On the Frontline of the Mommy Wars

A philosophy professor has recharged--and reframed--the values debate over women's roles at home and in the workplace.

Just when you thought stay-at-home moms and working mothers had reached a state of peaceful coexistence, "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World" landed like a bombshell in June 2006, reigniting the Mommy Wars. The book's author, legal scholar and philosopher Linda Hirshman, recently spoke with Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about why her small, 94-page book has hit the cultural conversation so hard. 


You say that you have a moral message to deliver. What is it, and in what sense is it a moral message?

It has to do with the fundamental question of morality: What is the content of a good human life? 


At present, it seems to me what we have is a devilish divide between religion on the one hand and relativism on the other. And in choosing between those two options, people make the mistake of thinking that nothing's either bad or good on the one hand, or thinking that the only source of understanding of what is a good life is the Bible or some variation of the Bible.

You’re asking what makes for a good life for women. How do you define “good life”? 

Plato and Aristotle asked the first question: Does it fully use the capacities that make you human, specifically, the capacity for speech and reason?

And many centuries later, thinkers of the Enlightenment asked, ”Does it allow you to be free and independent and morally autonomous? Do you get to make decisions about your life yourself rather than having them dictated to you by others?”

The third standard came out in the 18th and 19th centuries as industrialization spread throughout Europe: Does the life that you lead do more good than harm?

The particular thing that interested me was American society: It’s my society, and many philosophical schools of thought believe that it's a philosopher's obligation to address her own society. So, taking that seriously, I started researching what I thought would be a very different book—to see how families were making egalitarian marriages a generation after feminism. And I learned in fact that they weren't. I stumbled across the information that educated women who are in a position to have a whole range of choices about their lives were choosing to marry and stay home with their children instead of remaining in the world of work.

What they actually had done was recreate the 1950s life. Then I asked the question, “Is this good?” according to the standards of secular Western goodness.

I applied those standards to the decision to stay home and tend children and the household, and I found that they were, in fact, lacking. These women are not using their full human capacity. They are not independent, and they are not doing more social good than harm.

Are you angry or frustrated with women who stay home with their kids?

I think they're making a mistake. The most frustrating thing about the whole business is the nonsensical stories that they tell themselves and me about what they think they're doing. The delusional quality of it is a little weird.

Where do you think that comes from?

I'm not sure what is going on. If they, in fact, believe the things that they tell me, then they are incredibly stupid and foolish. I'm hoping that they're reciting it like a mantra: "choice, choice, choice, choice," or "I never met a man who wished on his deathbed he spent more time at work." These are mantras that these women recite; they send them to me in e-mails. And so, when the whole society is telling you a set of things, it becomes very easy to just recite it.

The interesting question is why they are unwilling to think through what they're doing. And I think it's because what they're doing is destructive and dangerous and they're afraid to face it.

You seem to be saying that a woman who chooses to stay at home with her kids rather than working is harming all women in our society.


How can that be true?

Because it is: She's helping to make a zeitgeist in which women are seen as undesirable employees.

So, she's fulfilling preconceived ideas of women's limitations?

Right. There's a law against discriminating, but you can't get into the head of every employer in America. These women are feeding into the stereotype of women as unreliable employees.

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Interview by Alice Chasan
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