Virginia Heffernan says she’s singing the praises of telecommuting “in a feminist key” in her Sunday NYT Magazine column The Medium: Home Tool . Her thesis: The Internet is, for women, the greatest thing since sliced bread. But based on her description of the life of a “WAHM” or any telecommuting woman, the real “Home Tool” in the piece is the one on her “mangy floor wearing ‘yoga’ pants with ‘Judge Judy’ on mute.” (And that’s before her hapless feminist heroine downloads school forms, pumps breast milk, loads the crockpot, and straightens the kitchen, all with BlackBerry in hand.)
I get that Heffernan’s tongue was firmly in her cheek, at least for the body of the piece. For the first three paragraphs, I was laughing too. I work at home, I love the Internet, I have always loathed “face time.” But her final claim that women benefit more than men from the Internet depends on an assumption that the responsibility for all of those things-the crockpot, the school forms, the kitchen-rests with her otherwise working woman. (I have to give her the breast milk.) That may, on a practical level, be true in many cases, but it’s not a solid basis for declaring the Internet a victory for feminism. In fact, making those things arguably easier, or at least more possible, to juggle alongside a career may slow up any societal realization that dads share a responsibility for feeding, schooling and cleaning up after their young. I’d argue that’s no victory for either sex.
But worse, by implying that any day a woman spends working at or from home is really a day spent mostly working on the home and avoiding the real world of work, Heffernan manages to undermine exactly that which she claims to praise. At the same time, she adds an insidious suggestion that the whole telecommuting thing really serves to help women avoid a masculine work world full of broad shoulders and baritones-that it benefits women more because we’re the ones who least want to put in our time in the “unpredictable world of vice-presidents and printer hubs.” Ouch. I think there is an argument to made for the Internet as a liberating household technology, but this isn’t it. Instead, it’s a song of praise (from a writer I usually enjoy) that’s remarkably tone deaf.