Those Never-Ending Mommy Wars

I considered avoiding the Linda Hirshman debacle-in-progress, but what the hell.

It goes like this: A while back, Hirshman wrote a piece for The American Prospect in which she argued that working was better for women than staying at home. Now she’s essentially expanded it into a book, and touched on some of the issues it raised in a recent Washington Post op/ed. And she’s managed to piss off stay-at-home moms, feminists, conservatives, and just about everyone in between.

Now, I’ll start off by saying that I don’t agree with Hirshman that working is better for every person than staying at home is. I’m not a mom, but I have one, and even with two grown kids her job isn’t easy. She works full-time (and worked part-time throughout my 18 years at home), cares for her eldery mother, maintains her house by herself (including doing the “guy stuff” like fixing leaks, hanging the Christmas lights, and painting the walls), and provides a home for my sister and I during our fairly frequent holiday stays in Seattle. She adores her kids (who include not only my sister and I, but our various friends and neighbors who she takes under her wing), cries when we leave, and supports us in everything we do. She’s throwing my best friend a wedding celebration because her super-religious family won’t (said friend has left her religion and is marrying outside of it). During the school year she sends me whatever extra money she can, and she gives my sister and I her frequent flier miles so that we can come home more often. She’s an amazing woman who, since her divorce from my dad, has managed to discover herself and pursue her own dreams after a life of putting everyone else first: She went back to school for her MBA, re-connected with her female friends, scored major promotions at work, traveled to Europe for the first time in her life, and climbed Macchu Picchu in Peru.

And she still says that being a mom is her greatest accomplishment, and her toughest challenge. She wishes she had more kids. She worked part-time so that she could be home with us as much as possible. Those experiences and opinions are valid, and important.

So you will hear none of this “being a mom is easy” business from me. You also won’t hear me say that working outside the home is always better than staying home full-time. I don’t fully accept Hirshman’s argument. But I do think she makes a decent point when she writes that:

I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings. They do not require a great intellect, they are not honored and they do not involve risks and the rewards that risk brings. Oh, and by the way, where were the dads when all this household labor was being distributed? Maybe the thickest glass ceiling, I wrote, is at home.

Now to be fair, most paid labor isn’t worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings, either. But I think her most important point is that household labor is simply not honored — it’s not honored because women disproportionally do it, and women disproportionally do it because it’s not honored. Ditto with paid stereotypically feminine careers like nursing, social work, and child care. This is a problem, and it’s worth pointing out that stay-at-home moms are under-valued, despite all the empty rhetoric paid to how child-rearing is supposedly the most important job in the world. If it’s so important, why aren’t highly-educated, talented men staying at home in droves?

And household labor is boring, repetitive, and not highly skilled. Doing the dishes sucks, but someone’s gotta do them. The question is why it’s assumed that that person will be female.

A “home-maker” is female. A “careerist” is female (are men ever vilified for working?).

It’s also important to point out that it’s still pretty kosher to criticize women for continuing to work after having children, but criticizing women for staying at home is apparently off-limits. Although I’d appreciate it if we would stay away from attacking the choices that individuals make and instead go after the system that limits real choice for all women (I’ll call this my “blowjob theory“). Recognize that one can make a whole slew of personal choices and still be a feminist; further recognize that saying “It’s unassailable because I chose it” isn’t a particularly compelling argument, and that even personal choices should be examined through a feminist lens — we just shouldn’t be calling one’s feminist credentials into question because they don’t make choices that are identical to ours.

When it comes to social views of motherhood, there’s a lot to go after. While in some limited, mostly urban, circles being a stay-at-home mom is looked upon skeptically, the general American consensus is that it’s a good thing. Women who have children are guilt-tripped for working, for not breastfeeding, for putting their kids in daycare, for giving their children too much attention or for not giving them enough. Stay-at-home dads are a curious anomoly. Institutional barriers further discourage mothers from working: Parental leave is inadequate, daycare is pricey or unavailable, work schedules are inflexible. Parenthood is simply not honored or facilitated, culturally or institutionally.

So it’s disappointing to see a very intelligent feminist philosopher going after individual women for the choices they make instead of deeply examining what’s pushing them into those choices (to her credit, she does this to an extent, but seems happier setting up a Career Women vs. Mommies false dichotomy). The fact is that The Career Women and The Mommies are often the same people, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes at different times of their lives.

But it’s also frustrating to see some of the reactions from the anti-Hirshman, pro-feminist side. That argument essentially goes, “Staying at home is my choice, and feminism is about choice.” Sure. And feminists like me will work our asses off to give all people the widest range of choices possible in all areas of their lives. But as much as we value choice, we also realize that most choices are not made in a vacuum. Most choices are not made entirely freely. So we must seek to dismantle the various barriers to free choice — and sometimes those barriers are pretty well-hidden. The fact that women are largely relegated to low-paying, under-valued, low-skilled careers can be simply explained away by positing that women are “choosing” to work those jobs, whereas men are “choosing” higher-paid but similarly-skilled careers. But I think most of us realize it’s a little more complicated than that. Isn’t stay-at-home parenthood similar?

Or, to borrow from Maia because she says it so much better than I can, although in reference to a different issue:

I think there is some danger that this sort of analysis leads to the sort of paralysis that comes when feminists talk as if ‘choice’ was the most important thing for women. I used the word ‘actions’ rather than ‘choices’ in this post, and I’ve did that deliberately. To me the point of feminism isn’t to give women choices, but to make sure that we don’t have to make them. We don’t have to be virgins or whores, or career women or housewives. We have to make shitty choices every single day – for me the point of feminism isn’t to celebrate shitty choices, but make sure we don’t have to choose.

Yes. The point is to allow every woman to simply become herself, without being pushed into narrow categories. The point is to allow every human simple individuality. (And go read Maia’s whole post).

I’m also hesitant to assume that employment is the end-all be-all to personal happiness. Sure, getting a paycheck is nice. But it’s a largely privileged, upper-class, bourge-y perpective which allows one to equate employment with career with identity, and lets one assume that what one does for a paycheck is also what one enjoys. Self-actualization, I suppose, is the ideal, but it’s a privileged few who are able to get there through their jobs. Most people work to make money, and there are far more people getting paid for waiting tables, cooking food, cleaning up messes, building things, and doing manual labor than there are making money pursuing their dreams. I’d imagine that there are plenty of people, male and female alike, who would genuinely be most content focusing most of their efforts on child-rearing.

I hate the “Mommy Wars.” I think they’re largely constructed, and I think it’s unfortunate that the “feminist position” is being staked out by easily-charicatured thinkers like Hirshman. I think it’s really unfortunate that individual women are being made to feel guilty or useless or under attack for whichever decisions they’ve made about work and family. However, just because I don’t buy Hirshman’s argument in full doesn’t mean that there isn’t some value in it. I also think that, on some level, we need the extremes to keep us on our toes, and to push farther in our personal feminist philosophies. I hope that, at the very least, we’re able to parse through some of the issues she’s raised and strategize ways that we can help all people have the widest range of options possible, regardless of which paths they take in their lives. I hope we can do this without guilting and shaming, and without overly-simplied choice language. Thoughts?


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32 comments for “Those Never-Ending Mommy Wars

  1. June 21, 2006 at 10:30 am

    Maybe I’m projecting my own sentiments onto Hirshman’s writing, but I didn’t take her to be devaluing the overall moral weight and usefulness of the work mothers do at home. It seemed more to me that Hirshman was laying out constructive and realistic steps a woman could take to maintain self-sufficiency and power over her life. We can analyze the consumerist, sexist, male-dominated power structure all we want, but as long as power is bound up in it, the easiest way to get and keep your own power is to play the game, to some extent. Advocating for better child care, more flexibility in the workplace for families, and different attitudes toward housework and gender is great, but it relies on everyone else changing, and staying changed. Women need more to protect them from any kind of backlash against feminist progress – and economic self-sufficiency and the flexibility to survive without a partner are pretty reliable in a world like the one we live in. Moreso than subsidized daycare and sensitivity training, anyway. (I wrote more on this subject here if anyone’s interested.)

  2. June 21, 2006 at 10:39 am

    I think you’re right on target. No one will ever listen to Hirshman because she is stressing the mommy-war aspect of her article at the expense of the good stuff.

    Ultimately (and maybe I am reading this into her article), I think she could be considered a “choice” feminist. She is arguing that as it stands now, women don’t have real choices because of the overwhelming societal pressures we face to be the primary caretakers of our children. If more women reject that role and go for the career track, then we will eventually reach a point where the work-family division of labor isn’t so heavily gendered based on societal expectations — and then people can make truly free choices.

  3. raging red
    June 21, 2006 at 10:47 am

    I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings.

    This rubs me the wrong way, and I’m a single woman with no intention of having children any time in the foreseeable future. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a rich, spoiled friend I had in college about parents who say they want their kids to “live up to their fullest potential.” I told her that sounds like code for “get the highest paying job they’re capable of getting.” The conversation came up because her parents had expressed some disappointment that her younger sister had decided she wanted to be “just a teacher,” whereas my friend had decided to go to medical school. They didn’t think their younger daughter would be living up to her fullest potential by being a teacher, nevermind that that’s what she had decided she would be happiest doing.

    It’s elitist bullshit, and Jill definitely touched on it when pointing out that not every job is some fully actualized intellectually challenging career. Just because someone is intellectually capable of being a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever, doesn’t mean they have somehow failed if they do something that requires less intellectualism. If a woman genuinely wants to stay at home and raise children even though she is intellectually capable of being a lawyer or whatever, why is that seen as a negative? Hirshman and all feminists should definitely examine people’s choices through a feminist lens, but she appears to be operating from the premise that being a stay-at-home-mom is “lesser” work, not just because it’s not valued in our society, but because it’s not intellectual. And what’s that about there not being “risks and the rewards that risk brings” if you’re a stay-at-home-mom? What does she mean there? There are plenty of risks to being a SAHM. What’s she talking about? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t get what she’s saying.)

  4. AB
    June 21, 2006 at 11:51 am

    Well, one thing that all this Hirshman discussion is valuable for is making me realize the very diverse views of what the ultimate goal of feminism is–and to make me really examine what I think it should be. I have a very knee-jerk reaction to the statement “but feminism is all about choice!” and I’m still trying to unpack that.

    I don’t believe feminism is about choice, or about making women happy. The second one really gets me, too–has there ever been a social justice movement that was about making people happy as its primary goal? (Other than the move to decriminalize drugs? Kidding.) I really believe that feminism is a social justice movement, and that its ultimate goal is to reverse centuries of women being treated (at best) like children or (at worst) like property. To have women legally and socially be treated as full adults and full citizens. And in some ways, this is going to be a bit incompatible with just making women happy: I mean, being an adult is sometimes unpleasant and it would in some ways be easier to be taken care of. I see the idea that we should be raising women to expect that they must get jobs and support themselves as part and parcel of the whole adult thing: yes, it may be more rewarding to stay home and raise children. But you still have to financially support yourself, because you’re an adult, and that’s what adults do.

    Of course, I realize it’s more complicated than that because our work world is not set up to allow people to easily raise families and support themselves. And I’m not in favor of treating raising children as an anamoly: it’s a part of the human condition, and it should be treated and accomodated as such. I suppose I think that we cannot (and should not) judge women who leave the paid labor force to raise children, but that we should work to change the working world to allow women and men to do both, and the ultimate goal should be a world where both men and women work and raise children at the same time.

    My thoughts on this are still evolving, however, so I’d be interested in hearing other people’s take on this.

  5. June 21, 2006 at 11:52 am

    I’m an at-home mother, well-educated, though my career wasn’t of the “elite” sort (teacher), but I appreciate what Hirshman is saying. As more of us put our careers on hold, perhaps derailing them altogether, women have less chance of effecting change in the big sphere. Look at Congress. One rising star lawyer, or academic, or corporate executive, or whatever, “opts out” – big deal. Multiply her by thousands, and suddenly the world looks very different.

    I fully appreciate that staying at home is not using my talents to the greatest impact, in the big picture. I intended to work after I had my kids. I couldn’t do it. I’m at peace with my choice (I do believe, most of the time, that it was one, not pressure from “gendered norms”), but I also accept that what women like me are doing has political fallout.

    And as she says, she’s a philosopher. She’s supposed to provoke.

  6. Julie
    June 21, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    I see the idea that we should be raising women to expect that they must get jobs and support themselves as part and parcel of the whole adult thing: yes, it may be more rewarding to stay home and raise children. But you still have to financially support yourself, because you’re an adult, and that’s what adults do.

    But the fact of the matter is that MOST stay at home mother’s do take care of a great deal, they just contribute less financially. There are also a lot of savings to be had by staying home for some women. For instance, I have been a working mom for two years now. My daughter stayed with my mom during the times when the husband and I both had to work, and home with us whenever we weren’t. Well, child number two is on the way and my mom is sick of babysitting, so in order for me to continue to work, we would need to put both of them in daycare. So we looked into it and we would actually lose money by my continuing to work, because it would cost more to have them in daycare than I bring home. So my staying home and taking care of our children, which is something that I enjoy more than my work anyway, IS part of me being an adult and helping to support the running of our household. I am well aware of the risks incumbent in doing so, and have addressed all of them that I can, but for our family right now this IS what works best and the fact of the matter is that sometimes the choice to stay home has less to do with what makes you happy and what works best for your family. I think we can ask women to look at why they want to stay home, but the fact of the matter is that being a stay at home mom is not a way to avoid adult responsibility and have someone else take care of you. I work harder at home than I do at work, there’s not a doubt about it.
    To get back to the main point of the article, yeah, housework is definately undervalued by society as is childrearing and I have heard more than once “that’s women’s work”. (Not from my husband mind you, he knows better, but from other people) My father is a shining example of the attitude that says “Well, you stay home all day, while I actually WORK, so this all your responsibility”. The thing is though, whether someone stays home or not, the housework still has to be done. When we are both working outside of the home, we split it equally and a lot of it just doesn’t get done, but it’s equally as mindnumbing for both of us. Right now, I’m home, but I am also 9 months pregnant, so my husband does most of it. When I’m more able to do things, I’ll probably pick up more of the housework than he does, but his job is not exactly intellectually stimulating either, he works in a restaurant. As Jill said, just because you work outside the home, doesn’t mean that you have a wonderful, fufilling career that stimulates your intellect. And frankly, even though housework is not what I call intellectually stimulating, childcare can be. My daughter is incredibly curious and intelligent and I love exposing her to new things, working with her on her language skills, teaching her things, etc… and it’s actually remarkably similar to what I do when I work outside the home (I write trainings for people with developmental disabilities so that staff can consistently work with them to develop their independent living skills). So, while I absolutely think it’s important that we examine our choices/lifestyles thoroughly and ask the important questions (Why do I want to stay home? Am I being pressured? Is it expected of me? Will I resent my children/spouse?, etc…) it’s equally important to recognize that women on a whole are a smart enough to examine their life and their situation and make the choice that works best for them and their family without turning it into a mommy war.
    Oh, and I do agree with MommaSteph… I can appreciate the argument that I’ve given up the ability to effect change in the larger sphere, but I don’t believe that I can’t continue to make a difference. There are plenty of stay at home moms who volunteer their time in all sorts of different areas.

  7. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    I agree with Julie. While it’s not fair that housework and childcare are mostly women’s work, I think that as a society we’ve lost touch with the idea that caring for others can BE “adult work.” Being an adult doesn’t just mean providing for your family. It means providing the social, emotional, and physical needs of your children, your sick relatives, your partner, etc. In this society where we live to go to work instead of working to live, we do lose out on a lot of family time and memories, particularly if both parents are always off at high-powered jobs.

    In addition, until our society adjusts to something more than full-time daycare being the only option for many, then as Julie said, it’s more financially feasible for many people to just stay home, or work from home. When you make low 5-figures, then your salary is unlikely to compensate for both your commute and the cost of daycare for 2.

    My husband and I have already decided that once we have kids, if we have to move somewhere that requires NJ Transit or a car instead of PATH trains, that I will stay home or get a local job rather than both of us working in NY. Why? Because between daycare, $200/month EACH for our commutes (includes parking) and/or gas for 2 cars, etc., I will barely have enough income to cover anything else.

    And why will it be me that stays home? Not because i’m the little woman and he’s forcing me–in fact, he jokes all the time about wanting to be a stay at home dad, and feeling jealous. But with his job providing excellent benefits and also more opportunities for income (bonuses, commissions, vs. my contract/temp work), it simply is the only practical option.

    But alas, Linda Hirshman won’t approve.

  8. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    PS: I wonder what Linda thinks of “working from home.” I wonder if she’s heard of remote access? I know a TON of moms who do that/have done it.

  9. jiggavegas
    June 21, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    “The full time and talents of educated and intelligent human beings” strikes me as a rephrasing of Virginia Woolf’s “Room of One’s Own” argument- that women cannot reach equal footing with men as long as they are held back from reaching the grand intellectual heights of men with the money and power to indulge their areas of interest. And that, I think, is why it strikes ragingred as elitist, and is why it’s a facile argument. It completely ignores the millions of people for whom innate “intelligence and talent” have nothing to do with the realities of work, because higher education was not an option. Yeah, it’d be great if every woman had a college degree, and if that college degree then parlayed itself into an area of work in which a woman could contribute that time and those talents. But it’s blindingly simplistic about the reality of family and childrearing in America. Childrearing is not valued, nor by extension is childhood education, and as long as that continues, women will be forced to struggle with the twin problems of having children and affording them. I guess what irks me is that this continues to be treated as a “choice,” as though staying at home is a luxury lazy women fall back on, to avoid real work, or the flip side: that “career women” choose to work for selfish, materialistic ends. Come on: Nobody can seriously argue we’re in a single-income economy. I want kids and can’t have them yet because of lack of health insurance, lack of affordable family housing in Los Angeles, and an inability to pay for childcare — because I wouldn’t be able to not work, much as I would like to stay home with my children for a couple of years at least. I don’t feel like I have “choices” in this area. And I feel like the problems of readily available health insurance, childcare, and flexible work schedules for working parents are part and parcel of the “careerist vs. mommy” debate. Big surprise: Instead of addressing how the larger system is failing women and children (and dads!), we’re blaming women no matter which “choices” they make, even if the choice is simply the rock over the hard place.

  10. Julie
    June 21, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    Marian, same here. My husband would actually love to stay home, but in the long run it’s more practical for me to as well. For one thing, I’m more marketable than he is… I have a BA, he has an AAS. My field is relatively easy to find a job in and you usually don’t take much of a hit for staying out of work for a couple years, unlike my husband would. Plus, my job is 37.5 hours a week while his is 55-60, so he makes substantially more because of the hours he puts in even though I make more per hour than he does and his company has much better insurance than my job offers. If it were possible, I’d love to see him stay home because I think I enjoy my work more than he does. Unfortunately, it’s not a choice we have open to us right now.

  11. the15th
    June 21, 2006 at 3:44 pm

    Hirshman is focusing on a subset of women — those with high levels of education and talent. She doesn’t claim that her argument applies to everyone.

    It’s really great to see someone not afraid to come out and say that traditional women’s work is not particularly intellectually challenging or rewarding, even if she makes a lot of generalizations and steps on some toes along the way. We’re perfectly happy to say that a brilliant PhD working as a janitor is underemployed, and no one takes it as an attack on how hard janitors work or how important their jobs are. And we say this not just because the doctorate-holding janitor could be making more money, but because we assume he must be bored.

  12. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    It’s really great to see someone not afraid to come out and say that traditional women’s work is not particularly intellectually challenging or rewarding, even if she makes a lot of generalizations and steps on some toes along the way. We’re perfectly happy to say that a brilliant PhD working as a janitor is underemployed, and no one takes it as an attack on how hard janitors work or how important their jobs are. And we say this not just because the doctorate-holding janitor could be making more money, but because we assume he must be bored.

    What would you assume about the intellect level of an elementary-education major, or a daycare worker?

  13. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Also, how is portraying women’s work as non-intellectual and non-stimulating going to enthuse men to join in?

  14. the15th
    June 21, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    What would you assume about the intellect level of an elementary-education major, or a daycare worker?

    I think that the job itself is far less intellectually challenging than, say, being a lawyer or a scientist. There are plenty of reasons why someone might prefer it, though. A lawyer who chooses to become a daycare worker probably has a pretty good reason and has thought it through carefully, because it’s not the kind of career move that just happens. A lawyer who chooses to become a stay-at-home mom, I think Hirshman’s arguing, may be doing it because of a variety of pressures.

  15. piny
    June 21, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Well, just looking at my grandparents’ era, portraying it as the most fun a woman could have standing up didn’t seem to accomplish much in that direction either.

  16. nik
    June 21, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    Jill;

    I agree with a lot of what Hirshman has to say. I was thinking about what a Hirshmanesque response to your piece would be, and I think it would go something like this:

    You repeat the usual complaints about: (1) household labor not being valued and the social presures on women to behave in a particular way, and (2) the way the system that limits real choice for all women.

    These are familiar, and I think Hirshman would agree that they’re true. But what’s the solution? The only ones I can see are: (1) men waking up tomorrow and valuing childrearing more, and (2) a social revolution involving state funded childcare, more flexible career structures, and a change in the way society values parenting.

    But neither of these are going to happen. Not within my lifetime, and I doubt within yours. As much as we can complain about the various barriers to free choice there’s simply no prospect of feminists effecting any real change here. I just can not see any practical way in which this could be done – you can get votes for women by chaining yourself to railings, you can get equal working rights by political lobbying, you can go through the courts to get abortion – but we’re not going to be able to get men and society to value childcare more highly though some sort of consciousness raising exercise.

    Hirshman’s basically a pesimist, and I think with good reason. Instead of this radical change she think “feminists will have to start offering young women not choices and not utopian dreams but solutions they can enact on their own”. So instead of these grand society-wide solutions, she looks at the problem as one of sexual bargaining within the household and tries to see how women can engineer scenarios in which they have the upper hand. Yes, this is terribly cynical. But I think it is a very direct way of improving women’s lot.

  17. June 21, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings.

    I really don’t see this as a controversial statement. Housekeeping and other domestic arts are essentially mindless tasks, and there’s a reason women have been doing them for thousands of years: because mindless tasks are compatible with child-rearing. Women’s work has historically been those tasks that can be done with a child in tow, that can be readily interrupted, and that are compatible with watching after a small child. That’s why with the development of heavy agriculture, men took over the farming and women stayed in the courtyard cooking, cleaning, and weaving. That’s why when civilization developed and men became scribes, politicans, and every other profession you can think of in addition to farming, women stayed in the courtyard cooking, cleaning and weaving. (We finally unhorsed the weaving a couple of centuries ago — cooking and cleaning to come!)

    As long as women have been tied to childcare, they have been confined to cooking, cleaning, and weaving. There have been exceptions throughout history, but they have always been the exceptions.

    To me, this is what Hirshman is looking at: the long view. One of the great projects of the 20th century feminism was to sever that unbroken cord between women and childcare so that women would have a chance to do something other than cook and clean. It’s true of course that most men probably don’t have particularly fulfilling jobs, but it’s also true that that the rare man who is gifted and desires career fulfillment is in no danger of being denied it because society thinks he should be home cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Can the same be said of women? Obviously not. Only in my lifetime has it become possible for most women to even have a shot at a career outside the household drudgery of millennia. And it’s frustrating (though not surprising) that still women are overwhelmingly brainwashed into thinking that they really ought to be back there in the courtyard, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children.

    I wouldn’t deny any woman who wants to stay home with her children, nor would I deny any man that choice. But I would like to see a large scale shift in society away from this millenia-old model of women at home.

  18. Brenna
    June 21, 2006 at 6:07 pm

    It is not that Hirschman would not approve she would ask why are you the contract/temp worker and your husband has the good benefits and bonuses?In her previous article she explicitly talked about education and career choices that are made throughout life that affect the ability of women be empowered. (Having money of your own in a capitalist society is inherently empowering)

    The decision to use your intelligence for personal enrichment instead of financial power is made by alot of women, myself included, but it can lead to satisfying careeers in fields that are not compensatory. Leading to a situation in which when an income is given up it is the woman’s not the man’s. It is a practical decision that frequently had philosophical underpinnings before you were even in a long term relationship and had children.

    I agree with her on that one point: women need to be more practical about their fields of study and get into fields that pay them well or succeed academically at the highest levels to guarantee (academics are laughing) a career in the subject you studied.

  19. L.
    June 21, 2006 at 6:54 pm

    I wrote extensively about Hirshman on my own “mommy” blog.

    I am definitely one of the “choice” feminists she targets: an educated woman at home with my kids fulltime, at least for a while.

    To me, feminism always meant equal opportunities based on abilities, not gender. I believe any choice freely made CAN be a feminist choice. It`s about opening doors — not closing them.

  20. Julie
    June 21, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    The decision to use your intelligence for personal enrichment instead of financial power is made by alot of women, myself included, but it can lead to satisfying careeers in fields that are not compensatory. Leading to a situation in which when an income is given up it is the woman’s not the man’s. It is a practical decision that frequently had philosophical underpinnings before you were even in a long term relationship and had children.

    I would definately agree with that Brenna. I consider myself to be a fairly intelligent woman (I graduated with a 4.0 from college, while holding down three jobs and being married), but I chose my field (human services) because I have a sister with autism and I put myself through school doing direct care for individuals with disabilities. It’s my passion, it’s what I enjoy and it’s the only thing I can picture myself doing. I know I am capable of doing something “more” if you want to call it that, I could have majored in business or computers, etc… but that would’ve made me completely miserable. So now, it definately leaves us in a position where my income is more disposable, but to me it’s ok, because I can still continue to help people with disabilities without working. I can advocate, I can volunteer, etc… and still make a difference without necessarily holding down a job. The imapct on the future wasn’t something I really thought of while I was in school, which is definately something I’m ashamed to admit, but the thing is I can’t see myself making a different choice even knowing what I know now. I can recognize that it’s not the most feminist choice I could’ve made, but I think the fact that I excelled in school and have excelled at the job I’ve held for a couple years and have enjoyed what I did makes it the best choice for me.

  21. June 21, 2006 at 8:33 pm

    I believe any choice freely made CAN be a feminist choice.

    That’s the rub, for me. Is staying at home really a “freely made” choice? I say that I chose to stay at home with my kids – and it felt like a free choice, and my husband was with me either way – but how much of my decision was based on “gendered norms”, or social pressure, or recent trends, or what my mother did? I don’t know. I wrote about this elsewhere – it certainly felt like a primal drive. But are primal drives “free choices”?

    And of course, Hirshman’s larger point is that women have an obligation to do more than choose for themselves – they need to increase women’s influence in the world at large. I see her point. But for me, when it came to staying fully engaged in the public sphere or taking care of my kids while they’re young, I chose my kids.

    (That is, I think I chose…we need a new word for the choice that may or may not be a choice…)

  22. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    It is not that Hirschman would not approve she would ask why are you the contract/temp worker and your husband has the good benefits and bonuses?In her previous article she explicitly talked about education and career choices that are made throughout life that affect the ability of women be empowered. (Having money of your own in a capitalist society is inherently empowering)

    And my answer to her would be that actually, I have a higher degree than he has. I have a Masters, but I chose to stop using it because my specialty was making me miserable so I decided to change careers later. Since you can’t just break into corporate work in Manhattan (competition, grueling interviews, etc.), temping was the way to change careers.

    And why didn’t he have the same ordeal? Because he fell out of college and into a job directly related to his major, so there were no problems transitioning.

    See that’s where I take issue with Hirshman. She seems to see any “traditional” family as inherently gendered and its choices made on gender alone, but when you reverse the roles (say, the husband is the temp and the wife the lawyer or whatever), she’s fine with it.

    She’s not big on considering individual circumstances (such as mine or Julie’s). If she wants to go over to Ladies Against Feminism (who believe it’s a sin for women to work) and criticize them, fine, but she shouldn’t assume that everyone who stays home or whose husband makes more is in the same situation as the Ladies against Feminism.

    She also seems fine with inequality as long as it’s the woman in charge and not the man (“marrying down” etc). Economic inequality is fine as long as SHE has the power. That seems less like feminism and more like female supremacy, in a way. Could just be my interpretation of her articles.

  23. Marian
    June 21, 2006 at 9:29 pm

    That’s the rub, for me. Is staying at home really a “freely made” choice?

    I think for some it’s a choice, and for others it’s the “best alternative.” For instance, in jobs that won’t let you stay unless you’re back in six weeks, quitting is the alternative allowing you to be with your baby for as long as Europeans can take maternity leave and still return. That’s my other question about all this–are people who are totally against staying home, also fine with newborn babies going directly to full-time day care, or would they support a European-style FMLA policy?

    What would Hirshman think of Sweden or the UK? It’s something interesting to consider.

  24. nik
    June 21, 2006 at 9:40 pm

    Her idea is that choice is ‘free’, but it’s made in a situation where the deck is stacked against the woman.

    I’d be interested in hearing more about what people think of Hirshman’s ideas about marital barganing. Lots of women stay at home because it’s a good economic choice – their husband earns more than them. There are gender based reasons for this (the pay gap), but there are also social reasons for it (women tend to marry older men, and tend to marry ‘up’ relative to men).

    Hirshman’s suggestion that women should go for young, poverty-striken bohemian artists, who’ll have no choice but to do the childrearing, is a bit extreme – but I wonder if there’s something in the general idea. (Though it does seem a bit unromantic to plan it like that, and I can’t help but feel some choices will be social frowned upon.)

  25. zuzu
    June 21, 2006 at 10:15 pm

    See, I don’t get the charges of elitism when the article she wrote back in December set forth exactly why she looked only at affluent, well-educated women: they have the full panoply of choices, and so they are useful for looking at what kinds of choices women make when they have all choices available to them.

    It’s not really useful to critique choice feminism when you have a population of women who can’t make the choices that women with money and educations can make, or make the choices that they’d like to make.

  26. anonymous
    June 21, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Nik: As much as we can complain about the various barriers to free choice there’s simply no prospect of feminists effecting any real change here.

    Well, not if we all keep dropping out of the public sphere to be stay at home moms.

    Is it really a surprise that women aren’t getting the policies they need and want when women keep “choosing” to say no to power? Who are we expecting to come along and change the world for us?

  27. June 21, 2006 at 11:11 pm

    I think Hirshman’s notion of “choice” is problematic. It’s ridiculous (and offensive) to suggest that the women she interviews – educated, affluent women – don’t consider the consequences of their lifestyle decisions. Their choices are no less genuine because they’re influenced by gender norms. Most of our choices are influenced, at least in part, by the social realities of the world around us. I don’t want to get on a philosophy rant but it’s not difficult to see the slippery slope implied by saying that choices aren’t really choices if they’re driven by outside influences. What, then, would be a genuinely free choice?

    MommaSteph writes:

    Is staying at home really a “freely made” choice? I say that I chose to stay at home with my kids – and it felt like a free choice, and my husband was with me either way – but how much of my decision was based on “gendered norms”… we need a new word for the choice that may or may not be a choice

    We don’t need a new word. That’s what “choice” already means.

  28. Beet
    June 22, 2006 at 6:14 am

    So, I think you really get into a whole different ballpark when you start criticizing behaviors in a way such that for a person to accept your argument, they would have to change their behavior in a big way. It’s one thing to support net neutrality or debate Ann Coulter– it’s another thing to write something that actually requires YOU to change something off the Internet and in the real world. That’s part of why there was such a huge hubub over Twisty’s blowjob post and also why someone who writes what Dawn Eden or Linda Hirshman does will get a strong negative reaction. I have experience with this myself when some of my friends once suggested that they are glad they never went to day care– this pissed me off because I did go to day care and I don’t think it ruined my childhood.

    So it’s extra impressive when you are able to criticize someone’s private choice and get very far with it– like anti-smoking activists or abstinence activists. These people have really achieved quite a bit given the nature of what they are saying. Kudos to them.

    Over the long run social traditionalists will make arguments in opposition to some type of behavior– homosexuality, “unchastity”, abortion, being a career woman– and the other side will respond with the slogan “choice”. The traditionalists will make arguments as to why these behaviors are bad– they don’t lead to fulfillment, they kill babies, they are selfish, they are unBiblical and people need a compassionate God to feed their spiritual growth– and the other side will respond with “well it’s a free country I can do what I want.”

    I don’t see the conflict here.

    It’s perfectly okay to live in a society where gay marriage is legal, but there are no gays, because those who feel themselves sexually attracted to the other gender feel that the benefits of leading a Biblical life outweigh the fulfillment of their inner desires. Is this situation because gays are pressured, or because they’ve made their own sovereign decisions? How can the two be distinguished, told apart?

  29. Beet
    June 22, 2006 at 6:30 am

    So, the free choice vs socially conditioned choice is a false dichotomy. As David notes, all choices are free, and all choices are socially conditioned.

    But at some point, if you are going to be defending something, be it a behavior or the legal status of some behavior, you have to address the substance of the topic and not just the abstraction of choice in itself. Protected choice is only valid insofar as there exists some hypothetical value in the options the choice presents, and the it is only significant to the extent that that the choice is exploited.

  30. Mel
    June 22, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    Violet Socks, I’d like to point out that women have been involved in farming since the beginning of agriculture (as have children, almost as soon as they could walk, for much of history). Making a living at traditional farming requires all family members to work very hard, especially during planting, harvest, and calving (lambing, etc.), and if bad weather or pests threaten the crops. Yes, women and children, too.

    And I as an enthusiastic non-professional cook (I suspect professional chefs would agree) take offense to the suggestion that cooking is “mindless.” Maybe bad cooking is. Good cooking is creative and requires thought. A lot of weaving, as practiced throughout much of history, isn’t “mindless” or uncreative either.

    Cleaning is mindless. And many domestic chores aren’t a whole lot of fun if you have to do them all the time, with no other options (that’s why automation is nice). But if chosen, plenty of domestic tasks can be creative, enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating.

    “Women’s work” isn’t intrinsically unpleasant, and we’ll never convince men to pull their weight domestically if we keep saying it is.

  31. June 26, 2006 at 1:32 am

    I’m also hesitant to assume that employment is the end-all be-all to personal happiness. Sure, getting a paycheck is nice. But it’s a largely privileged, upper-class, bourge-y perpective which allows one to equate employment with career with identity, and lets one assume that what one does for a paycheck is also what one enjoys….

    Actually, that particular point has been refuted, at least here in Australia – both middle class AND working class women enjoy the social aspects of working, even if the job itself isn’t up to scratch. And working class women are delighted at the paycheck and independence. Pamela Bone, a feminist columnist at the Melbourne AGE (now sadly terminal with cancer) described how, as a factory worker before her journalism career, she enjoyed working because she was independent and had that money, as well as the social network.

  32. June 26, 2006 at 1:38 am

    I agree with Julie. While it’s not fair that housework and childcare are mostly women’s work, I think that as a society we’ve lost touch with the idea that caring for others can BE “adult work.” Being an adult doesn’t just mean providing for your family. It means providing the social, emotional, and physical needs of your children, your sick relatives, your partner, etc. In this society where we live to go to work instead of working to live, we do lose out on a lot of family time and memories, particularly if both parents are always off at high-powered jobs.

    The Helpmeet?
    Angel in the House?
    Maybe crinolines are going to make a comeback?
    Why is it impossible for men to do any of this?

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