Linda Hirshman Maligns ‘Opt-Out Mothers’

Just when I thought it was safe to come out from under the bed, I run across this (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 9/20/11).

It’s an article about Linda Hirshman in which the old-guard feminist reprises a lot of the claims, concepts and attitudes that have put the movement in such bad odor over the years.  Hirshman’s older but no wiser; she still just doesn’t get it.

The “it” she doesn’t get is respect for her own sex, i.e. women.  As a feminist, you’d think she’d at least take a stab at honoring the choices made by women as long as they’re legal and at least arguably constructive in some way.  But no, for Hirshman, any life choice a woman makes that’s not working for a living, all day every day, just isn’t legitimate.  (That she’s arguing for women to behave more like men seems to never occur to Hirshman.)  Her real beef is with mothers who opt out of paid work in favor of doing childcare.

Hirshman, it seems, interviewed women for a book she was writing and didn’t like what they told her.

And while most of the affluent well-educated women she interviewed had worked full time after college, they left high-powered jobs to stay at home full-time when they began having children, a choice she calls self-destructive and self-defeating.

True.  Those women would be like the ones in the numerous studies of highly educated women who do just that.  Studies I’m aware of include those of graduates of the University of Michigan Law School, the University of Chicago MBA program and three of graduates in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curricula.  Like Hirshman’s interviewees, they started out working full time and then dropped out in whole or in part when children came along.

Of course those women are among the most intelligent, highly educated ones anywhere in the country.  So it’s remarkable the disdain Hirshman has for them.  Face it, if she can’t muster a bit of respect for women like that, what must she think of the rest of womankind?

“Self-destructive and self-defeating?”  I wonder what those women said when Hirshman mentioned her low opinion of them.  Of course she did no such thing; she reserved that for her book.  But I suspect Hirshman’s not just being tactful; cowardly is more like it.  She didn’t want to confront these women for fear of being contradicted with intelligent, well thought out responses.  That approach makes it easier to maintain opinions that one cherishes but are less well-reasoned.  Such in any case is my guess.

After all, those women might have the type of well-formed ideas you’d expect of anyone with their education.  They might think that working for a living is fine and necessary but one-dimensional.  They might have told Hirshman that they were powerfully motivated to bear and rear children and that personal fulfillment for them was hard or impossible without that.  They might have said that bearing a child and then turning it over to daycare at the earliest possible time thwarts one of the greatest reasons for having it in the first place – the caring for an infant of your own flesh and blood.  But Hirshman didn’t want to hear it.

Since Hirshman is coming at the whole work/life balance debate from an exclusively ideological standpoint, it’s no surprise that she gets a lot of things wrong.

Hirshman, who”s married with three children and seven grandchildren, argues that opting out makes a woman completely financially dependent on her husband and reduces her lifetime earning potential if she returns to work. It prevents her from sharing her knowledge, skills and talents with the world, and from gaining more workplace experience.

No and no.  Actually, opting out is almost always temporary.  SAHMs tend to stay home when the kids are of pre-school age and, once they’re out of the house, the mothers start opting back into paid work.  Yes, they’ve cut their lifetime earnings which means their retirement savings may not be as much.  But the notion that they’re “completely financially dependent” on their husbands is absurd.  And since these women are unquestionably smart and educated, my guess is that they understand the financial consequences of their actions.

Equally absurd is the idea that a mother’s opting out of paid work to raise her kids “prevents her from sharing her knowledge, skills and talents with the world…”  Actually, that’s precisely what parenting is.  Admittedly, parents don’t do that “with the world,” but next to no one else does either, so they’re not exactly unique.

One of the main claims of Women’s Studies is the great value of listening to the personal stories (actually “herstories”) of women and honoring their understanding of them.  As Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge point out in Professing Feminism,  for feminists in Women’s Studies, women’s narratives of their own experiences take precedence over virtually all else.  Not for Hirshman they don’t.  For her, any woman with an opinion on work and motherhood different from hers is a dupe of the patriarchy.

Not surprisingly, many readers disagreed and blew up the blogosphere, defending their choices.

“I think that women did not like being told that they had chosen lesser lives. It”s understandable,’ Hirshman says.

It is indeed.  That’s partly because Hirshman takes it upon herself to judge the legitimate behavior of other women.  It’s also because, by any stretch of the imagination, taking a balanced approach to paid work and childcare is imminently reasonable.

As the Families and Work Institute reported not long ago, men much more than women suffer the stress of trying to balance the two.  And it’s not just that men suffer more, the FWI analysis shows why they do.  It turns out that it is precisely work that’s the culprit.  Women balance work and family in ways that are far more agreeable to them than do men.  They work less and parent more.  The none too subtle message seems to be that if men behaved more like women, they’d be less stressed.

But Hirshman, if she’s even aware of the data on the subject, isn’t having any of it.  She wants women working.  Period.  If it means they’re more stressed and less happy, that’s their tough luck.  Big Sister has spoken.

Now, the article doesn’t mention it, but there’s a great irony in a feminist like Hirshman excoriating women for failing to behave as she thinks they should.  Actually there are so many ironies I can’t count them, but here’s one:  Feminist Hirshman wants women to “opt out” of childcare, but every feminist organization I know of has consistently opposed even the slightest improvement in fathers’ rights in family courts.

Feminists don’t want women to care for children and they don’t want men to do it either.  I’m not sure who that leaves other than the state, but no one believes we’re going there, so it’s beginning to look like something in feminist ideology has to give.

I’ve argued long and hard that what needs to go is their almost universal opposition to equal rights and equal treatment of fathers by laws and family courts.  That would help dads, it would help children and it would help women to take greater part in paid work.  It would also help feminism to be seen as less misandric than it has been for so many years.

So where’s the downside for feminists?  It’s hard to see, but if Linda Hirshman’s any indication, I won’t expect good sense or rationality any time soon.

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