The Recline! Response (Part 1)

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Julianne Smith, and Mieke Eoyang take on Rosa Brooks' Manifesto for the new working woman.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE

Everyone, it seems, now has a plan to design the most efficient professional woman: part machine, part mom — and always satisfied. Needless to say, much of this advice has been exhausting. So when FP‘s Rosa Brooks encouraged women to recline in a La-Z-Boy, rather than "lean in" to all aspects of life — and still be successful — well, that got thousands of FP‘s readers talking. In fact, more than 60,000 readers have already shared her column across social networks.

So what are other notable women (and men) saying about Recline! and Brooks’s follow-up column Slack? Nap? Snooze?  FP caught up with a few to get their sense of the Recline Revolution, and we will be publishing their comments throughout the week.

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Anne-Marie Slaughter:

The most important thing that Rosa Brooks has done with "Recline!" has been to inject a much-needed note of humor into our oh-so-serious feminist debates. They are serious, above all, for the millions of women, as Rosa suggests, who have no option of leaning in or leaning back, but struggle simply to stay upright and afloat. Still, no one with any sense of humor at all could avoid laughing out loud while reading Recline. Indeed, I suspect that Sheryl Sandberg herself must have laughed.

The absence of a sense of humor — which requires a sense of perspective and the ability to step outside your own beliefs and commitments and laugh at yourself a little, at least a little — is what so often turns young women off about what they perceive the traditional feminist movement to be. The most effective movements blend humor, creativity, commitment, ideas, and inclusion.

On the more serious side, Rosa also surfaced an important disagreement among some of us who are fully committed to push back against the insanity of trying to have full-time careers and full-time caregiving responsibilities at the same time — something no male CEO I know tries to do. Our disagreement is not over substance so much as the advisability of revealing any chinks in our collective armor in public. 

Rebecca Traister’s response to Brooks’ piece is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s desire not to debate with me in public. She has a legitimate concern that the media will then focus on a perceived disagreement between us rather than on the larger goal of achieving true equality between men and women. I understand and respect this perspective, but also respectfully disagree.

Intelligent, powerful women should be able to have a debate among themselves just as intelligent powerful men can. That human beings are naturally drawn to disagreements and debate rather than lockstep uniformity is at the heart of dialectical progress. We structure our entire legal system on the adversary principle for a reason.

I, for one, think that the women’s movement has certainly come far enough to allow for robust, humorous and substantive debate. In my view, that can only advance us further.  Let’s all recline, read, and share a laugh.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of the New America Foundation, and former director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position.

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Julianne Smith:

Last summer, after four-plus years with the administration, including one year as the deputy national security advisor to the vice president, I quit my job, let our nanny go and became a stay-at-home mom. 

I didn’t simply recline. I went horizontal. 

What was it like to transition from DNSA to SAHM? Let’s just say expectations didn’t always line up with reality. While I was still at the White House — particularly on days that ended well past my son’s bedtime — I’d imagine the glory of my upcoming move. Sometimes, as I sat in the Situation Room, my mind flipped through a montage of summer snapshots: teaching my son to swim, going for walks in the woods, and enjoying picnics in the park all without a BlackBerry or secure phone. 

In truth, my son and I did all of those things last summer and more. We took day trips to museums and local farms, literally reclined on the back porch and watched the wind blow, and took long naps. After too many missed bedtime routines, I was grateful to have the luxury of spending full days with my son and many more nights and weekends with my husband. 

But the summer wasn’t without its challenges. I lost connective tissue with friends still in the administration and a sense of belonging. I found that rainy days were long and sometimes my patience wore thin. I discovered that making a 3-D cake is much harder than solving Syria. And sometimes, I missed my BlackBerry. Of course, none of these realizations made me enjoy the summer any less. But they did help me understand that there was no need to side with Sheryl Sandberg, Ann-Marie Slaughter or Rosa Brooks in the never-ending debate about working moms. 

I have the good fortune of being able to choose when I want to lean in or recline, and it’s okay if those instincts occasionally kick in all at the same time.

Julianne Smith is senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security and former deputy national security advisor to the vice president of the United States.

* * *

Mieke Eoyang:

Lean in. Recline. Have it all. Don’t. A girl could pull a muscle watching the debate rage over work-family balance. But for some of us, it’s like watching Wimbledon. We’re watching the elite athletes in a game we may never play, whether or not we’d be good at it.

For many women, the debate over a work-family balance is an academic one — because they don’t have children, and it is overwhelmingly family that sits on the other side of the scale. Talking to a number of my friends who are single women (and some men), they often find that they are the ones who pick up the slack for their colleagues when family comes first.

Without a family, one has no excuse to decline that rubber-chicken dinner where someone must go to "show the flag." For the childless, there are not early departures for soccer games, sick kids, or parent-teacher conferences. If a colleague goes out on maternity (or in a sign of increasing gender equality, paternity) leave, that TPS report doesn’t write itself. 

Over the course of my career I have watched the 24-hour news cycle, cell phones, BlackBerrys, video conferencing, and finally mobile desktops let the office follow us everywhere. It becomes increasingly more difficult to protect one’s personal time against the demands of work and its crises — real and imagined — especially when one cannot point to children’s needs as a countervailing force. It feels like shirking to say that we cannot tackle that project because we need to go for a run, see friends, or even just catch up on Homeland. But everyone needs a break.

I have held jobs that were all-consuming, where I had to quit my gym because I never left the office. But I have since realized that I am the only one who can make my health and my own life a priority, and they are just as important to me as other people’s kids or spouses are to them. In the absence of family, I have chosen to put my life first.

Mieke Eoyang is the Director of the National Security Program at Third Way. She tweets under @miekeeoyang.

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