvine, Calif., and asked if he might make the collection for a fee. Corris declined the offer with a letter that contained the following clarification:

Dear Ms. Klemt: Without sounding pretentious, my current retainer is a flat $100,000, with an additional charge of $1,000 per hour.

Very sincerely, Stephen G. Corris

Which drew a response that made the rounds in legal circles for years for this punchline:

Dear Steve: I’ve got news — you can’t say you charge a $100,000 retainer fee and an additional $1,000 an hour without sounding pretentious. It just can’t be done. Especially when you’re writing to someone in Laramie, Wyoming where you’re considered pretentious if you wear socks to Court…

Sincerely, Becky N. Klemt

So just for the heck of it, let’s just change the names and place on Klemt’s letter see what we come up with:

Dear Ann-Marie: I’ve got news — you can’t say that having to choose between the State Department and Princeton means that you “can’t have it all” without sounding pretentious. It just can’t be done. Especially when you are writing for women readers who live in places like Spokane — women who view “having it all” to mean accepting career moves, perhaps a long-sought promotion into an executive position that will make it easier to help the older kids with college, while, on the other hand, almost impossible to spend important time with the younger children. And as for help from husbands? Well, most are just recently rehired in new jobs and will be on the road most weeks, trying to help make ends meet.

Did the folks at the Atlantic, long my favorite monthly, get Ms. Slaughter’s name from central casting? Were they looking for a woman writer who best fits the stereotype of the out-of-touch, upper-class, highly educated, feminist Eastern elitist?

Or is it that they intended this to be a humor piece, the kind of sophisticated, bicoastal ironic humor that us rubes in Laramie and Spokane take a while to get? Marie Antoinette lives in Princeton masquerading as Gloria Steinem? Was that it?

And to pull it off, they had to find a women whose idea of a “dream job” comes off as self-absorption wrapped in obliviousness?

I know — we’re slow on the uptake out here behind the Pine Tree Curtain. But, hey, don’t give up on us. Next time we will be ready to “LOL.”

Live From Somewhere @ Red Room Lounge

Sat., April 17, 6 p.m.
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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.