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Everybody hates Linda

Commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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Friends of the MMO wrote to say they were looking forward to reading my comments on Linda Hirshman's essay on the "opt out" controversy (Homeward Bound, The American Prospect, 21.nov.05). Although the web is already teeming with critiques of the article, I hate to disappoint. Based on her interviews with 30 or so ultra-privileged women for a proposed book on "marriage and feminism," Hirshman concludes the scarcity of women in corporate and political leadership relates to the striking proportion (by Hirshman's estimate, fully 50 percent) of Ivy League-educated wives and mothers who are "letting their careers slide to tend the home fires." Feminists, she argues, must take a more judgmental stance toward high-potential women who missed the memo that public achievement is more important than raising families.

Hirshman's dispassionate analysis of child-rearing as a shameful waste of human capital -- and her uncompromising (yet unoriginal) playbook for putting women on top -- managed to offend just about everyone. Women who never plan to marry or become mothers objected to Hirshman's proposition that the über-elite women she studied -- selected because their wedding announcements appeared in the "Sunday Styles" section of the New York Times -- are the "logical heirs of feminism," or those most likely to use their power to overturn the status quo. Mothers, feminist and otherwise, were outraged by her pronouncement that "child rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting" and interferes with women's full flourishing. Many bristled at Hirshman's contention that after thirty years of feminist progress, gender inequality in and outside the workplace is largely a product of women's lack of focus. Others were put off by Hirshman's suggestion that altruism is for suckers, and the only kind of self-actualization that really counts involves maximizing one's professional prestige and earning potential. (Examples of the range of criticism that ripped through the feminist blogosphere when Hirshman's article first appeared are archived on Alas, A Blog.)

As mentioned in previous public comments, I had a long and interesting phone call with Hirshman when she was drafting her article. What stands out from that conversation was Hirshman's enthusiasm about how fun and exciting it was to excel in her career, her pride in her professional accomplishments, and how discouraged she was that today's younger women seem indifferent to the joys of working hard to get ahead -- although she did admit changes in the professional workplace over the last 15 years make going for the brass ring less attractive to anyone who wants a personal life. And while I disagree with Hirshman's basic premise: women bear greater responsibility for closing the gender gap at the office and at home; remaining barriers to women's success in public life are mostly of their own making; business and government have no incentive to relieve economic and time pressures on working families; and the quickest fix for the women's leadership problem is training young women to make more strategic choices about education, careers and childbearing -- we do see eye-to-eye on other issues.

I agree, for example, "the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by workplace feminism." Detractors of "workplace feminism" say it failed to factor in the realities of caregiving, but its fatal weakness was optimism. It's actually a little embarrassing to think how easily we were persuaded that once qualified women had a chance to prove their mettle in the professional and skilled labor force, the bastions of male privilege would come tumbling down. (No such luck.) Yet it's hard to see how Hirshman's proposed solution is vastly different from the well-worn doctrine that the secret to women's success is job preparation, occupational desegregation and economic empowerment.

I also agree that mothers sometimes soothe the discomforts of their inequality by falling back on the motherhood mystique, particularly with the pep talk "being a mother is one of the most important jobs in the world," and the tiresome fiction that men are hopelessly unreliable when it comes to child care and housekeeping. (If you don't believe me, check out Rebecca Traister's interview with the co-founder of Total 180, a perky new magazine for the professional woman turned at-home mom. The magazine's editors trade on the title "CHO" -- Chief Household Officer -- because "when women leave the workforce, you feel like you've lost your identity," and apparently having a fake honorific of one's own eases the pain.) If liberal feminism failed -- and I'm not saying it has -- its greatest lapse was the inability to invent an appealing language to challenge conventional narratives of gender, work and family in everyday life, or to recognize that one was needed. But there's also substantive evidence that gender roles in the family -- and the mindset that professional achievement is the one true path to full human flourishing -- have changed more than Hirshman lets on, especially among younger couples of garden-variety privilege. If Hirshman intends to write a book on marriage and feminism, she ought to spend more time mingling with the rank and file.

I positively applaud Hirshman when she writes: "Like the right to work and the right to vote, the right to have a flourishing life that includes but is not limited to family cannot be addressed by the language of choice." The freedom to choose -- which positions women not as self-determined individuals with inalienable rights, but as informed consumers in a world of market-driven options -- is far too murky and diluted a claim when the problem at hand is a shortage of social justice.

Beyond that -- well, nobody likes to be told she's living a "lesser life" because she prioritized child-rearing over career-building for a few years, or that her behavior is bad for her, "bad for society," and "tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler." That the process of caring for others may lead to self-awareness -- self-awareness which can spark individual growth and development -- is not in Hirsman's realm of possibilities. Frankly, feminism has been around this block before, and it estranged many women with egalitarian sensibilities from the cause.

Which may not be troubling to Hirshman, since she seems to delight in taking an unpopular position. In a follow-up article on women who squander their academic careers, she gleefully reports: "When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like 'fuck you,' 'you make me want to vomit,' 'oh, puhleeze,' 'she's only looking for a book contract,' and similar well-reasoned responses." I won't be an apologist for Hirshman, but I think once the defensiveness dies down, we need to renew the dialog on motherhood and women's leadership. As Hirshman notes, individual choices aren't made in a vacuum, and -- whether we like it or not -- the decisions mothers make about cutting back on paid work do have an impact on employers' perceptions of other women workers. But rather than getting embroiled in another blame-fest, I hope we can come up with a more sympathetic articulation of the nature of the problem and how to solve it.

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