Everybody else is writing about Linda Hirshman. Why shouldn't I?
For anybody who hasn't heard about this, Linda Hirshman is a Brandeis University law professor who set the blogosphere aflame last year when she wrote in the American Prospect that educated women were doing feminism a disservice--in effect, creating a glass ceiling for all mothers--by "opting out" to go home and raise kids. So far as it goes, this is a perfectly sensible argument. You can't change the world of work by dropping off the radar screen for 10 years, expecting to reappear and be greeted by a chorus of, "Hey, where ya been?" The working world does not operate via absentee ballot. She also had some pretty provocative things to say about stay-at-home moms: namely, that their are forfeiting their own intellectual development by abandoning the hurly-burly of real life and the marketplace of ideas for the aisles of Wal Mart. Here, too, she has a point, much as I hate to admit it. It's easy to get lazy. I know a lot of mothers who do not read the daily paper (which in my area is the Washington Post--as good a newspaper as you are likely to find outside the NYC metropolitan area), and who limit their curiosity about the world to local school and zoning issues. Running a family can be an all-absorbing endeavor; it's hard to do that, keep up an exercise regimen, eat right and read intellectually stimulating things without letting something fall between the cracks. (In my case, it's the exercise program--I'd rather read than go to the gym, and it shows.)
I have two problems with Linda Hirshman, though. One is her "opt-out revolution" argument--that the fact that elite women are dropping out of the workforce in increasing numbers (let's assume, for the moment, that this is true) bodes ill for feminism. It's a tiny, tiny demographic slice she's talking about, first of all--to which she would respond, and has, by arguing that yeah, but it's an extremely influential demographic slice. This is a good argument when you are dealing with the world of ideas--the original suffragists were all educated, elite women who had the leisure to agitate for social change--but it falls apart when you apply it to economics. The lady cashier at Target is not going to "opt out" of the working world because those New York Times brides are doing it; she doesn't give a rat's ass what those women are up to. She works because she needs the money. Nothing Linda Hirshman says has much relevance to her, except insofar as she perceives a patronizing attitude toward women who do what she might ardently desire to do--i.e., stay at home and "not work."
My second problem with Linda is that her argument against women who "opt out" places the blame squarely on the women themselves, not the rigid requirements of the working world they "opted out" of--but my friend Sandy D. has already done a very nice job of summing up my objections there. Suffice it to say that lots of us don't feel we "opted" out of anything; we felt pushed out of the working world by its all-or-nothing attitude of "be in the office all day every day, or forget it."
Hirschman reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the feminist writer of about a century ago, who came up with the idea that the solution to the whole problem of integrating home and work would be to create apartment/communes, where the mundane matters of cooking and cleaning could be subjected to an economy of scale: women wouldn't have to cook, because meals would be communal; women wouldn't have to clean, because there would be maid service for all. Yeah, but who would those cooks and maids be? In Perkins' day, they'd probably be Irish girls; today, you'd get somebody from Antigua or the Phillipines or China. Either way, whether you follow Charlotte's thinking or Linda's, there's still that nagging little issue that somebody is going to have to scrub the toilet. And who's it gonna be? Work that's too mundane and intellectually stultifying for the educated feminist elite in this country is just fine for...well, other women. From other places.
What I'd like to see is a stimulating discussion about these issues that involves two groups of people currently getting a free pass: employers, and husbands/fathers. You haven't heard either group commenting on Linda Hirschman's very provocative arguments, and there's a good reason for the resounding silence. They are laying low--hoping, desperately hoping, all us women will be so busy gouging out each others' eyeballs that we will forget that they are there.