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.
You've commented that in writing this book you did something akin to "wandering into ground zero of the mommy wars." What did you say exactly that caused all hell to break out?
I said that just because you choose to stay at home doesn't make it right, and that you have to examine the decision for its worthiness up against some kind of standard other than what St. Paul told the Ephesians. And if you're going to put it up against the standards that don't involve talking to God, if you're going to evaluate it according the standards for human behavior, that it's going to be found lacking.
All of these women who are making a career—they call themselves Chief Household Officers, of all things—out of running a 3,000-square-foot house with two small children in it, were extremely agitated when I did not treat it as the same as inventing a cure for cancer.
They chose it and therefore, they argue, it's all the same. And they're so used to living in a religious world--the religious right was saying that it was correct for women to quit their jobs and stay home with their children. The right and the religious right never says that it's the correct decision for men to quit their jobs and stay home with their children.
You’ve also said that you've "tapped into something in the culture that was waiting to happen." What did you mean by that?
I got 1,000 e-mails in the two days after an article about me appeared in the Washington Post.
Some of the working mothers finally became aware of what was going on because they're too busy working to be mommy blogging. They said, “Thank you so much for speaking out. I have felt so alone here. All we hear is the other message. Even if I don’t agree with everything you said, I'm so grateful to you for raising the issue.” That gave me the sense that I had tapped into something that was really important. The value of work--the sexism of the fact that it's only women for whom this is a problem. And the fact that someone would finally rear up and say, “You know, I don't think that feminism was too radical. I think feminism wasn't radical enough.”
Most people would be surprised at that view of feminism.
That’s because the right has so dominated the dialogue over feminism that, if feminism says you ought to get equal pay, they'd say it was too radical. It’s the Big Lie: You just keep saying that feminism was too radical, and pretty soon everybody says, “I would be a feminist, but it became too radical.”
When exactly did feminism become too radical? When it stood up for people who were trying to have a decent sex life, according to the sexual orientation that they found themselves in when they became of sexual age? Maybe we should go back to throwing homosexuals in jail because feminism is much too radical? I mean, there's no moment at which feminism became too radical.
You write that the feminist movement 30 years ago abandoned the home front. Why?