The Highbrow

A Working Girl Can Win

The case against staying at home with the kids.

Get to work, Linda Hirshman admonished American women in a polemical article in the American Prospect last December, in which she argued that it’s imperative for women not to “opt out” of employment to stay home with the kids. Only by working, she claimed, can women can have a fully “flourishing” life. A full-scale assault on Hirshman ensued, from conservatives and liberals alike. What has riled everyone up isn’t just Hirshman’s message that only in the work force will women find fulfillment. It’s that Hirshman attacked the sacred cow of the motherhood debate: the notion that it’s a good thing liberated women are allowed to choose whether to work or stay at home—an intellectual paradigm Hirshman dubbed “choice feminism.”

The hostility is understandable. Hirshman’s approach is dictatorial, contradictory, and often self-important. (“I am not the first to apply the long-standing insights of philosophy to women’s lives,” she writes. Uh, thanks.) She claims there’s a new epidemic of high-powered women opting out, when substantial evidence suggests that their drop-out rates have held fairly steady for the past 20 years. Finally, she challenges not only long-standing assumptions about gender (say, that women are more suited to domesticity than men), but also our deepest assumptions about freedom: namely, that having more choices is better than having fewer, and that how we organize our private lives is our own damn business, thank you very much.

But—though I almost hate to say it—buried beneath Hirshman’s overblown rhetoric is a useful idea, now set out in a short book titled Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World: namely, that our obsession with choice prevents us from asking tough questions about how to achieve further equality. “Deafened by choice, here’s the moral analysis these women never heard,” she says: Until there is more equity in the cultural norms for child-rearing and household tasks, each time a woman decides to “opt out” she is making a political decision that reinforces an already ingrained social inequality. Women who believe otherwise suffer from a mixture of false consciousness and impractical idealism. It’s when Hirshman is at her most radical—when she sets aside the language of personal fulfillment in favor of injunctions about the collective good—that she is at her most valuable. I would never write this book, but I’m glad somebody did.

Hirshman has several problems with “choice” feminists. First—and this is what really set the bloggers off—she thinks that any woman who stays at home is choosing an impoverished life. Staying at home, Hirshman argues, “allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women.” Second, she thinks that the “choices” women actually have are often illusory, shaped by inequalities in the work force, and circumscribed by a cultural discourse that hammers home the message that women are failing their children if they don’t stay home. Finally, many women choose to take time off without knowing very much about what impact it will actually have on their futures: A recent study found that a full 93 percent of “highly qualified” women who have opted out want to find a way back in and can’t. And, according to several studies, women in the United States suffer a 10 to 15 percent dock in future earnings when they have children—a drop that doesn’t affect men.

The reason all this matters, Hirshman persuasively argues, is that choice feminism creates a “mutually reinforcing” cycle. Affluent and well-educated men rarely leave the workforce (and when they do, it’s usually to return to school or start a business); a portion of affluent and well-educated women do opt out (and when they do, it’s almost exclusively to raise children). When these women choose to devote their skills to childcare rather than to the workplace, they are “perpetuating a mostly male ruling class”—precisely the type unlikely to help make the case for more flexible work arrangements that would allow more women back into the workforce. The result is disempowering for less-well-off women, who have fewer public female role models, and for the opt-outers themselves, who find it hard to re-enter the work place and, if divorced, may have to depend on their husbands for support. None of this, Hirshman points out, dovetails with the aims of feminism.

It is in forcing us to consider the implications of all this that Hirshman’s book is most interesting: If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn’t believe that a woman’s place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn’t ethical at this point in time. If that makes feminism unpopular, so be it; but shying away from persistent inequality by invoking the language of “choice,” she observes, is hardly feminism. If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it’s important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it’s the lesson every man is taught when he’s a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work.

What does this mean in practice? It doesn’t mean that America’s children are going to go without mothers. As Hirshman points out, the real debate isn’t a choice between two extremes: a life where neither parent sees the child, or a life where the child has a loving mother. Rather, Hirshman’s hard-boiled approach to the whole concept of choice cuts through the self-important—and often self-sabotaging—idealism that women employ to justify their decisions. One of her best points is that opting out is usually the culmination of many smaller decisions women make without thinking strategically. So, she ladles out—or, well, demands we take—pragmatic advice of the sort that is rarely provided to young women. She encourages women to tell their male partners before getting married that they will not quit their jobs to raise children. She advises women to marry only men who will commit to a 50 percent housework/childrearing division of labor—or else to engage in a reproductive strike, limiting the number of children to one. And she counsels—so much for l’amour!—that young women marry only much older men or men who earn less than they do, in order to have more economic bargaining power.

Whatever the flaws and limitations of this book—and they are very real—it’s liberating to be told to think as calculatingly as men do about how to lead your life as a parent and an employee. The essence of the mommy wars in recent years has been the assumption that the woman who stays at home does so for selfless reasons, invoking the good of the children, future leaders of our country. But Hirshman flips the terms of debate, reminding us that women who work aren’t being selfish: even 40 years after the feminist revolution, educated working women, especially those with top-level jobs, are still pioneers. Women have the right to stick up for their own careers, not just for reasons of personal fulfillment but for reasons of social necessity. Praising the man who comes home at 6, while worrying about a mother who has part-time job, is simple sexism. And any mother who sniffily says to another that she can tell which kids are in day care and which aren’t should be “shown the door,” as Hirshman puts it. Until those who care about equality recognize that it will take collective action to create further change, the kinds of policy amendments most women want to see won’t take place, and women will continue doing 70 percent of the housework—while men continue to do less housework after marriage than they did as bachelors.

The truth is, most men and women invested in equality do see that cultural norms aren’t equal, but it’s hard to set aside the rhetoric of choice. In our late consumerist culture, choice is almost always thought of as good. It also seems distasteful—and, yes, paternalistic—to assume that women who aren’t forced to make their decisions are unhappy with them. But if women really do stay in the work force, even part-time, a few decades from now it may be easier for parents to opt out according to their personal preferences, rather than their gender. If one parent didn’t want to assume the bulk of the child-care duties, as may well be the case, two could split it. The demand for elastic or part-time work by men and women alike would lead to more flexible jobs.

Today, “choice” isn’t as simple as it sounds and masks a deeper social problem: the difficulty women, and especially less well-educated women—who drop out in higher rates–face when trying to get back into the work force. As irritating as Hirshman’s brinksmanship is, her point has a place in the ongoing debates. If women of the world unite, and get to work, they may flourish more fully in the private and the public spheres.