Monday, June 26, 2006

Linda Hirshman is right. So why are so many women picking on her?

By Nancy Jane Moore

Linda R. Hirshman has come up with one reason why we have so few women in significant leadership positions, despite decades of feminism: Too many women with the contacts and education for leadership roles are staying home with the kids. And a lot of them seem to think they've actually "chosen" this role, when in fact the role has been defined for them.

In "Homeward Bound," her article that appeared last fall in The American Prospect, Hirshman writes:
The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are "choosing" to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you've got a perfect recipe for feminism's stall.
Her article focused on upper class white women with elite educations who "chose" to quit working to raise children, not on the majority of women who work out of economic necessity. She argues:
[E]lites supply the labor for the decision-making classes -- the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference.
And she adds:
[T]he behavior tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler.
Now I think Hirshman has made a valid and valuable point. The feminist movement, by promoting the idea that it was legitimate for a woman to choose to stay home and keep house (conveniently borrowing the concept of choice from abortion politics, where it was more politically palatable to say "pro-choice" than "pro-abortion"), avoided addressing the core problem of who has to deal with the necessary, but not particularly fulfilling, daily chores of family life. As she says:
Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, "Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor."
In other words, the feminist movement of the 1970s made a compromise not unlike the one its earlier sister made back in the early part of the 20th Century when Susan B. Anthony and others decided to concentrate on the right to vote and pushed aside more radical thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton who wanted a broader agenda.

And just as we debate today whether going for the suffrage amendment at the expense of broader rights was the best choice, so should we also be talking about the compromises we and our more recent foremothers made in the last push for women's rights. After all, women do have significantly broader rights at this point -- even though the Equal Rights Amendment didn't pass -- than we had when I was born. But even if that compromise was a wise choice, one can still argue that it is now time to address the family inequities.

If all the people who are attacking Linda Hirshman were focusing on that point, I think she would welcome the debate (and I know I would). But they're not. To a woman -- and apparently most of them are women -- they're attacking her because she dares to say that staying home with children doesn't allow women to attain their full potential.

The blogosphere exploded last fall shortly after her piece was published. She writes about the whole experience wittily in a June 18 Washington Post article "Everybody Hates Linda." (free registration required, but worth the effort) As she summarizes:
The mommyblogs vilified me as a single, childless, bitter loser; the feminists claimed women weren't quitting; and a chorus of other voices didn't care what I said -- criticizing women just wasn't allowed. A handful of political thinkers did concede that I had raised the biggest issue left for feminism -- justice in the family -- but it was definitely a minority report.
Hirshman also noted in the Post article that many of her critics were tied to fundamentalist religious groups. She says:
Time and again, when I could identify the sources of the most rabid criticism and Google them, male and female, they had fundamentalist religious stuff on their Web sites or in the involuntary biographies that Google makes possible. A lot of the fundamentalism behind the stay-at-home mom movement is overt, such as the letters worrying about my soul that appeared after the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary suggested his followers chat me up. But a lot of it is covert, such as the identity of the authors of manuals disguised as tips on frugal housekeeping, but actually proselytizing women to stay home, as the Bible suggests.
Now here's the funny part: On June 24 the Post ran reactions to the article on their weekly Free for All page -- an expanded form of letters to the editor. They ran six letters -- all of them negative -- five from women who used terms like "dangerous and sad" to describe Hirshman's ideas and talked about motherhood as the most important job, and one from a male sociology professor who said, "My own research . . . indicates that stay-at-home mothers are more likely to have happier marriages than working mothers."

I find it hard to believe that the Post didn't get at least one letter supporting Hirshman. Or at least one letter taking on the real issue, which is not whether taking care of the family is important and necessary work, but rather whether it is automatically the exclusive domain of women. As Hirshman puts it in the American Prospect piece:
Here's the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, "A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read."
I don't think Hirshman has the whole answer on this subject. The glass ceiling is still real -- the reaction to the Episcopal Church's selection of a woman presiding bishop is just the latest proof of that. In Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives, psychiatrist Anna Fels argues that women drop out of various jobs at a higher rate than men because they don't get the same recognition that men do. Recognition, Fels says, is crucial to reaching goals. As I summarized when I reviewed this book in 2005:
Fels's book focuses on the importance of ambition and recognition. The two things go together, she points out. Generally, ambitions involve a striving for mastery in a field, and a wish to be appreciated for that mastery. According to Fels, the drive to master a skill is fundamental to human ambition and people are rarely satisfied by recognition for something that requires no effort, such as family heritage. But they definitely do want to be recognized for their skills, Fels points out: Neither mastery without recognition nor recognition without mastery satisfy most people.
But Hirshman has added real depth to the discussion by bringing us back to the arguments Betty Friedan first raised in The Feminine Mystique. Hirshman has a new book: Get to Work: A Manifesto for the Women of the World. I've ordered a copy and will review it on In This Moment once I get a chance to read it.

1 comment:

Jamie Lynk, Sarasota FL said...

Bravo! Yet with the debate focusing on women who can afford not to work, we're still not addressing one of the crucial issues for all working women:
good, affordable Daycare.

While we posture and pontificate, what about all the poor working stiffs -- the ladies at McDonalds (or Wal-Mart)who are there because they don't have the skills for any other job and because they NEED A JOB -- what do we offer them. And, let's not forget that many of these women are the sole income providers for their families.

These women don't give a fat rat's behind about someone who can choose to stay home until little Katie goes to Kindergarten and who in two to four years will be right back in the job market earning big bucks.

Somehow, we've got to get the women in these two diverse social groups on common ground. To get them both to see that they are being held back because they are women. One lady will continue to work at Mac's because there's no alternative for her. And that other lady will never make it to the top of her profession because she took time out.

GOOD AFFORDABLE DAYCARE FOR ALL -- what a call to action for all women.