There’s no arguing that there is a change afoot in society today; we see it discussed in newspapers and on televisions across the country. Capable, educated women are increasingly turning their backs on the public and professional world to become stay-at-home mothers, trumpeting their decision as the latest wave of feminist choice. For decades, this was treated as taboo—a decision that could only be whispered about because motherhood was sacred. Then Linda Hirshman published Get to Work. Now everyone is now asking: Why? What has happened to the feminist ideal of economic and political equality? What happened to feminism? What can be done to reverse this trend?
Meet the person who broke the silence. The responsibility for this situation, argues author and former philosophy professor Linda Hirshman, lies with all women. They’ve deluded themselves into believing that the limited options society continues to present to them—because of the unchanging family structure, politics, or religion—are a wealth of choice. Then they tell themselves that any choice, because it is theirs, is both noble and worthy of others’ respect and support. Hirshman absolutely disagrees. “Opting out” of the workforce to stay in the home is the worst form of self-betrayal affecting women today. In her book Get to Work, Hirshman not only makes clear the causes and rationalizations behind women’s increasing removal from the workforce, she also provides positive actions women can take to wrest control of their lives and eliminate the unbreakable glass ceiling they are constructing for themselves.
More importantly, it is time for a new feminism, rooted in substantial values, and unafraid to take on the last bastion of sexist inequality: the nuclear family. Taking her cues from feminist elder stateswoman Betty Friedan, Hirshman argues that so-called choice feminism in its attempt to appeal to all women has, in effect, weakened all women. Choice is not the future of feminism. Today’s feminism must be more focused in order to be successful. To help women regain power over their own lives, Hirshman provides the following rules: 1) use your education to prepare for a financially and emotionally rewarding work life; 2) respect your career and plan it judiciously; 3) demand a relationship that assigns housework equally; and 4) limit your childbearing to what your time and wallet can handle. With this plan, Hirshman contends, women can hold onto their authority, empowering themselves within the home and beyond.
As the voice of a new generation of feminists, Hirshman is by turns furious, funny, and inspiring, wielding a staggering array of statistics as well as personal anecdotes. But she is no hollow figurehead; Hirshman has stood up to vicious critical attacks for what her opponents see as her heretical ideas—namely, that marriage should be a cooperative union of equals; that women are not physically, spiritually, or psychologically destined for housework and childrearing; and that women must stand up for themselves by first identifying their goals and sticking to them. Perhaps what qualifies Hirshman most is that she herself has managed to balance a satisfying career, marriage, and family for years; she understands from experience that the path she’s paving won’t always be easy to follow, but she’s eager and ready to lead. Now it’s up to all women to heed her call.
Linda R. Hirshman is retired from her position as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, where she taught courses on Western political philosophy and the regulation of sex and violence. She is the author of Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex and A Woman’s Guide to Law School. Hirshman also taught and practiced law in Chicago for many years, including trying three cases before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Hirshman’s article “Homeward Bound,” on why women are trapped in the domestic world and how to get out, appeared in the December 2005 American Prospect. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, CBS Evening News and the New York Times editorial page speaking on the subject of women quitting their jobs to stay home. She is, proudly, number 77 in Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.
Since publishing the initial article which led to your book, you’ve been the subject of some particularly brutal attacks. Did you anticipate anything like this reaction? Where do you think this enraged response stems from? How do you manage to keep your sanity and emotional equilibrium in the face of such criticism?
I did not expect it, for sure, because I was not savvy about the new media, as I am now. There is a world of stay at home moms out there blogging endlessly about their “revolutionary” decision to quit their paid work and stay home. Obviously, they must at some level understand how foolish, risky, and selfish their behavior is, hence, the enraged response. Once I surfaced in the mainstream Washington Post I received over a thousand e-mails from women who agreed and supported my analysis. They are too busy working and raising their families to dominate the blogosphere. But they are there. As to my equilibrium, I was a trial lawyer for almost fifteen years. The mommybloggers just aren’t as scary as the Supreme Court of the United States!
You’ve accounted for the rationalization of stay-at-home motherhood from men and women, as well as liberals and conservatives, but why are women interested in returning to domesticity in the first place? What accounts for the rise in the appeal of being a homemaker?
I think there has been a ramping up of the job of mothering by the culture. Waged working women now spend as much time with their children as stay-at-home moms did in 1975. Now women feel they cannot meet these newly increased demands and work. The answer is to reduce the demands, not to quit work. Also, feminism succeeded in placing women in highly responsible jobs, which are more demanding, so there is more pressure on their time. The answer is to share the responsibility with the father in the picture, not to take it all on yourself.
What is your response to the woman who claims that she truly would rather stay at home, that this has always been her goal and desire, and that she would be miserable and unfulfilled in the workplace full-time?
There will always be some people who sincerely prefer the company of dependent children, the repetitious physical tasks of housework, and the psychological payoff of being in the care of another rather than one’s self. I would say to them be wary, because of the crushing burden of cultural expectations and face the consequences of their decisions in a tough-minded way. In the end, it’s a free country, of course.
What do you believe the effects will be on the daughters of the stay-at-home moms? From a feminist perspective, what lessons are they learning?
There are two possibilities: they will see the “choice” as no choice at all and just slide into the same social roles as their mothers did. Or they will do what the first feminist generation did, and rebel against what they see. I am already seeing signs among the twentysomethings I meet that they understand the perils of the “opt-out revolution” and are not about to sign on for the army of stay-at-home moms.
You’ve offered much constructive criticism and advice for women in this book. What have you learned, both in writing and publishing it? Has your perspective altered at all in the course of writing Get to Work?
I have learned unexpected lessons about the perils of perfectionism and the flight from freedom. Being sort of a slovenly individual, it never occurred to me that every task in life required perfect execution. Of course, that is a trap, and the stay-at-home moms fell right into it. If every task must be perfect, the only way to control your life is to radically limit the tasks. The new feminist movement needs badly to address the subject of perfectionism. The second lesson is how fearful freedom is. I don’t know if this is limited to women or not, but the amazing refusal to face the consequences of dependence reminded me of the old psychological literature on the flight from freedom. I don’t have much of an answer to this other than to richly reward girls’ efforts to take responsibility for themselves, with heavy mentoring and counseling. Turns out independence is a learned habit.
Looking at it historically, the romantic aspect of marriage is a relatively modern phenomenon. Why do you think women continue to attach such great importance to this idea? Why is there a disconnect between this idea and your suggestion of marriage as “a cooperative venture of two adults”? Do we need to make cooperation sexier?
I think there are three elements: first, never underestimate the power of physical sexuality. Romantic marriage is based on the idea of a union of sexed pairs, not the children of neighboring landowners. Second, there is an element of status intoxication to it—with the bridal costumes, the sudden acquisition of all kinds of material possessions and all. Third, for women, it is part of the flight from freedom I was describing above. Independence is scary, and marriage offers women the illusion that they can abandon the scary prospect of caring for themselves forever.
I have addressed the freedom issue above. Sex matters. But it’s a false choice between cooperation and sexual union. Some of the longest lasting, happiest marriages I know are among my feminist friends and colleagues. As for the rest, you have to be temporarily insane to sell your freedom for a mess of pottage, or even for Waterford crystal.
You refer to the gay rights movement as a positive example for feminists to follow. Within lesbian families, do women manage to incorporate the work/family conflict more easily or cooperate more fully than heterosexual couples? Is there any data on whether lesbian couples follow a similar work/home division of labor as that of heterosexual couples?
I don’t know what the data show. But at least they aren’t born into dusting from the moment the doctor says “it’s a girl.” My point about the gay rights movement is that, unlike “choice” feminism, gay and lesbian activists admitted they were making a moral claim for a flourishing life. All the rest, as Rabbi Hillel said, is commentary.
Many women are reluctant to label themselves feminists—what do you think gave feminism such a bad name? What does the term “feminism” suggest to you?
I think the backlash gave feminism a bad name. They threatened each generation of pubescent females that no one would love, have sex with, or marry them. Who wouldn’t give up a label with such a high price? We need to reclaim feminism from the backlash. Liberalism in general is on the rebound, and feminism is part of that revival.
Which working women are you impressed or inspired by? Are there any women you know or admire who seem to have defeated the system? Do you see any rising stars in feminism today?
I am impressed by women in the media: Lesley Stahl, of a long and honorable career, marriage and motherhood; Kelly Wallace, a young Lesley Stahl; the incredibly courageous risk-taking CBS anchor Katie Couric; and The Washington Post’sincredibly talented Outlook editor Zofia Smardz. I am impressed by strong women in the university: Bianca Bernstein, of Arizona State University, now running a huge research project on helping women in science; Shulamit Reinharz, head of the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center; and Carol Nadelson, M.D., the head of the Office of Women’s Careers at the Brigham Hospital. The women of the women’s movement: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, of course; Planned Parenthood emeritus Gloria Feldt; Legal Momentum’s Lynn Hecht Schafran.
Rising stars? I call them my chicks. Rebecca Traister from Salon.com; Ariel Levy of New York magazine and the author ofFemale Chauvinist Pigs; Jessica Valenti of Feministing.com and the author of Full Frontal Feminism; Amy Schiller’s just out of Brandeis and already starting to surface in Salon.com and other hot sites; Courtney Martin, who is about to publish a very important book on the perfectionism of body image; and so many more.