Go Back to Work-Or Else

More than half of the most educated women in America have stopped working full-time. Author Linda Hirshman calls that mass career suicide. Agree or disagree, you’ll want to read this.

By Debra Dickerson

Serious Decisions

Now hear this, if you haven’t already: Professional women should marry down. Liberals should stop obsessing about childcare. Grown-up women should get over their dreams of meaningful work and earn more money. And if you want to procreate, fine. Have a baby. Just don’t have two.

In sum, desperate housewives should get a life — a working life. Because when professional women leave their careers to take care of children — several studies indicate that almost 50 percent of the most highly educated, experienced midlife women in America have done so — they endanger their personal welfare (facing financial ruin if hubby runs off), and they make it impossible for women (our daughters among them) to take a fair share of the powerful jobs in this society.

Linda Hirshman first published these ideas last December in "Homeward Bound," an essay in an online edition of The American Prospect. They caused such a ruckus throughout the blogosphere that Viking Press rushed an expanded version of her essay into print in June — Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking, June 2006).

Hirshman herself has never been guilty of not working. Now 62, she was a member of the earliest crop of female lawyers, spending her first working decades as a litigator (arguing before the Supreme Court three times). She later taught law, earned a PhD in philosophy, and became a philosophy professor at Brandeis. Married twice, she raised a biological daughter and one of her two stepdaughters.

In October 2003, dismissive of a New York Times Magazine story about the trend of women dumping high-salary, high-prestige jobs to go home and bring up baby, Hirshman decided to track down all the women whose wedding announcements had appeared in three issues of the Sunday New York Times in 1996. She figured the brides would be a reasonable sample of elite women in the prime of their working lives. But she was horrified to learn that 85 percent of those privileged educated women were indeed at home (some working part-time) rather than earning high salaries and exercising influence. Other surveys (by a Harvard professor and by the Center for Work-Life Policy) came up with similarly shocking statistics. Even more infuriating to Hirshman than the statistics was the spin the women put on their lives: "Staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option." Staying home should not be considered a choice, Hirshman argues.

MORE asked her to explain.

Linda Hirshman Explains

MORE: Who do you think you are, telling women to go back to work?

Linda Hirshman: I am a philosopher. It’s my job to think in ways that people haven’t thought — to help fish see the water they swim in.

MORE: And the water has gotten murky because women now believe that to be good mothers — good people! — they have to stay home with the kids?

LH: Correct. I want to be the voice that says, "That’s a lie. A slander."

MORE: Why do women believe it?

LH: It’s a story people tell themselves when they’re living in an unjust world and they cannot allow themselves to feel anger and indignation.

MORE: What about all those women who have to work? Isn’t this debate a luxury for the upper class?

LH: I love how the bloggers started saying, "Oh, that elite bitch Linda Hirshman." Does anyone ever say that what CEOs do doesn’t matter, since most people will never be a CEO? What elite women do — and don’t do — matters.

MORE: Aren’t there people who truly want to stay home with their children?

LH: Sure. There are 200 million Americans. Among them will be people for whom the company of children is their highest and best use. But that can’t be what more than half of all women with children want, and the people who want that can’t possibly be only women.

MORE: Weren’t you tempted to stay home when your girls were young?

LH: Never win another case? Depend on my husband for every material thing? Never.

MORE: But women who stay home with children speak about a high quality of attention they are able to give…

LH: Don’t cover up gender inequalities with the mommy mystique of, you know, climbing trees and eating apples and being there for every boo-boo! I raised my daughter and stepdaughter with great attention. But I knew what a world without good work felt like. I wonder if women have forgotten what it was like when you didn’t have a prayer of landing a well-paid, interesting job.

MORE: Most people would say the feminist revolution worked, and you’re saying that it didn’t.

LH: I’m saying it was incomplete. It did a huge amount of good. My god, there were only seven women in my law school class in 1969. But the revolution didn’t finish — because it wasn’t radical enough. It didn’t address the family in an adequately revolutionary way.

Questions About Feminism and Sexism

MORE: Feminists pushed for change…

LH: Yes. But they blinked. When Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative cultural campaign stared them down and played the family card, they blinked.

MORE: Hasn’t sexism caused women to leave the workforce?

LH: I’m not an idiot. The toxic, sexist workplace exists. And it plays a role in what’s going on.

MORE: So this "choice" to stay home is a false choice?

LH: Staying home is the path of least resistance. People don’t like to fight. But highly educated and experienced women have the rare, precious opportunity to be the founders of a new, more just society. What if Thomas Jefferson had said, "It’s too hard"?

MORE: If someone else can pay the rent, though — there’s an allure in that.

LH: It’s a corrupt bargain. He works 60 hours a week and gets all the honor and the power, and he pays for you to stay home and get all of the repetitious physical tasks. The husbands are not villains. The grooms I interviewed from the wedding announcements without exception said they wanted their wives to do what their wives wanted to do. They’d married very accomplished women.

MORE: Women who were still figuring out how to have careers. Your book includes rules, including one that says you should work for money, not for meaning or art. Why rules?

LH: I think people need rules. It’s hard to make good decisions when you’re under pressure and the voice of ideology is loud in your ears — when you’re at the kids’ school and everyone’s looking at you disapprovingly because you didn’t make your own cupcakes. You shouldn’t have to do the full analysis each time the question comes up.

MORE: Why should women whose children are grown care about any of this?

LH: To say that a woman in her 40s or 50s has already made all the meaningful decisions in her life is really wrong. I’m 62 and about to publish a major book. But beyond that, we should care about justice. Women have stopped fighting injustice. That’s part of what it means to be human.

Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:24

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