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June 15, 2006

Hirshman and the goals of feminism

Linda Hirshman argues that women who make career sacrifices to stay home with their kids as betraying feminism. She's right to point out that personal choice isn't the gold standard of feminism. That is, the fact that someone can freely choose doesn't necessarily make that choice feminist or pro-feminist.

Expanding human freedom is the most important goal of feminism. Feminists should strive to give women (and men) as many options as possible, including some that aren't consistent with our core values. We believe that sexism is wrong. Choices shouldn't be contingent on feminist bona fides. We're talking about human rights, not privileges for those who agree with us.

The rhetoric of choice can be vacuous. Claiming that any choice a woman makes is a feminist choice makes a mockery of the normative force of feminism. Some options really are anti-feminist, e.g., giving money to the Concerned Women for America. Feminists can be glad that women are free to give their money to CWA without agreeing that this is a pro-feminist use of funds.

Even if we agree that there are some anti-feminist choices, I don't think that stay-at-home parenting is necessarily one of them. Hirshman rejects stay-at-home motherhood as a feminist option because she finds domestic life stultifying compared to work. I'd rather do paid work than childcare or unpaid housework any day, but that's just me. I don't insist that everyone else endorse my lifestyle as a matter of principle. Some people find more meaning and satisfaction in nurturing children than in working for money.

Our sexist society arbitrarily denigrates the contributions of nurturers and caretakers. Feminists should challenge that assumption across the board. If we denigrate parenting and housework, we not only insult the contributions of other women, we also give men more incentive to shirk their duties at home.

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Comments

There is a good quasi-Marxist point here. The domestic side of raising children, in a society that divides the labor of child rearing for high efficiency, is drudgery. Kill the division of labor and child rearing can become a deeply interesting task. Instead of being just the caretaker of a house and tender to a child's eating and shitting and sleeping, take charge of the child's whole education. Get the kid right the fuck of out the mass-production educational system and homeschool her or him. That's a real challenge and use of parental potential, not drudgery.

Lindsay, do you really mean to take a hard 'de gustibus non est disputandum' line on what women (or men) find satisfying? Aren't there lifestyles that are so objectively meager in terms of their development and use of human powers that if a lot of members of group X choose that lifestyle then that is some evidence that something is going wrong for group X?

'Funny that most men rarely make the same “choice.”'

When did 'what men chose to do' become the standard by which feminists judge other women's choices?

I'm taking a pretty soft "degustibus" line. I think there are plenty of lifestyles that are incompatible with human flourishing. I just don't think that all forms of stay-at-home parenting are so awful for everyone. Some people tell me that they love being home with their kids.

Parenting shouldn't require the complete abnegation of self or the suspension of outside interests. That's the patriarchy and/or economic inequality and/or punishing perfectionism (abetted by sexist and unreasonable standards for "correct" parenting). Raising a kid is more than a full-time job. If one partner is kept so busy with childrearing that he or she never has time or energy to pursue other interests, there's probably a seriously unjust division of labour in that household. Very few people who work day job put in that much time on the job.

It is very hard to understand that people would deny women rights... rights that are given to men... in this day. Clearly this is not about equality because this is an abstract concept and does not apply. How can two people be equal? This is a mathematical concept.

Rather as human beings we need to treat all people with the same rights and not find artifical reasons as barriers.

How many more years will this unenlighted notion be debated? Amazing how dumb so mnay humans are... ha?

Sometimes it's just too expensive to be a feminist.

Have you noticed quite how intensely classed Hirshman's argument is? [A]mong the educated elite, she writes, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals.

The logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women are, oddly enough, women, not some hyperprivileged subset.

If it is antifeminist to raise children instead of pursuing a career (not working at some crappy, exploitive job, mind you, but "pursuing" a "career") is it therefore feminist for these elite career women to hire underclass women to be nannies and au pairs?

nicely said, Lindsay.

This is an issue that needs to be addressed?

As best I can tell Hirshman is a variant on that classic: Let's talk about me.

Goodness knows, I see a lot of educated people in the day, half or so women, but none that could find the rime or reason of this discussion. Spookily Straussian.

As Laura, said, nicely said.

You wouldn't be the person you are today if your Mother had not been a stay at home Mom. There is a cost to that kind of commitment. Why is it that "women's work" is never considered part of the Gross National Product?

Because somebody has attached negative ideological and cultural significance to a lifestyle (and of course here this is very valid and justified behavior), do they then gain the right to eliminate that sphere of actual human experience in its entirety?

It looks to my layman's mind that some feminists are deconstructing one set of social gender institutions merely to replace them with another. Feminism not only should be about freedom of choice, it must be.

Because somebody has attached negative ideological and cultural significance to a lifestyle (and of course here this is very valid and justified behavior), do they then gain the right to eliminate that sphere of actual human experience in its entirety?

I don't see anyone here advocate that. Rather, what I see is that people suggest that women not spend their entire lives in that capacity. These are two different things, saying people should avoid household tasks and saying that women and men should strive to divide them 50-50.

One reason household tasks are denigrated is that the way they're currently set up, they become a shitty job by two objective metrics. The first is psychological fulfillment: people with repetitive jobs and without coworkers get depressed; this includes housewives and people who care for their elderly parents full-time, but not social workers, nurses, or maids. The second is social networks: staying at home robs you of valuable social and economic networks and isolates you from the rest of the world.

At any rate, regardless of what an individual woman should do, it's legitimate to ask why household tasks are foisted on women. In most developed countries, women work on average marginally more hours than men, but their work is 2-to-1 household whereas men's is 2-to-1 market. Whatever individuals choose, large-scale discrepancies are invariably a form or a result of sexism.

Mrs. Coulter writes;
Why is it that "women's work" is never considered part of the Gross National Product?

Doyle;
Technically that sort of work is taken into account for GNP. However, your point is not aimed at technical accounting of the GNP, it's about the broader consensus about 'women's' work.

Women's work aside from keeping a house is social connection. Is this a source of wealth? I don't mean how well someone networks though in a crude way that demonstrates how women's networks have a value creation necessity.

To supplant that work or value production with a business model is what you mean by GNP. Or is that feasible? One sees with social software (example - myspace) the inkling of what that business would do.

While some companies provide house workers, this is not the central value of women's work. It is the social connection, popularly known as family that a reference to GNP gives some sense of.

Can one buy family? Not presently, but one can see with the withering of families of orgin to families of friendships (less intimate, more tenuous bonds) buying some sort of family bonds is very valuable but technically not yet commercial.
thanks,
Doyle Saylor

At any rate, regardless of what an individual woman should do, it's legitimate to ask why household tasks are foisted on women. In most developed countries, women work on average marginally more hours than men, but their work is 2-to-1 household whereas men's is 2-to-1 market. Whatever individuals choose, large-scale discrepancies are invariably a form or a result of sexism.

Exactly. Would people be more comfortable with Hirshman's argument if she framed it as follows: "Given the vitally important and fulfilling nature of childcare and other domestic work, it is a symptom of injustice due to rigid gender roles that men are systematically excluded from that sphere by the lifechoices that women unilaterally make"?

It's a statement that values childcare and addresses the injustice of rigid gender roles. Now, it is difficult to picture anyone making this argument with a straight face, rather than sarcastically, but if childcare and domestic work really were valued seriously in our culture, the exclusion of men from that sphere would be a significant justice issue, and would lead to exactly the same recommendations that Hirshman makes.

For someone who does seriously value childcare and justice to men and women, what's the basis of your opposition to Hirshman's recommendations?

Having read Linda's whole book, I think part of her point is that staying home with the kids "for just a few years" as most people plan to actually has greater consequences for future life possibilities than many moms realize. I've seen this to some degree--I have several friends who intended to work part-time from home while raising young children but weren't able to make the combination work (partly because, once they weren't bringing in much money, it was assumed that they would do all the cleaning, laundry, etc.; partly because when a mom is officially at home no one thinks it's "worth it" to arrange childcare so mom can focus on the market work she does do) and therefore ended up much more isolated and out of touch with their fields than they wanted to be. She also points out rightly that this effect increases with additional kids.

Another part of the point is that the "choice" isn't as free as it's often made out to be. Behind many women's "I want to stay home with the kids" is a "I know damn well my partner's not going to do much of the childcare work and I know I'll kill myself doing both and I already make less money, so I'll 'choose' to stay home". Fix the preconditions there and you'd have a free choice.

There's a fetishization of early childhood right now that Hirshman doesn't explicitly call out (actually a fetishization of all of childhood to my mind, but the younger the more extreme it is) but I think it leads people to be very certain that it's more important to spend time 1 on 1 with an toddler, sacrificing income to do so, than to earn the money that will send an 18-year-old to college free of debt (or free a 50-year-old from the burden of caring for you as you age). Very few people (I have a young child right now, so I'm talking about friends, obviously skewed demographic, etc.) seem to think of the tradeoff in those terms.

...and before I sound like some "get up from the birthing bed and hit the keyboard" extremist, I will state for the record that every parent should get paid parental leave and society should support leaves of 4-6 months or more so more children can get the benefits of breastfeeding.

Thorny issues--while I don't like to see fighting, I'm glad Hirshman wrote her book. By being willing to say staying at home isn't ideal (kind of verboten these days--we're all supposed to wish we could), she's able to raise several issues that otherwise get way too little play.

Lizardbreath said

Would people be more comfortable with Hirshman's argument if she framed it as follows: "Given the vitally important and fulfilling nature of childcare and other domestic work, it is a symptom of injustice due to rigid gender roles that men are systematically excluded from that sphere by the lifechoices that women unilaterally make"?

This is exactly the way Bitch, Ph.D. put the argument on her blog a while back, and I think her face was straight when she said it.

Not just women...men too. My downstairs neighbor is Mr. Mom, while his wife is CEO.

Charisse is dead on. Many women undervalue the cost to themselves of staying at home with their children. On the other hand, their "diminishing value" is clearly exacerbated by the fact that society (which includes employers) does not value domestic experience -- which increases the likelihood that their career expectations will be frustrated when they do try to return to work. With an average of two or three children, even if women wanted to be a professional mother, the fact is, the intense mothering of young children takes no more than 10 or 15 years of an 80+ year life -- Then what? I don't think it does women any favors to ignore these facts when deciding whether to abandon the work force. But I think it should be a goal for all for society to enhance the worth of domestic life not just in misty eyed bromides about being a mother being the most important job, but about not penalizing women or men so much for deciding to emphasize their domestic life for the period of time in which their children are very young and needy. That said, I think it's wrong and uproductive frame the issue as SAHMs not being sufficiently feminist.

I agree with the people who say it's a very classist argument. It's completely irrelevant to the majority of working mothers, and irrelevant even to many women with college degrees and even graduate degrees. If you've got an MBA or law school or med school, you'll make sufficiently more money than someone with an MEd or an MSW, for example. Hirshman is talking not only about women with lots of education, but women who've chosen to study in fields where the financial rewards are very high.

There are a couple of things Hirshman says that I don't think have yet been addressed here:

1. Of that small, unrepresentative sample, these women have largely married other doctors/lawyers/business executives with similarly high salaries. So they can maintain a pretty high standard of living even on one income. A stay-at-home mom who can afford a cleaning lady a couple of times a week, and pay for babysitters on a regular basis to give her a sanity break is probably less stressed out by being at home than a woman where the family is just getting by (read: most families).

Now, obviously the economically privileged SAHM will still be isolated from her work peers, and may still be frustrated by her absence from the workplace, but being an SAHM is probably more attractive when she can have a nice lifestyle, isn't stuck with her kids 24/7, and isn't doing all the housework. I was an au pair in a family with a SAHM, and the mom spent a good chunk of time socializing with other SAHMs, doing volunteer work, etc. And she seemed to get a reasonable amount of fulfilment out of that.

Which isn't to say that it's necessarily a wonderful idea to be a SAHM just because you can afford to do so without making too many lifestyle compromises, but these women have an easier row to hoe when they're home with small children than the average woman. So it may be more attractive for them, as well as more do-able in a way that isn't financially do-able for the average middle-class couple who need two incomes.

Now, I'm not saying it's an objectively good idea to quit your high-powered job to play educational games with your kids and play tennis with your friends and tell the cleaning lady what needs to be done, but it would certainly have its attractions, at least for a while. If you're not the one who has to clean up the kitchen after, making apple pies with your small kids is probably lots of fun.

And there's less exhaustion from being responsible for all the household tasks and feeling resentful that your working-outside-the-home husband isn't pulling his weight. Now, granted, if you do go back to work at some point and your husband still won't take any responsibility for either doing things or making sure they get done, you're going to get pretty damn frustrated, but there's nothing like cheap household help for papering over the cracks, at least temporarily. Husband says he's too busy with his "real job" to do X? Hire someone.

2. The women Hirshmann interviewed sound like they were in incredibly demanding careers, from a time perspective. So they may have already been suffering from burn-out, and quitting their jobs to become SAHMs seemed like an attractive way to opt out without having to feel guilty about "wasting" their education. Many elite jobs require ridiculous work hours (from both men and women). And sometimes there can be a lot of allegedly optional work socializing which can gobble up evening and weekend time.

Working 40 hours a week, then picking your kids up from daycare and doing the second shift at home is challenging. Working 60 or 70 hours a week and trying to also look after your kid(s) is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I worked for a health care exec who worked 8 am - 5 pm every day at the office, and took approximately 3 hours' worth of work home each night. 10 - 12 hours of work on a weekend. If you've been working all day, then have to cook your kids dinner, play with them, help them with their homework, bathe them, put them to bed, THEN sit down for another 3 hours of solid work, you'll probably be a wreck after a while. And that's just on a normal day. The minute a kid has a cold, or keeps waking up in the night, or won't go to bed, you're screwed.

Now, probably the best, sanest way to handle such a situation is for both parents to work "part-time". I mean, if the husband is working 70 hours a week, how much quality time will he get to spend with his wife and kids? Seems like a lousy idea from the point of view of maintaining a healthy marriage, or getting to actually enjoy your kids. Seems like a smarter idea would be for each parent to work, say 35 - 40 hours a week, in which case they'll BOTH hopefully have enough time and energy left over to be active in their kids' lives, spend time together as a couple, and divide household tasks.

I mean, if you have two parents who are both doctors or lawyers who work incredibly long hours, neither one of them will ever see their kids. If they can work part-time and still make decent money, they can be okay financially without one parent working at the office like a crazed mole because if he doesn't bring home the bacon the family's screwed economically, and the other parent having to sacrifice their own career and be a super-involved parent to compensate for Daddy working all the time. And when you think about it, a doctor or a lawyer could probably still live very comfortably if they only worked 35 - 40 hours a week.

But I think it should be a goal for all for society to enhance the worth of domestic life not just in misty eyed bromides about being a mother being the most important job, but about not penalizing women or men so much for deciding to emphasize their domestic life for the period of time in which their children are very young and needy.

Here, I think Hirshman's approach is productive, although I admit that the reason I think it's productive is a bit of a three-cushion bank shot. Every piece of her advice comes down to (paraphrased) "Don't make the domestic sphere your problem. Be the higher earner, or at least the partner more committed to her career. Look for a partner who will take on half or more of the domestic work. Make your decisions early so that it won't make sense for domestic work to be your problem rather than your husbands." She's telling women to arrange their lives, consciously, so that the domestic load falls on the men in their lives. And I have a strong opinion that there's enough straight sexism in the system still, that once domestic work starts being a problem for men, that the system will all of a sudden get much more accomodating.

I don't think domestic work is held in contempt because its contemptible, I think it's held in contempt because women will do it for free. Once men start doing more of it (and women can, by following Hirshman's advice, make that happen), I wouldn't be surprised if the status and respect accorded to it doesn't go up sharply.

It's completely irrelevant to the majority of working mothers, and irrelevant even to many women with college degrees and even graduate degrees.

See, I really don't think this is true. I know a fair number of women who have followed a similar pattern at the middle/middle class level, and it's not all that different. Husband makes 50-60K, wife took 6-7 years off work while the kids were little, went back part-time, now makes ~20K in a series of different part time jobs (selling ads for the local newspaper, whatever). He's got a resume, and a steady paycheck, and a career track; she's got primary responsibility for all the domestic work.

If he gets hit by a bus, or if they divorce, she's economically screwed -- she's dependent on him because of the decisions she made to cut back, not stick with one job, work part-time instead of full-time... Maybe, given their circumstances, one of them had to cut back, but it's almost always the woman who does. The pattern of choices Hirshman describes keeps women comparatively poor and dependent.

In some ways, I guess I think that Hirschman's argument is actually anti-feminist, because she falls into the same habit of viewing traditional "women's work" as being something of little value that women therefore need to free themselves from, because it's not beneficial to their attainment of equity and financial security for themselves, and professional success.

But the reality is that the only reason that childrearing and domestic labor are devalued as much as they are is BECAUSE they are traditionally women's work. If society had evolved such that men had and cared for the kids and women were expected to be the "breadwinners," caring for kids would be highly valued, there would be automatic welfare payments attached to children with no talk of "welfare queens" and Ms. Hirshman would be writing books about how women needed to stop being forced out into the workplace and start staying home with their kids.

Obviously, no one should be forced into childcare or domestic work if that's really not an option that's a good fit for them, and it's important that women have lots of economic choices and opportunities. BUT, we live in a society that grossly undervalues childcare and other domestic work relative to other types of labor, and does so ONLY because they are traditionally done by women. As long as feminists go along with saying these things are less valuable, they'll be participating in a patriarchal myth and also doing harm to the most disadvantaged women in society, women working in the domestic and childcare industries who are paid far less than their work is worth.

Obviously, no one should be forced into childcare or domestic work if that's really not an option that's a good fit for them, and it's important that women have lots of economic choices and opportunities. BUT, we live in a society that grossly undervalues childcare and other domestic work relative to other types of labor, and does so ONLY because they are traditionally done by women. As long as feminists go along with saying these things are less valuable, they'll be participating in a patriarchal myth and also doing harm to the most disadvantaged women in society, women working in the domestic and childcare industries who are paid far less than their work is worth.

Execept look at the advice she's giving. She's not looking at SAHMs and saying "sucks to be you, you contemptible losers", she's telling women to go on strike. Make your life choices so that you don't take sole responsibility for domestic and childcare work; but instead ensure that that responsibility is shared by a man. At which point:

If society had evolved such that men had and cared for the kids and women were expected to be the "breadwinners," caring for kids would be highly valued, there would be automatic welfare payments attached to children with no talk of "welfare queens" and Ms. Hirshman would be writing books about how women needed to stop being forced out into the workplace and start staying home with their kids.

Everyone wins!

Lizardbreath:

See, I really don't think this is true. I know a fair number of women who have followed a similar pattern at the middle/middle class level, and it's not all that different. Husband makes 50-60K, wife took 6-7 years off work while the kids were little, went back part-time, now makes ~20K in a series of different part time jobs (selling ads for the local newspaper, whatever).

Please take off your own class blinders. The majority of working women simply don't have husbands who earn 50-60K/year. That sort of income is out of reach of most Americans.

Please.

Right -- no discussion of social problems affecting any person of family making over the median American income may go on. You, over there -- women in academia complaining that you're being treated unfairly? Shut up! You're already a privileged elite, meaning we don't want to hear a word out of you.

If you've ever discussed an issue that affects professionals, then get over yourself.

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