I highly recommend Caitlin Flanagan’s thoughtful cover story in the March Atlantic, How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement. (Thanks to Arts and Letters Daily for the link.) Flanagan nicely skewers the professional feminists (including my pal Naomi Wolf!–see my Naomi Wolf to Yale: Return My Phone Calls! just below, along with Is Naomi Wolf Off Her Meds?, Feb. 23, and The Other Charlotte’s Wicked Witch Day: Naomi Wolf and Omarosa, Feb. 20) for their soppy, self-laudatory books extolling their own motherhood as a have-it-all paradise in which slavish devotion to their homes and children harmoniously coexists with their high-paying public careers as writers and speakers.

What these women leave out, Flanagan points out, is that their own upscale class of mothers who also pursue glamor careers–in writing, law, medicine, or what have you–pulls it off only because these women can avail themselves of the services of lower-class, often foreign-born women who do all the heavy lifting around the house, including the raising of the children. Flanagan writes that she herself was able to indulge a fantasy of full-time motherhood (of twins, no less)-cum-writerhood only because someone else was doing the work:

“[A] majority of my sainted hours noting every little moue of delight or displeasure that crossed my children’s faces were spent in the company of a highly capable and very industrious nanny who did all of the hard stuff.”

The very real economic problems of these nannies and other servants fall completely under the radar screen of the self-satisfied upper-middle-class literatae who indulge their feminist fantasies upon other women’s backs. If you’re looking for an oppressed woman, Flanagan writes, why not look at your own housekeeper?:

“She is oppressed by the fact that her work is oftentimes physically exhausting, ill-paid, and devoid of benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave. She is oppressed by the fact that it is impossible to put a small child in licensed day care if you make minimum wage, and she is oppressed by the harrowing child-care options that are available on an unlicensed, inexpensive basis. She is oppressed by the fact that she has no safety net: if she falls out of work and her child needs a visit to the doctor and antibiotics, she may not be able to afford those things and will have to treat her sick child with over-the-counter medications, which themselves are far from cheap. She is oppressed by the fact that’another feminist gain’single motherhood has been so championed in our culture, along with the sexual liberation of women and the notion that a woman doesn’t really need a man. In this climate she is often left shouldering the immense burden of parenthood alone.”

There is much truth to what Flanagan says, especially about feminists’ snobbish assumptions–fine, maybe for upper-middle-class professionals but devastating for the working class and underclass–that women with children don’t need men. But her final analysis–that women ought to feel guilty just because they have servants–is entirely misplaced. There’s a difference between exploiting servants and just having them that Flanagan doesn’t seem to understand.

I  grew up in a household–and we weren’t rich by any means–where we had plenty of servants. And my mother wasn’t a have-it-all-professional, either, but a full-time mom. Nonetheless, we had a cleaning lady who came in twice a week, an ironing lady who took care of my father’s shirts once a week, and a gardener who mowed the lawn and did other chores a couple of times a week. We didn’t employ a nanny, but regular babysitters–nice old ladies who needed extra income–cared for us kids after school and on weekend nights, because my parents liked to go out on the town. My mother kept a beautiful house, because freedom from the cleaning chores gave her plenty of time for decorating, as well as for sewing her own high-fashion clothes, so that she was as well-turned out as Jackie Kennedy at a fraction of the cost. She also had time for a busy social life and a full calendar of volunteer work. Later on, when my father started making a bit more money, my parents graduated to a full-time housekeeper and finally, at their economic apogee, two live-in housekeepers, sisters from El Salvador who shared a small apartment added onto my parents’ garage. Even now my mother, a widow living in a condo, has a maid to do the cleaning twice a week.

Furthermore, nearly all of these people worked for my parents for years. The sisters from El Salvador, for example, left only when my parents sold their house. The ironing lady was with us for a good decade; the gardener lasted for 30 years. My mother’s current maid has been around since 1987. That’s because my parents have always paid their servants well, helped them out in financial emergencies, and treated them justly.

My parents lived the way people of any sort of means, and even of no means, have lived graciously since time immemorial: by employing other people who needed the work to help out. As late as the 1950s, you didn’t have to be rich to have servants. Remember Little Women? Even the four March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s thinly fictionalized account of her own 19th-century girlhood, daughters of an ill-paid minister and so poor that they had to remake their dresses over and over to hide the worn spots, had a beloved housekeeper, Hannah, cleaning and cooking for them. And I envy people, including my own female contemporaries, who have that sort of  luxury. I don’t have it, because I’m in graduate school right now, and I’m not pulling down very much. My chin fell to my chest, for example, when I read Caitlin Flanagan’s account of her own household arrangements:

“I have never once argued with my husband about which of us was going to change the sheets of the marriage bed, but then’to my certain knowledge ‘neither one of us ever has changed the sheets. Or scrubbed the bathtubs, or dusted the cobwebs off the top of the living-room bookcase, or used the special mop and the special noncorrosive cleanser on the hardwood floors. Two years ago our little boys got stomach flu, one right after the other, and there were ever so many loads of wash to do, but we did not do them. The nanny did.”

Here chez Allen, yours truly changes the sheets, as she has done since she graduated from college. Ditto on the bathtub every week, and on the washing, and on the dusting and mopping–when the dusting and mopping get done. So my own house doesn’t look all that gracious, I’m sorry to admit. And frankly, I wish it did. My first vow, once my grad-school grind is over and I’m working full-time again, is to find someone, some reliable person, to take over all those chores. I plan never to feel guilty about it, either.

And don’t you make a hypocritical fool of yourself by feeling guilty about it either, Caitlin. You benefit from the help, and you provide jobs to women who have immigrated from countries where, if they had stayed, they would be living on dirt floors and mush. Just pay your servants well. Be a good employer. You don’t have to beat your breast about doing something that women of even modest means have always done.