An Open Letter to Linda Hirshman

Foreword from Jessica Carlson, Contributing Editor, The Imperfect Parent:

Linda Hirshman is the author of the recently published criticism of the inadequacies of today’s feminists, "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World". She has been criticized for saying that privileged, educated women who choose to stay at home to raise their children are hurting themselves and others. Her militant stance of what is and isn’t feminism has caused firestorms all over the blogosphere and in the media
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From an article by Ms. Hirsham herself, published on the American Prospect Online (
www.prospect.org), she outlines what she (presumably) considers honest criticisms about women as homemakers. These outlines consist of I. The Truth About Elite Women; II. The Failure of Choice Feminism; III. What Is to Be Done?; and finally, IV. Why Do We Care?

Within this outline, Hirsham offers advice as the first few “rules” for young women to follow, “[F]ind the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy…Yet somewhere along the way the women made decisions in the direction of less money. Part of the problem was idealism; idealism on the career trail usually leads to volunteer work, or indentured servitude in social-service jobs, which is nice but doesn’t get you to money.”

She goes onto say, “Marry young or marry much older. Younger men are potential high-status companions [but you can have the financial power at the beginning]. Much older men are sufficiently established so that they don’t have to work so hard, and they often have enough money to provide unlimited household help. By contrast, slightly older men with bigger incomes are the most dangerous, but even a pure counterpart is risky. If you both are going through the elite-job hazing rituals simultaneously while having children, someone is going to have to give. Even the most devoted lawyers with the hardest-working nannies are going to have weeks when no one can get home other than to sleep. The odds are that when this happens, the woman is going to give up her ambitions and professional potential.”

Other quotes which seek to diminish the hard work, integrity and role of the stay at home mother:

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“If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems.”

“If these prescriptions sound less than family-friendly, here’s the last rule: Have a baby. Just don’t have two.”

Hirsham keeps up her angry feminist vigilance against mothers who choose their children over their careers in a Washington Post article she wrote, entitled “Unleashing the Wrath of Stay-At-Home Moms”. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/16/AR2006061601766.html)

She writes, ”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.”

She goes onto say, “Okay, I’m judgmental. [T]hat 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.”

One of our contributors, Alan Thomas, has written an open letter to Ms. Hirshman in response to her brand of feminism. From a male’s perspective, he questions her motives and her credibility. Although Thomas claims, “Hirshman styles herself as a progressive liberal, fighting the good fight against right wing zealots who would keep women down. It is true that she is far from a social/religious conservative. But in economic terms, her stances would fit better at a conservative magazine like National Review than at the liberal American Prospect where her piece was published. She refers as contemptuously and dismissively to socialist ideals as any Wall Street, bowtie-clad Republican would. She exhorts women to steer clear of social work professions, and pursue maximum capitalism instead. She advises them to attain aristocratic privilege–both through such high flying corporate careers and by marrying rich old men–and then to use this privilege to hire servants to raise their children. She even refers to those who change diapers as ‘untouchables’!  One gets a sneaking suspicion Hirshman has read her share of Ayn Rand, an author who was as right wing economically as they come, but who seduced her share of "liberal" women readers to her philosophy because she featured strong, capitalistic women protagonists.”

I beg to differ.

I don’t know if partisan politics are so clear-cut here. Just because one doesn’t agree with a certain ideology doesn’t necessarily mean they are diametrically opposed to one’s own personal political affiliation. Feminism by nature is more of a liberal agenda than it is a conservative agenda. I think her viewpoints paint a more accurate portrayal of the feminist extreme. The most radical of one side is the scary realization of how any political point of view can become fringe and illogical when magnified into radical extremism. I’m afraid the left will have to claim and denounce her at the same time. Conservatives champion the role of stay-at-home moms and in their radical interpretation, they would rather see women “know their places” in the home, so the opposite would hold true for Ms. Hirshman’s philosophy. I believe it to be totally inaccurate to accuse her politics of being opposite of what she, herself claims, in order to disown and disassociate with her outrageous brand of feminism.

Mr.Thomas, thinks otherwise as he demonstrates in his open letter to Linda Hirshman:

Ms. Hirshman, your complaint, strangely enough, makes me think of Henry Higgins’ lament, "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” You refuse to consider that it may be differences in women’s and men’s brains (differences which evolved over eons–look into evolutionary psychology or sociobiology sometime) that account for some of their differences in behavior. You make a brief reference to this (well-supported) thesis at one point, only to brush it off along with a group of others as “not exactly knockdown arguments”. Really? Since you’re a professor emeritus, one would expect you to use empirical data in a logical counterargument if you expect to put forth an authoritative rebuttal; yet I see none. Like the women who hounded Larry Summers out of office, some questions and positions are apparently not only prima facie incorrect, but are too offensive even to be discussed (even—especially—if they have the backing of considerable scientific evidence).

Furthermore, you haven’t considered that perhaps some of these differences (the existence of which you refuse to accept) reflect positively on women. One such example is the distaste you found among many educated women for men’s killer instincts in prosecuting rapacious capitalism (geez, they said, “it’s only money”). Brava, I say! You seemed to recognize gender-specific behavior by men: you pointed out, in a different article, that they are often eager to "sexually harvest" young nubile women. This intense desire is hardwired into our brains and endocrine systems, because it fits perfectly with our reproductive schema. Similarly on the other side of the coin, providing close, personal nurturing of offspring (particularly when they are very young) is naturally hardwired in women’s brains and endocrine systems, and in fact in their breasts as well (some might say the latter is a "separate" issue, but I disagree: until pharmaceutical science comes up with a "formula" that doesn’t put babies at increased risk of sickness and death, women who want to nurture and protect their children are naturally going to be better off breastfeeding rather than giving into formula marketing). Women can only produce a limited number of offspring, at considerable biological investment, so it shouldn’t surprise us that they have more nurturing tools and a strong instinctual desire to use them, since they have a powerful evolutionary need to protect their genetic investment (that sounds bad, but it’s the way evolution works).

Many men, I should note, also put a lot of time and effort into nurturing small numbers of offspring rather than only looking to maximize the number of conceptions, but in men’s case this is just one possible evolutionary survival strategy, or ESS, that competes with the rival ESS of “spread the seed”. And of course men often cover both bases with what is called infidelity. But women have an instinct for infidelity as well; it should be pointed out, for two principal reasons. First, the choicest physical specimens of manhood—the handsome (symmetrical), well built ones—are often not available to settle down with since they’re too busy fielding the barrage of advances they receive from attractive women (I had a friend like this, and it was really something to see). Yet these Casanovas offer great genes for one’s offspring; so a good ESS for a woman is a “cuckoo’s nest” strategy where she finds one man who will contribute time and resources into being a “family man”, but gets her sperm from others. The second sociobiological reason for a woman’s infidelity is that by bearing children with different fathers, all her eggs are not stuck in one basket, in case there turns out to be some flaw in one dad’s DNA that could prove ruinous for her children and thus her lineage. But I digress.

The problem with you and your cohort (Second Wave feminists who mostly grew up in the ‘50s: my own mother is one of them and would probably applaud your article) is that your psyches have been warped by the times in which you came of age. There was an unmistakable, overwhelming patriarchy back then, and it thuggishly slammed the doors shut on any life choices other than domestic motherhood. It’s perfectly understandable to chafe under such explicit, heavy-handed restrictions. But in reacting against them, you (collectively) made the mistake of assuming that since women (that is, middle and upper-class women: you share Betty Friedan’s classism) were being practically forced to stay home with kids, staying home with kids must be something no women should ever actually want to do if she were “free”. (This is the same psychological error lampooned in Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer, when Tom tricks his friends into painting the fence because he acts initially reluctant to allow them to do it.)

And what inspired your ire more than anything, I think, was discovering that many mothers really aren’t very happy working full time out of the home and leaving their children in the care of others. This bothers you so much that you defensively insist in your follow-up piece “working women have the better life” (and, doing so, make a preemptive attempt to trump my case, implying that women who believe otherwise are engaged in protective self-delusion–while I’d argue it’s often the other way ’round). For some mothers’ personality types, this is undoubtedly true. But I think it’s increasingly clear that it’s not true for most: even if they don’t want to be full time SAHMs, many WOHM mothers would take part time or flex time employment in their fields, or at least on-site daycare, if they could get it. 

Furthermore, you committed a kind of “Animal Farm” error (cf. the final scene of the book, when the pigs are standing on two legs and living in the house) in deciding that “freedom” for women meant going into the workforce and doing things just like men had been doing them. This is reflected in your exhortation of women to eschew the liberal arts curriculum that tends to be their forte, in favor of curricula that provide more opportunities for strong professional earnings. But again, this undeniable fact, that liberal arts degrees are not given the economic value that MBAs are, does not make the latter morally or philosophically superior. I would argue just the opposite: that those women (and for that matter, bohemian “slacker” men like myself) who study the liberal arts out of love of knowledge and culture are the ones who are keeping the really important flames of “humanness” going. Without the arts, literature, philosophy, and history, humans are little more than machines of production and consumption—we might as well be amoebas if that’s the way we orient our values.

It is the Third Wave feminists, and the educated young women of today more generally, who are not as bogged down with these knee-jerk reactions against domesticity, and who therefore have a clearer view. Winning the rat race, becoming an executive or a take-no-prisoners corporate attorney, does not fit very well with most educated women’s values (or, again, with the values of many liberal men, like myself). We should be very glad of that! Without the “softer”, more nurturing values of women expressed in the political sphere, we’d be doomed to live for the foreseeable future under hardline right wing regimes (rather than having a good chance to get out from under just such a regime in this election). Furthermore, the tack that you take is bad for progressivism in other ways. You did acknowledge that your recommendation to have just one child is a recipe for the elimination of the educated, liberal demographic, but blithely speculate that the government will correct this at some point as the French did. This ain’t France, sister, and all that would happen here is that the fundamentalist right wingers would take up the babymaking slack and cheerfully swamp us right out of the gene (and meme) pool. Furthermore, as long as your archaic brand of feminism is the one that gets the most attention, it risks pushing away young women from the progressive political camp. If they discover that in their heart of hearts, they want to stay home and raise kids, they might just feel that they aren’t welcome anywhere but in the GOP.

You and others who still stubbornly cling to your Second Wave dogma could take a lesson from the different path taken by European feminists. They have focused on facilitating a blending of motherhood and careers (which was the biological and sociological norm until relatively recently in history), with policies like extended paid maternity leave, legal and societal support for breastfeeding, on-site childcare, and other means for women to stay close to their children while working for pay if they so choose. You state that “Even the most devoted lawyers with the hardest-working nannies are going to have weeks when no one can get home other than to sleep.” Apparently, as a law professor, you can’t comprehend that for most gen-X and gen-Y women (and not a few of their male counterparts) this sounds like no way to live one’s life! (You also, once again, betray a Friedanesque classism that is ironic for a strong supporter of unions: where do nannies fit in your feminism, I wonder?) Increasingly, younger parents are seeing it as more important to have family and leisure time than to work insane hours running the rat race. And again, this is much more in line with the values that have already been present in Europe for some time.

Your philosophy, though, is at its core very American, and apparently adamantly opposed to all such endeavours (after all, if women get solid maternity leave, they might fall behind a little in that all-important money race, and <gasp> they might not even go back to work once the maternity leave is over). You express surprise at the intensity of the online “mommy wars”, yet you are a prime example of why this issue is so heated on the debate boards: you absolutely drip with undisguised contempt for SAHMs—and how could you expect anyone to react to such contempt with anything but hostility? To be fair, there is another catalyst going the other way that adds to making this such a hot-button issue: the strong implication from the SAHM side that WOHMs don’t measure up to them as mothers. But the fact that the implication of inferior motherhood provokes as much hostility as “you’re a dumb ‘mommy’ with little value to society” underlines my point: women are hardwired to take extreme exception to their parenting skills being impugned–more, I think, than would most fathers.

Beyond issues of gender per se, what a mistake you make in denigrating childcare itself as beneath the skills of an educated person, something to be passed on to unskilled “untouchables”! I spend my time with my kids taking advantage of the fact that they are in the presence of a parent who can provide serious intellectual stimulation, rather than with some generic caregiver. I teach them French (in depth—not just a few words); we discuss matters of cosmology, politics, ethics, and metaphysics, to name a few; I use the latest research to guide their nutritional intake; we get exercise and work on our tennis games (yes, I’m a “tennis dad”—but a nice one). And I strongly believe in the philosophy of “attachment parenting”: my kids were breastfed until age two or later, they slept in their parents’ bed during that time, and they still get lots of hugs and snuggles (and no spanking, though I am a consistent disciplinarian with various rewards and punishments). Your small sample of “Times grooms”, by the way, may not have taken paternity leave, but I for one took as much as the law would allow—even though much of it was unpaid.

And you know what? It’s a cliché, but I really do have two of the greatest kids ever. They’d still be great, of course, had they been taken care of by a nanny or day care; but honestly, I don’t think they would be as superlative in so many facets, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Which is why it’s so disingenuous for you, in quoting Friedan, to equate hands-on parenting with “vacuuming”. Sure, that kind of housework qualifies as drudgery and doesn’t perhaps use much in the way of intellectual skills (though I think it’s nevertheless good for all of our minds and bodies to do it). But there’s a huge difference between the housework undertaken to keep a house clean, and that involved with physically, emotionally, and intellectually nurturing one’s children.

Finally: In your Washington Post op-ed, responding to the firestorm you inevitably provoked (and to be clear, I’m not against provoking firestorms!), I was disappointed to see that you resorted to the easy out: using right wing fundamentalist Christian stay-at-home mothers as your strawm—er, strawpeople. Sure, that crowd doesn’t like what you have to say one bit, but why spend paragraphs shooting the fish in that barrel while not substantively addressing the more interesting and nuanced debate within the secular left (of which I, as an atheist who previously wrote the “Red Fish, Blue Fish” column for this site, am a member)? Sure, you did briefly acknowledge the rift on the left, but only to shrug your shoulders, call it “much worse” than criticism on the right, and declare that you wouldn’t “shut up”. Fantastic: I don’t want you to shut up, but it would be nice if you’d intellectually engage our arguments rather than blowing them off in such brief terms so you can get back to knocking off the easy pickings found on the brainwashed fundie “Stepford Wives” right.

What do you think of Ms. Hirshman’s views? Leave a comment and let us know.

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