Monday, January 02, 2006


Linda Hirschman, who retired as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University, has written an article in this month's American Prospect. It's a very thorough, well-written perspective on modern feminism that I think contains much important information.

Hirshman notes that the advances of women in the workplace have stalled in the late 1990's. She believes that this stall has been created by renewed emphasis on homemaking and child-rearing, with the default cultural response being that women perform the task. She cites abundant data to back up what is happening. What she lacks, is abundant data as to why it's happening.

The premise of her article can be summarized by the article heading:
“Choice feminism” claims that staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option. Funny that most men rarely make the same “choice.” Exactly what kind of choice is that?
An interesting thought. I can think of many reasons for the "choices" made by both men and women. But Hirshman has some specific thoughts.

Hirshman's article goes on to examine why, postulating that it never really has been a choice and that women are forced into their roles as homemakers. Further, she claims that when the homemaking role is chosen, it's a bad choice:
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.”
Ok. So housework can be mind numbing. And I agree that it is a better choice to pursue a rounded existence that includes involvement outside the home. And I also think it's better for society when women are equally involved and representated in our institutions. But just how and why is the "assigning" done?
Women who want to have sex and children with men as well as good work in interesting jobs where they may occasionally wield real social power need guidance, and they need it early.
This statement is the crux of Hirshman's point. Throughout the article, Hirshman's implication is that having a choice is not a good approach. And I can totally agree that those women who want to expand outside the home need support and encouragement. She evens outlines a detailed plan for how to reach women, encourage them, and promote equal involvment of women in our decision-making society. She further elaborates:
The privileged brides of the Times [an article written some time back about well-educated women staying home as homemakers] -- and their husbands -- seem happy. Why do we care what they do? After all, most people aren’t rich and white and heterosexual, and they couldn’t quit working if they wanted to.

We care because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times. This last is called the “regime effect,” and it means that even if women don’t quit their jobs for their families, they think they should and feel guilty about not doing it. That regime effect created the mystique around The Feminine Mystique, too.
Again, I agree with the second part. But how does Hirshman know that the interviewed wives only "seem" happy? There are two areas about which I'm unclear in Hirshman's arguments, or with which I disagree.

First, I just don't see how you get the "choice" out of it. Force young mothers to work? What of women who proclaim their honest desire to be stay-at-home moms? There's a premise to Hirshman's article that there is an enormous pool of women staying at home who really really don't want to. I don't know, perhaps she's correct. But maybe she's not. Maybe with the feminist movement of the 70's women (particularly wealthy women) were really freed to make a choice. And many have made it. And isn't it possible that many have happily chosen to stay home? Could there be biology at work here, a tug stronger for women than men in early childhood rearing? And what of the economics of the situation? Aren't there people (of both sexes) who may prefer to stay home and child-rear rather than work, but work out of economic necessity? Hirshman might argue that a "requirement" to work is a good, fulfilling element of a quality life. But what of individual liberty ... to be able to choose a more limited existence? It seems to me that this choice is not one limited to one sex or the other.

Next, Hirshman paints a glorified image of life outside the home that makes one think that everyone, absolutely anyone with half a brain would want to be in the working world. Perhaps that's just not true. Certainly since the feminist movement, many men have chosen to be stay-at-home dads while wives are the primary bread-winners. From a masculine standpoint, couldn't it be argued that for a lot of men, there's the tyranny of "having to be the breadwinner" while women retain the "choice" to work? While Hirshman admittedly is talking about "elite women", what of the vast majority of the rest of femaledom? Unlike the picture painted in Hirshman's piece, most jobs in the economy are not glamorous decision-making positions where individuals achieve enormous self-esteem and personal satisfaction from being a part of the working world. In fact many, maybe most, jobs can be as mind numbing as housework.

Of course, Bobo (David Brooks) had a response column in the NY Times, expressing the neandrathal point of view. I agree with much of the takedown done by Pandagon on Bobo's article. But because Bobo criticizes Hirshman also doesn't mean that Hirshman is therefore correct.

I have no doubt that there remain a large group of woman who feel stigmatized to stay home, who feel guilty when they have careers and families, who do double duty as workers and homemakers with little help from husbands. Support for these women to assert themselves into lives of personal satisfaction is a fantastic goal. But make no mistake about it, achieving that goal is something not given. It requires these women step outside themselves and to take the equality of choice. Power of this sort is never given. It's to these women that Hirshman's article is valuable.

I also have little doubt that many, many people, in the final analysis, pretty much do what they want or need to do. On evaluation, I think most of us look at our choices, weight the consequences, and live the life we choose. Sure, we all grumble, bitch, and complain about whatever choice we make. That's de rigeur . But most of us are right where, for a variety of reasons, we've chosen to be. And in a free society, that's our right. For those who aren't (btw, both male and female), support should be given to their honest efforts to change and better their lives. This is an issue that I see as being a personist issue, not just feminist.


At 10:28 AM, Anonymous Kim said...

I noticed that Hirschman -- and many feminists, in general -- focus largely (if not entirely) on issues affecting females from birth to young adulthood – and there is no mention of issues facing older women. I think some of the most punctuated and demonstrative examples of gender disparity in the US are illustrated when you look at older women. Society needs more discussions on how women who "choose" to give up their careers to raise children (for whatever reason, and regardless of whether or not they are happy) are depriving themselves of critical retirement savings, pensions, and health care benefits. With more women living longer than in previous decades, and with healthcare costs rising dramatically, why aren't more people -- especially women -- framing the issue from this perspective? Men and women alike need to consider the negative impact that lower salaries/lack of salaries have on women during their retirement years. Unfortunately, in the coming decades we will probably hear more and more about women who performed unpaid labor as stay-at-home moms and now have little-to-no money OF THEIR OWN for retirement (i.e., in addition to their husbands' savings...if they are entitled to them). Demographics tell us that we must broaden the discussion to examine the consequences that career decisions will have on women during their later years! After all, we're the gender that lives the longest -- we should be prepared for it the most!


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