Slaughter, 54, was at Dartmouth College, giving a speech on work and family, when her appointment was announced. She traveled to Washington later in the week to address the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, of which she is a former president. And over the weekend she was in Boston, where she was the toastmaster at the Harvard Law Review banquet. She spoke to Style’s Frances Stead Sellers while en route back to Princeton for Sunday dinner with her husband and two sons.
An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
The New America Foundation was founded in 1999 with an ambition to invest in “new thinkers and new ideas” and tackle the next generation of challenges facing the United States. Which new ideas will you be focusing on?
I’m not taking the job because I want to pursue specific ideas of my own. I am going to be spending six months figuring out what we should be doing.
We already have lots of programs, on fiscal policy, foreign policy, education and technology — including the Open Technology Institute, which has the best group of technologists in Washington. They actually write code, working on developing products that help dissident or opposition groups in very repressive states communicate with each other and with the outside world. In national security, we have drafted a grand strategy of leading a transition to a sustainable world. We also have a program on work and family, and I plan to build it up.
But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s lead from the center, not from the front.
There’s been a huge increase in the number of think tanks over the past 50 years, and many are becoming more active as advocacy organizations. How do you plan to distinguish New America from, say, Heritage on the right and Brookings on the left?
This is one of the things that attracted me to this job. We really are nonpartisan. We look for big ideas that meet big challenges, and we don’t care which side of the political aisle they come from. We are not a think tank that has a whole lot of institutes and centers and legacy programs that you have to fund. We aim to be much more nimble, on the Silicon Valley model. We are an incubator of ideas; we nurture them and then spin off a program or more direct policy work.
Take the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget run by Maya MacGuineas. It grew in size and influence while housed at the foundation for the past 10 years and was recently spun off as an independent organization. Or the ideas fostered through our 20 senior fellows, like Gregory Rodriguez. He went on to found Zocalo in L.A., a public space for civic community that explores what it means to be a citizen. It’s a separate organization. We’ve come back to partner with it, but it’s no longer ours.
Think tanks have been called “universities without students.” Will you miss academic life?
The thing I will miss the most are the students. But a large part of teaching is mentoring young people, and I will continue to do that in Washington. The staff of New America is very young.
But my life has evolved away from academia. Princeton doesn’t have a law school, and I’m not comfortable in the contemporary political science space. So I felt it was time to move to a different way of connecting ideas to policy. Our fellows program means we can identify academics who have important ideas that need to be injected into the policy space.
You’ve written or edited six books and numerous academic articles, but the piece you are best known for is the article published in the Atlantic last year about why women can’t “have it all.” It wasn’t a particularly new idea — although it may be one of the most important challenges facing America. And I wonder why you thought of it as a gender piece? Nobody — male or female — can hold down one of the biggest jobs at State and be an engaged parent almost 200 miles away.
That’s true. But that wasn’t really what the article was about. The fact is that it’s still much easier for men. When a new baby is coming, nobody looks at a guy and says, “How are you going to manage that?” My experience in not taking a promotion to jobs I would have loved made me understand how many women, including many of my own friends, have had to step back.
I have always been one of the lucky few, through money, energy and by being a writer and an academic.
What’s new is that this is now an issue in the younger generation that is much more for men and for women. And women are much more part of the workforce. We are really in a position to make change.
You take over at New America in September. Your family is in Princeton, where your husband is a professor of politics. What does this new job mean for family/work balance?
We’ve had a terrific two-plus years since I left State. The boys are 14 and 16, and doing great. But it’s become harder and harder to manage my life at Princeton, and I’ve been traveling an enormous amount. That article added an entire other enormous dimension of work. I’ve probably given 100 speeches since July on work and family.
We first met more than 20 years ago, and you’ve always pushed yourself hard. But you don’t have to do it all, right? There’s a lot of choice in this.
How could I start this conversation and not continue it? I accept probably one in five of the invitations that have poured in — from government organizations, corporations, women’s groups, as well as a whole set of global invitations.
New America is one of the few places that will let me combine my own work on foreign policy and social policy while empowering talented individuals to generate ideas and policies to actually make change.
At New America, I will probably be traveling less. I plan to be in D.C. a couple of days a week. I will also be in New York — that’s a day trip for me — where New America has an event space. And I’ll be working from home one day a week.
The thing that is most important is to make my own schedule, to be my own boss, so that if my kids have activities or if I need to go off to see colleges, I can do that. I think it’s going to be a much more predictable life.
My kids are quite excited. They say, “It’s beast.”