Sunday, December 04, 2005

Over-Educated Stay-at-Home Moms Made Feminism Fail

This could be an alternative title for Linda Hirshman's Homeward Bound article published in the December issue of The American Prospect magazine. Since being picked up by AlterNet and retitled America's Stay-at-Home Feminists*, this article has been a source of great debate amongst bloggers - especially those that are also feminists and mothers.

There are so many critiques and comments out there (many of them written much more cogently and persuasively than Hirshman's article) that a couple of helpful bloggers have compiled collections of links to aid readers who want to explore the different types of responses. Ann Bartow on has one of the most interesting ones, at Linda Hirshman Makes Me Feel Like a Freak (with a follow-up entitled Wolf Dressed in Feminist Clothing). 11D offers a delightful commentary called Invisible Worlds, followed by an entry simply titled Links, taking you to several other well-known blogger's musings, and then some interesting Thoughts on Crazy Week. MUBAR wrote a couple of very insightful columns for both her blog and the Literary Mama Blog: The "Elite" Talk Back and The "Elite" Talk Back: Linda Hirshman and Miriam Peskowitz Respond.

Linda Hirshman's comments and e-mails to several blogs are interesting in their own right, and just as inflammatory and patronizing as her original article:

I think -- and can defend the opinion -- that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological, ideological, economic or any other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or in the pages of the New York Times. So I don't blog on about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever qualifies as sincere feminism in the weird space the internet creates," from LiteraryMama's comments.

"I will say this: I have answered almost none of the hysterical internet commentators on my article, because I am not interested in engaging in dialogue with people whose thinking cannot sharpen or challenge my own," as cited by Ann Bartow.

Speaking of hierarchy: Hirshman knows the truth about feminism and its failure, and her many detractors are fuzzy thinking, hysterical women that busy themselves with the trivial in some kind of alternate (and weird) universe.

Since I am a stay-at-home mother with a couple of degrees in anthropology, I almost fit into Hirshman's "cultural elite". I did work for about ten years in my chosen career. I certainly never became affluent, but as Hirshman notes, this is common in the Liberal Arts & Sciences, which thus ought to be shunned by real feminists. My own "opt-out" from my dissertation and the pursuit of an academic job was certainly influenced by childcare costs and the lack of its availability for a child with some special needs; it was also largely why I joined Mothers & More - a national support group for mothers that was called FEMALE: Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge back when I joined in 1998.

However, in contrast to the New York Times brides that Hirshman interviewed for her article, I have met very few other mothers that are "not committed to a life of work"; most of us would like to resume paid (and preferably meaningful) employment as our children age. If we can find it. Many of us would currently jump at the chance for part-time employment, or work with hours that are more flexible and more family friendly....but this is another another topic, and one that has been well covered by authors like Miriam Peskowitz and Judith Stadtman Tucker. Obviously, since Mothers & More is all about support for women that chose to "sequence", or interrupt their careers, my sample of friends and acquaintances is pretty self-selecting. But I think that the very fact that this organization exists calls Hirshman's assumptions that most stay-at-home mothers are happy with the status quo (or simply deluding themselves when they call themselves "feminists") into question.

Hirshman claims that in addition to failing society, mothers who leave their jobs for childcare are hurting themselves individually:

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one's capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one's own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world.

Although Hirshman firmly places mothers without paid employment on the bottom of her ideological and intellectual hierarchy**, the flood of eloquent responses to her article makes it clear that these women have not lost their ability to reason and speak. They may not have as much autonomy (especially when it comes to available jobs, financial security, and social status) as they desire, but I find it difficult to believe that they are doing more harm than good by caring for their own children full-time. But unlike Hirshman, I don't think that "private lives have hardly budged" in the last generation, nor do I see evidence that "marriage is essentially unchanged" in the last fifty years. I do think that a lot more women would be willing to identify themselves as feminists if they saw the pursuit of increased autonomy for caregivers - however many hours they get paid for their work - as part and parcel of the feminist ideology.

*note the 270 response comments in the week since it was posted

**see an interesting discussion on whether stay-at-home parents can think at Half Changed World's Do Only Rich Families Have At-Home Parents?, More Thoughts about Income and SAHP's, and especially What It Takes.


Anonymous said...

I like bell hooks' definition of feminisim in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center ... in order for feminism to succeed, she suggests, feminists must learn to identify with the full spectrum of issues that plague women, including women of color and lower-income women, in U.S. capitalist society ... therefore, in order to connect with women who experience racism and economic oppression, feminists must seek to end oppression and domination, in all of its forms, for all people. Whether or not one is a stay-at-home mom is not a sufficient indicator as to whether or not one is fighting to end oppression and domination. Basically ... I agree with your critique.

Unknown said...

An excellent post. I'm getting really frustrated with the people who suggest that the solution to the (perceived) fact that women who stay at home are at the bottom of some hierarchy is to have those women go out and work. How about we value the work they're doing? How about we do what many other industrialized countries do and pay them (or the fathers) to stay home? Or how about restructuring work so that one can choose how many hours to work and work becomes, as someone said, about results instead of how many hours you put in. As a teacher, I know that effort does not always equal great results. I just keep thinking, why are we so stuck here. Oh yeah, the men are still in charge of the government.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, thoughtful post - and thanks.

The Happy Feminist said...

This post is featured in the Carnival of Feminists at

Sandy D. said...

Having just finished bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody, I'm even more astounded by Hirshman's views a year later.