I’m pretty sure this is a Soviet poster for International Women’s Day.

Are IR scholars relevant to policy? IR scholar and famous policymaker Anne-Marie Slaughter addresses that puzzle, which principally concerns only IR scholars, in a roundabout way in a new article in The Atlantic asking whether women can “have it all”–a puzzle that concerns a great many more people. She also addresses these concerns in a follow-up Q&A on The New York Times Web site.

I mention this because although I am not demographically directly interested (being neither a woman, nor a parent, nor, for that matter, employed) I am of course keenly aware of these tradeoffs, or as keenly aware as anyone at second-hand can be. Slaughter’s answer–which is a pretty unequivocal “no”–strikes me as being, at least, honest, and her trepidation in broaching the topic given her feeling seems sincere as well.

What I particularly appreciate is her diagnosis that academia is the friendliest, or at least among the friendlier, industries for women to balance “work” and “life.” (I hate the phrase “work-life balance,” though; I see work as an important part of my life, not an interruption of it.) And yet …

And yet, now I’m going to ramble a bit.

There is a creeping sense, occasionally publicly broached by commentators like Matt Yglesias (see Tim Burke here), that academia is too comfortable, too cosseted, and altogether too flexible–that we must all begin to work like Stakhanovites to fulfill our quotas of instruction and research at lower wages and with less well prepared students.

As U.S. society is being changed by, in no particular order, the AI revolution, the imposition of austerity, and the polarization of politics, it strikes me that we–and here I mean good liberals–don’t have a good sense anymore of how to address concerns like Slaughter’s in the context of change. Feminist demands were fairly easily accommodated in a distributional politics setting (not to devalue activism! I mean in comparison to accommodating peasants’ demands in the French Revolution). But the contemporary erosion of settled institutions suggests that the sort of full-throated defense and advocacy of particular points of view that characterized the 1960s and 1970s will come back in vogue–but, this time, as outcomes become more zero-sum, compromises grow less likely.

That’s a pessimistic conclusion, since it points to a future where there is less and less space for creating the kind of lifestyle that we’ve come to accept, even to define, as “middle class.” But there is no law of social science that requires the future to be like the present, only more so. In fact, it is very nearly the opposite.

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