Linda Hirshman’s argument that mothers betray feminist ideals when they leave the workforce to raise their children is far from true or accurate, but as someone whose life path was a target of her criticism, I was surprised to find how much I agreed with some of her insights. Unfortunately, Hirshman buries the kernels of a good idea inside a thick layer of incorrect assumptions and unkind judgments. She presents her case with the confidence, logic, and selective focus of a trial lawyer making a closing argument before a jury. Hirshman sets the stage, frames the debate, states her definition of what a constitutes a meaningful life, and then specifically asserts, “a life of housework and child care does not met these standards.” She balks at the idea that anyone in her right mind would choose to stay at home, and in fact labels it as a false choice.
As a writer and cultural critic, I am accustomed to reading work that I don’t agree with, usually finding that if I read enough varying opinions, a sense of truth emerges like the Zen concept of “a finger pointing at the moon.” Hirshman’s new book, Get to Work, points at a truth–unfortunately, her argument comes across like a middle finger raised in opposition to the idea that Gen X won’t follow the Boomer ideals of climbing the corporate ladder. I believe that Hirshman’s disagreements with younger women are as much about generational differences as they are about philosophies of feminism.
Hirshman’s definition of success suffers from a profound lack of imagination, as it is built entirely on the male model that gave us the corporate ladder, the tenure track and partner track in the first place. She looks down on idealism and seems to recoil from anything that smacks of an artistic bent, whether it materializes as an impulse to be a “painter, writer or do-gooder.” In her former profession, law, over half of all law school graduates are leaving the profession within six years of graduation, with men “opting out” the partner-track at almost the same rate as women. Is a lawyer turned bookstore owner less of a feminist traitor than a lawyer turned stay-at-home parent?
So what exactly is the insight I gained from Hirshman? She is on target with the key ideas that men and women need to share childrearing more equitably. I would expand this idea to include all forms of family caregiving. Hirshman’s idea of moving away from “choice” as a dominant value in the feminist movement has a significant application to politics. If we look at childrearing as a purely personal choice, then there is no need to support parents with family-friendly public policies. Most Americans cannot afford to lose their jobs after adding children to their lives, and our country has been extremely negligent in creating policies to deal with these realities. Without paid family leave or health insurance, many families are living on the edge, one bad break or health crisis away from financial ruin. In my continuing work as the author of Mojo Mom, I have argued that the emerging Mothers’ Movement needs to form cross-generational coalitions with all people affected by caregiving needs. Doing so will elevate the status of family needs to an issue that affects all of us, something that is more than “just a Mommy problem” or “just another lifestyle choice,” if we expect our country to take caregiving seriously.
There is a tremendous opportunity to create common ground with the Boomers on this issue. The emerging wave of elder care can become a societal equalizer, as the 77 million Baby Boomers confront the need to support their elderly parents, and then face their own elder years. Framing policies as family leave takes choice out of the equation. No one chooses to have a heart attack or get Alzheimer’s disease. None of us chooses our parents, just as no one chooses the challenge of having a premature or sick child. On a societal level, childrearing is not optional, as all of us will rely on the care and products provided by the next generation of workers.
Creating family-leave policies that will help each of us continue to participate in work and civic life in the face of inevitable family obligations would create a fairer distribution of total labor. Our current system is built on the model of the ideal unencumbered worker that shunts the caregiving load disproportionately to women, while men continue to work their paid jobs in overdrive. My hope is that executives who have never stopped to think about the crews who clean their offices after-hours will begin to see the world differently when they find themselves in charge of providing basic care for their parents. Childfree couples who looked down on co-workers for leaving early to pick up a sick child will learn to empathize with parents’ unpredictable family obligations. Men will come to understand just how much work women have provided at home once husbands are charged with caring for ailing wives.
Caregiving in its many forms is a crucial part of what Hirshman calls “the hard work of holding society together.” We need to make the invisible work visible, and then divide it fairly. This would be a victory for feminism and humanism. On that point, at least, I hope Linda Hirshman and I can agree.