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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