The Return of the Mommy Wars

Is a stay-at-home mom a traitor to feminism?


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.

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."

Interestingly, Hirshman blamed this state of affairs less on patriarchy or conservatism than on feminism. Specifically, she damned its alleged failure to challenge male/female relations in the home, its embrace of the language of "choice," and its consequent refusal to be "judgmental" toward women who make "bad" choices.Hirshman's article caused a splash from the blogosphere to The New York Times, where David Brooks described her piece as an "unapologetic blast of 1975 time-warp feminism" and lamented her equation of careers with human flourishing, concluding his column with an unapologetic blast of 1955 time-warp feminine mystique: "Power is in the kitchen."

In fact, Hirshman's article raised important questions. The mantra of "choice" is too simplistic, and it does evade the underlying conflicts of the Mommy Wars. And Hirshman doesn't even get to the real reasons for these tensions, forces far more concrete than the posited need for women in positions of power to promote other women's interests and to serve as role models.

Unquestionably, a working woman's lot would be much easier in a society where stay-at-home motherhood was as rare as stay-at-home fatherhood is today. No mother would have to field a child's guilt-tripping question, "But Mommy, why do you have to work?" Schoolteachers and other parents would not assume that a mother was available for volunteering at school and sewing Halloween costumes. Working women would not have to deal with the lingering suspicion that, having started families, they will quit work or dramatically reduce their job commitments. Nor would they have to compete with men who have the advantage of a homemaker wife to handle most domestic responsibilities.Conversely, a stay-at-home mother would have a far easier time in a society where full-time motherhood was the norm. She would not have to contend with large numbers of women whose professional status might make her feel inadequate. She would not dread the question, "What do you do?" Single-earner families would face less economic pressure, and employers would probably be able to favor male breadwinners without facing legal or social sanctions.

The talk of choice also tends to downplay the fact that no personal choice is made in a cultural vacuum. The belief that women who stay home are better mothers is definitely in the cultural bloodstream: In polls, at least two-thirds of Americans agree that it's better for the children if the mother stays home, a figure that has risen in recent years.

Surely these beliefs can translate into more or less subtle disapproval toward working mothers, and guilt and self-blame on the part of mothers themselves. For all the talk of respecting choices, only half the stay-at-home moms in a recent Washington Post poll agreed that it's all right for the mother of a young child to get a job if she's happier working.Hirshman rightly reminds us, too, of the peril of forgetting or dismissing the feminist critique of full-time domesticity and motherhood. Financial dependency aside, I agree that it's not good for adult human beings to have no identity independent of personal relationships or to become too enmeshed in emotional intimacy. Freud was right that "love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness"; and while parenting involves a lot of work, it still belongs to the "love" half of that balance.

So Hirshman tackles some of the right issues; but she tackles them in so wrong-headed a way as to sabotage her own argument. She absurdly overstates her case, claiming, for instance, that four decades of feminism have not changed relations between women and men in the family. (Women today spend twice as much time on housework as men—but 30 years ago, they did six times as much.)

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.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.

While Hirshman deplores women's alleged slide into 1950s-style domesticity, her vision of careers is itself of '50s vintage, with hardly any allowances for the flexibility of the modern workplace or the growth of self-employment and small businesses. Last November, Fortune ran a feature by Jia Lynn Yang on women who step off high rungs of the corporate ladder not to trade briefcases for diapers or to flee sexism but to pursue their ventures in business or in new fields. To these women, Yang noted, "taking control of one's own life can feel as bold as wielding power in a corporation."Yang's article also suggested that, culturally, women have more freedom than men to make such unorthodox choices. These greater choices can mean greater conflicts; but if there is an answer, it is to expand the choices available to men, not to narrow the options for women.

Hirshman wants to tell women to set aside their own preferences, including the desire for more than one child, for the sake of the feminist revolution. It is resoundingly obvious this is not going to happen. Do we need a conversation about the downside of "opting out," the work and life expectations of women and men, and the benefits to both sexes of more flexible, less gender-bound roles? I think we do. But if Hirshman was hoping to initiate such a discussion, she started it off on the wrong note.