Monday, June 19, 2006

Everybody Hates Linda?

Last December Linda Hirshman wrote an interesting (and incendiary) piece in the American Prospect on educated women supposedly giving up on this thing called career and returning to a life of housewifery. Now she has come out with a book on the topic: Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World and an article in the Washington Post yesterday. In this article she says:

When I set out to write a book about how the first generation of women to grow up with feminism managed their marriages, I never dreamed I'd wind up the subject of a Web article called "Everybody Hates Linda."

Everybody started hating Linda, apparently, when I published an article in the progressive magazine the American Prospect last December, saying that women who quit their jobs to stay home with their children were making a mistake. Worse, I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings. They do not require a great intellect, they are not honored and they do not involve risks and the rewards that risk brings. Oh, and by the way, where were the dads when all this household labor was being distributed? Maybe the thickest glass ceiling, I wrote, is at home.

Okay, I'm judgmental. That's what CBS's Lesley Stahl called me on "60 Minutes." But I'm a philosopher, and it's a philosopher's job to tell people how they should lead their lives. We've been doing so since Socrates. And yet, even though I knew the Greeks made Socrates drink poison, the reaction to my judgment took me by surprise. It turns out that was what people really hated: the judgment. That working women have the better life.

Kapow! I had wandered, it seems, into ground zero of the Mommy Wars. Although I was aware of the stories about women quitting, I did not know what a minefield the subject was. Specifically, I did not know that you can say almost anything about how great it is for a woman to give up her job; standing up for staying at work is the big taboo.

I suspect that Linda likes to strike up some controversy, actually, because that's what happens when you tell people that their life choices are less worthy. And there is a very strong mythology on the side of her critics, the stuff about self-sacrificing women and domestic goddesses. Not to mention the fact that spending time with your own children is a lot more self-actualizing than scrubbing factory floors for a minimum wage, so her arguments, if they apply, apply only to the juicy jobs out there. The ones with power and influence and full of interesting things to do.

And most women don't "opt-out" for good, just as most women probably don't "opt-in" for good. If there are mummy wars then a woman might suddenly find her on the opposite side of the fight. But I hate mommy wars. Because they are part of the wingnuts' policy of divide et impera. As long as women fight over who is the better mommy the Bush administration can cut all the support structures (meager as they are) for women and we have no energy to fight it.

Still, Hirshman has a point in the last sentence of the quote above: " standing up for staying at work is the big taboo." I tend to agree. This decision must be based on something like a woman's children starving if she quits. Otherwise her choice to continue working is subject to any amount of moral ponderings.

Note that none of these moral ponderings apply if it's the father who goes on working when a new baby is born, or even if he turns extra ambitious for promotions at that point. It's just natural, we think, and never wonder if the child will suffer from hardly noticing that there is a father around, except in the form of expensive presents and fancy schools. Selfish? You judge. - I just did a reversal of the message educated women get every month in the United States.

There were things that the old, hairy feminists used to say which are still worth saying about the division of labor between partners, and we don't hear them very often anymore. For example, the partner who stays at home will have less retirement income and fewer good opportunities for a job later on. This means that she or he has a more difficult time leaving a bad marriage than someone who has continued working for money. This, in turn, means that the upper hand in such a marriage could go to the money-earning spouse. It doesn't have to, of course, but there's a reason why it might, and the reason is power and money.

Then there is another old point: That we lose all the skills of those women in the public sector who quit their jobs. We lose the specific education they have and their specific work experiences. We lose women in decision-making positions which they could use to make the world a fairer place for mothers.

The other side of the argument also has very good points: Children need their parents' time and most parents want to spend time with their children. Work is not necessarily more rewarding than spending time with your children. In fact, work is often pretty tedious and tiring.

But then that is sometimes true of children, too. I'm not sure how we got the idea that specializing in one thing only would make people happy, on average. Though there are exceptions to this rule, I believe that most of us need both families and meaningful work to thrive, at least over our lifetimes. It is only women that are asked to choose between these two, and only women who are expected to feel guilt and shame over their choices. And no, you can't escape the guilt and shame by remaining childless, because then the wingnuts tell you that you are causing the population to die out.

Let me return to Linda's arguments to finish this long piece. She says:

And yet, even though I knew the Greeks made Socrates drink poison, the reaction to my judgment took me by surprise. It turns out that was what people really hated: the judgment. That working women have the better life.

I wouldn't make this judgment, because I'm not sure what measures we'd use to compare lives of totally different individuals. But there is a different judgment that has been made for centuries: That it's the work in the marketplace that counts, men's work. Whoever made the money owned everything: the house, the horses, even the children. Never mind the mythology about the valuable work mothers did. Accolades and pretty paintings of angelic mothers with apple-cheeked children never paid old age pensions. Motherhood didn't even get women voting rights in the pre-women's-suffrage era. It was lauded in words and ignored in deeds.

And there is still some of that going. Indeed, a lot of that going. Think of the resources we dedicate to children as opposed to warfare, for example. Think of the prestige of childcare workers (nonexistent) and the way we react to those who suggest that mothering should be paid work (preposterous).

Most old-time feminists still worth reading pointed this all out. It is not that feminists had contempt for stay-at-home mothers, it is that the society had such a contempt where it really counted: when something needed to be done to make those women's lives easier. Indeed, it was the feminists who got Individual Retirement Accounts first extended to cover housewives.

The second wave of feminism, the one from the 1960's and 1970's, wanted to change all the problems they saw in the work-family balance, but they succeeded only partially. It is now somewhat easier for women in the labor force and in the public sector in general, but the division of labor at home and the monetary rewards for parenting are still about as bad as they were forty years ago.

Is it the case that whatever is viewed as men's work gains in prestige and whatever is viewed as women's work falls in prestige? If this is true, then the only long-term solution to getting a better work-family (or work-life) balance for all people is when more men choose to "opt-out", too, when "mothering" becomes parenting.

If this solution strikes you as too far-fetched another might be to institutionalize some rewards of mothering into the system. Take this often heard idea: There are so few women in American politics, because there are so few women in the pipelines which lead to the important jobs, and this, in turn, is caused by women having to care for their children which doesn't give them enough time to do the necessary apprenticeships. Suppose all is true (which it probably isn't). Then what a really family-oriented society would do is this: Put in another pipeline for women who have done all the mothering. Make sure that they get in. Don't just stand there and wring your hands over the facts of life. Likewise for promotions and higher education and so on. In short, stop punishing those who care for the next generation. This might make more fathers interested in the "opt-out" strategy, too.

I could add all sorts of stuff about more daycare and longer parental leaves and so on. But I'd be talking to myself, probably.