Feminist Elitism Toward Women Who Stay Home
. . . author Cathy Young discussing the contempt some feminists show for women who want to stay home and raise their children.
After lying dormant for a while, the Mommy Wars reignited late last year with “Homeward Bound,” an article by the feminist legal scholar Linda Hirshman in the December American Prospect. Hirshman, who is not known for mincing words (she earned a spot in Bernard Goldberg’s book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America by declaring that women who leave work to raise children are choosing “lesser lives”), boldly assailed the truism that, when it comes to full-time mothering vs. careers, it’s a good thing for women to have a choice.Translation: “you women don’t know what’s best for you. Only we feminist activists know what is best for you.”
Hirshman surveyed 33 women whose wedding announcements had appeared in The New York Times during a three-week period in 1996. Of the 30 with children, she found, half were not employed and only five were working full-time.
Drawing on that and other studies, Hirshman argued that such choices by elite women are a primary reason for the dearth of women in the corridors of political and economic power. Instead of “reaping feminism’s promise of opportunity,” she wrote, these former lawyers and executives are in the kitchen baking apple pies.
While Hirshman conceded that those “expensively educated upper-class moms” seemed happy at home, she insisted that “what they do is bad for them [and] is certainly bad for society.” It’s bad for society, she argued, because it reinforces a “gendered ideology” of family roles, perpetuates male dominance in government and business, and deprives ambitious women of role models. It’s bad for the women who give up careers, Hirshman suggested, because they fall short of a good life, which includes “using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way,” “having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life,” and “doing more good than harm in the world.”
Hirshman’s “get thee to the office” hectoring has an obnoxiously patronizing tone. She takes us back to the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion, in a 1976 interview with Betty Friedan, that “no woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children . . . because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” Friedan — whose 1964 classic The Feminine Mystique Hirshman invokes as a model of pro-work feminism—was understandably appalled by this diktat.While feminists differ among themselves, it’s important to understand that the mainstream — at least among feminist activists and academics — does not really believe in “choice.” They think that they know best, and if they had the power, they would impose their choices on all women — as well as on all men.
Furthermore, one needn’t lapse into hand-that-rocks-the-cradle clichés to be put off by Hirshman’s bilious contempt for anything traditionally feminine — even for volunteerism and less-than-lucrative jobs tainted by “idealism” (though it’s amusing to see so hearty an endorsement of capitalist values in a left-wing magazine).
Focusing only on the drudgery of home life, Hirshman misses the brighter side of the female dilemma: When it comes to work-life balance, women have far more options than men, including more freedom to choose lower-paying but more flexible and fulfilling jobs. Men, by contrast, are often trapped by more rigid social expectations and economic pressures.