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…

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