Judging Women

A feminist wants to liberate women from "incorrect" choices

First, there were the "mommy wars" -- the much-ballyhooed antagonism between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Then, there was the "opt-out revolution" -- the much-ballyhooed phenomenon of high-powered career women scaling down or giving up careers to raise children. All this is causing intense debate among feminists, who increasingly recognize that gender inequality today has more to do with sex roles in the family than sex discrimination in the workplace. As former Brandeis visiting professor Linda Hirshman puts it in a controversial article in this month's American Prospect magazine: ''The real glass ceiling is at home."

For years, most feminists have stressed respect for women's choices. Now comes Hirshman, saying that ''choice feminism" was a mistake. Feminism, she argues, needs to become more judgmental and tell traditional women that their choices are bad for society (women won't achieve full parity with men when so many voluntarily leave the track that leads to power), and bad for them because the lives they're leading allow too few opportunities for ''full human flourishing." With views like that, no wonder Hirshman made conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg's list of ''100 people who are screwing up America." Actually, I doubt that she's having much effect on America; but her prescription for feminism is screwed up all right.

Hirshman does make some valid points. First, the opt-out trend is real, despite a recent attempt to debunk it by Heather Boushey of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic Policy Research. Boushey notes that the small decline in mothers' labor force participation has been paralleled among women without children, and is due largely to the recession; but her analysis lumps together full-time and part-time jobs. A woman lawyer who leaves a partnership-track job to work part time as counsel to a community organization still counts as employed.

Second, ''choice feminism" does gloss over some real conflicts in the ''mommy wars." Companies will be warier of investing in female employees when there is a high risk of women quitting. Former career women who put their energy into motherhood may set impossible standards of maternal perfection (you're a bad mom if you don't spend two days hand-making a Halloween costume), and may justify their choice by implicitly denigrating working mothers.

But Hirshman's solution is no solution at all.

For one, the feminist movement is not a totalitarian regime. It has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their personal lives, as Hirshman wants. (Her script includes choosing a husband whose career is least likely to eclipse yours, and having no more than one child until the government coughs up day care.) And, if feminists start disparaging women's ''incorrect" choices, women will likely tell them to buzz off. Hirshman's tone is insufferably patronizing: women, she laments, think they're making free choices and never realize that their lives are shaped by traditional sex roles and by feminism's failure to revolutionize the family. Are there really many Ivy League-educated women who aren't aware of challenges and alternatives to traditional roles?

Besides, many intelligent people may not share Hirshman's notion that life as a high-priced lawyer or Fortune 500 executive is the best pathway to ''human flourishing." Yes, life with no significant activities outside one's intimate circle is incomplete. But Hirshman's disapproval extends even to part-time workers. And what about women (and, increasingly, men) who don't work for pay but are active in community work? Don't many of them meet Hirshman's standards for good living: making use of one's mind, having autonomy in one's life, doing good in the world?

In her simplistic analysis, Hirshman ignores the social impact of working women who don't follow a rigid model of success -- those who leave corporate jobs to start businesses or who work in social service jobs. She also ignores the flexibility of the modern marketplace. In 1998, Brenda Barnes stepped down as CEO of a PepsiCo division to spend more time with her family; six years later, she went back to work and now heads the Sara Lee corporation.

Should feminism strive for more flexible roles and more sharing of family responsibilities? Of course. But the way to do it is to expand options for both men and women, not to narrow women's options. And, by the way, to deride parenting as a demeaning task unworthy of an intelligent adult is not a good way to encourage men to become more involved fathers.

Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor. This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe

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