Get to Work

Last week, I read Get to Work by Linda Hirshman because she came to campus on Wednesday to talk about the book.  It’s a short book, just around 90 pages, but it packs a big punch.  The back cover asks “A question for stay-at-home mothers: does changing your children’s diapers count as a fulfilling job?” so I was ready for a biting portrait of the tension between career and motherhood that many middle and upper class heterosexual women face.

Hirshman’s focus is marriage, which means that her focus is also on heterosexual couples.  She expresses some interest in data on same-sex couples so I’m not worried that her position is heterosexist.  I was worried, though, that it is classist because in the book, Hirshman makes passing mentions of working class women, but her main concern is the aforementioned women of some or much privilege.  These are women whose careers are what she deems “elite” jobs in law, business, finance, and academia.  Right there, the book loses me a lot, but in her lecture, she made it clear that she focuses on these elite women because changing the makeup of the top tier of a workplace always results in changes to the makeup of the rest of that workforce.

The rest of the book’s title is “…and get a life before it’s too late.”  Indeed, Hirshman has strong opinions about what constitutes what she calls “a flourishing life,” and it does not involve choosing to stay home with kids rather than have a career.  The first point Hirshman makes is the fallacy that these women are making a “choice.”  When men go to work, no one calls it a “choice.”  Actually, no one considers it at all.

Choice then functions as an examination no-fly zone.  We can’t analyze a choice; it’s individual and subjective, specific to one person’s situation.  However, women with both jobs and children are forced to defend their decisions.  This choice is up for debate while it is rude to suggest the other is.  Why isn’t the protection of choice available unilaterally?  Part of the disparity, Hirshman points out, is the increasing tendency of our society to separate the public and private spheres and to protect the latter from scrutiny.  A stay-at-home mother exists solely in private.  She effectively relinquishes her public life, at least temporarily, and Hirshman would argue this temporary break does irreparable damage to her ability to participate fully in the public sphere.

Moreover, Hirshman suggests that because only women are forced to make this perceived choice between home and work and because of the dearth of options available to them, it is not a choice at all.  It is instead a caving to convention; even the idea itself (that women must choose between these spheres) is allowing out-dated conventions to dictate current ideologies.  The history of western civilization is the real enemy here, according to Hirshman.  The history of men being ideal workers because women take care of the household in its entirely makes it hard for present-day men to recognize their duties at home and present-day women to imagine that their paid work could be as important as their male mates’ jobs are.

Furthermore, the overuse of choice, Hirshman says, is what has ruined feminism.  She complains that the movement has expanded to include all kinds of women waving the flag of choice that it no longer stands for anything.  It seems that the impetus for Get to Work came from Hirshman’s disappointment that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique didn’t spark the total domestic revolution it should have, and I share this disappointment.  Why are we still, almost fifty years later, fighting the notion that women are better suited for cleaning, cooking, and child-raising?  It’s absurd.  Hirshman puts it this way: “The idea that men are entitled to be ideal workers in the market economy and that women are responsible for housekeeping and child rearing survived forty years of feminism without a scratch.”

In what I found to be the strongest part of her book, the “A Call for Values Feminism” section near the end, Hirshman presents her call to action.  She identifies the weaknesses in current feminism as “a bunch of programs unmoored from the values that started them in the first place,” and then she explains how feminists should sharpen their priorities:

Organized feminists should say: We think adult women deserve to work as well as love.  We think the educated middle-class women who were always at the core of the feminist movement should seek and keep the interesitng, well-paid jobs that middle-class men have.  We think they should not marry and have babies unless they have a clear bargain with the men involved that the men will pull half the weight of the household all the time.

Indeed, here Get to Work is very much the revisitation of The Feminine Mystique that Hirshman wants it to be, and it has the same narrow focus that Friedan’s book has.  This is why we need different kinds of feminists doing different kinds of work.  Hirshman’s work involves married women who have children and careers, and she’s very clear on that.  I agree with her points about feminism and about working mothers, but on the latter point, I grow uncomfortable.  Because I don’t have or want children, I don’t feel like I can judge the decisions and behaviors of those who do.  This resistance to judge is of course something Hirshman thinks is holding us back.

The part of Get to Work that left the worst taste in my mouth was Hirshman’s obvious delight in asserting her superiority over “bloggers.”  She gathers all of her critics under the blogger umbrella and then sticks her tongue out at them in statements like her remark that she has been “happily married for seventeen years, bloggers, take that!”  My discomfort at her relishing being the object of wrath suggests that I am ill-suited for her kind of work.  I tend toward the non-judgmental, and Hirshman encourages judgment.  That is a tricky notion for a live-and-let-live type like myself to accept, but it’s a notion worth considering.

I do wonder, though, what Hirshman would think about my particular life.  I choose not to have children so maybe I exist outside her conversation altogether.  (I don’t know how to explain it without using the word “choice.”)  I am married, though, and I’ve chosen (uh oh) to do it with someone who shares the housework equally.  We have an agreed-upon division of labor, and it works for us.  As for my career, I’m sure that Hirshman would disapprove of my inability to move forward and to advance so that I am visible in that sacred market economy.

What bothers me most is that I support Get to Work‘s basic premise that women need to be empowered to pick partners that share the housework and child-rearing duties, but Hirshman’s patronizing tone turns me off.  I wish this message were coming in a more accessible package.  I’m not asking for dumbed-down explanations or overly kind portraits of the way the world works, but I am still naive and idealistic enough to believe that highly educated people can teach others about their ideas without making fun of people.

It took me a long time to write this post.  My reactions kept shifting and deepening, and there remains some material in Hirshman’s book and in her lecture that merits discussion.  This is by no means a comprehensive response to the issues.