June 28 2006
Carrie L. Lukas
Linda Hirshman thinks housework is boring. And not just that, in Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of The World, she argues that women's propensity to assume this drudgery hinders their advancement in the workplace and society. Her complaint is nothing new: Feminists from Betty Friedan to the National Organization for Women's (NOW) Kim Gandy have been saying it for decades.
Yet Hirshman breaks with much of the modern feminist movement by explicitly condemning women who assume the role of traditional housewife. Most mainstream feminists have at least sought publicly, though likely with some private distaste, to project a moderate face for their movement by advocating respect for women's choices, whether that means employment inside or outside the home. Such "choice feminism," in Hirshman's account, has undermined women's true advancement; she instead wants women to work together to change that core unit of patriarchy, the family.
It's a classic intra-movement squabble-- moderation embraced for tactical purposes is derided by radicals as an abandonment of principle. Perhaps Hirshman should take comfort in the fact that so-called choice feminism is a rarely donned ornament of the organized feminist movement. NOW's agenda may include Social Security credits for housewives, but that sop to stay-at-home moms is dwarfed by a long list of policies intended to push women into the workplace. And women's studies programs at American universities overwhelmingly parrot Hirshman's conclusion that housework is drudgery, traditional families are a trap, and economic power is the only path to true happiness.
The problem for Hirshman, and the feminist movement generally, is that most women (and men for that matter) don't love to work and don't see maximizing a paycheck as life's highest ambition. Young women sold on the idea of an exciting career often find actual office life dull. The majority of people tend to derive greater satisfaction from their families than from their jobs, so it's no surprise that many women allocate their time accordingly.
Get to Work reveals the awkward balance feminists must strike when instructing women to take paying jobs. Hirshman encourages women to dream big. Women should aspire to "become a great artist," she suggests, "or a crusading prosecutor, own their own restaurant or start the next Starbucks, design the next wrap dress or the next iPod, be a lifesaving nurse, or the scientist who finds a cure for cancer." Hirshman admits that most will never realize such high ambitions, but argues that the pursuit of greatness in the workplace is "the path to a flourishing life."
Of course, the desire to flourish shouldn't go to a one's head, says Hirshman. She thus lectures that women should avoid unrealistic career pursuits-- such as art or acting-- that, once frustrated, will lead to an appreciation of the comforts of home life. "When the inevitable choice point comes," she explains, "with work and family on the table, a woman in a good, secure job that is often interesting and provides an income worth protecting is much more likely to come out ahead than a woman who followed her bliss and is temping while she waits for the perfect opportunity she knows is out there."
Hirshman does concede that for any particular woman, the choice between work and family may be a tough call, writing, "Work may be less than ideal, but staying home with your babies is also a constrained future." And here is where the abandonment of "choice feminism" becomes total. That is to say, Hirshman claims to know the right choice for all women, i.e., that they should work, and not only for their own good, but for the sake of society:
Bounding home is not good for women and it's not good for the society. The women aren't using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands. Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education are lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos.
In other words, women must be compelled to make the "right" choice if they are to be truly free. It's an old collectivist argument. Greater fulfillment for individual women isn't the priority; rather, getting women to work is an end in itself. Hirshman doesn't care whether a woman is happier at home. She wants women to work, whether they want to or not, in order to advance her greater good of making women more like men.
Hirshman's writing reeks of disdain for the "small lives" of real women. She belittles those who chronicle their days on BloggingBaby.com, writing about such mundane activities as eating kids' food and wearing sandals and shorts. The message is that such lives aren't worth recording. Beyond boring, these women are in Hirshman's eyes dangerous. She condemns, for example, one mother's decision to homeschool her children to focus on her biological progeny instead of improving the lot of the collective. Hirshman instructs: "Have a baby. Just don't have two," the idea being that the raising of one child can easily be outsourced so as not to interfere with worker output, whereas two are drag on productivity.
The organized feminist movement, blind though it so often is, has been wisely ignoring Hirshman's manifesto. This is likely due more to public relations than to common sense; even the most zealous activists must see that Hirshman's totalitarian brand of feminism won't wash with the vast majority of women. Americans are not ashamed of their lives outside of work. Most wish they had more time with family. As the blogging mommies know, wiping noses may look to the career-obsessed like mindless drudgery, but to many women, such tasks are the most fulfilling, satisfying aspect of life.
Hirshman just doesn't get it. That's okay; she doesn't have to. Women have a choice, and can ignore this book.
Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.