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?
I think that they took a terrible hit from the right. [Conservative activist] Phillis Schlafly said that they hated men and didn't want to get married or have children. So, they were threatened. From the right came these endless messages about how if you were a feminist, no one would ever want to have sex with you or marry you or have children with you. And so feminism said, “Oh, we don't have anything to say about marriage or having children.”
The strategy of sexual blackmail worked very well, especially young women. The last thing they wanted was not to be sexually desirable. And the only way that feminism could stay alive was by retreating to the workplace. But, it was a devil’s bargain because you can't succeed in the workplace if you're carrying 70 percent of the housework on your back. So, somebody had to go back and re-radicalize feminism and say, “Okay, you survived. Now it's time to address the piece of life that you left out.”
You have a program for getting women and society back on track. Could you describe it?
The first thing is to take school seriously. I have a shorthand for that: “Don't study art.” If you don't have a calling, then you study art and you're and you're going to be working in a job that doesn't pay anything and waiting to be rescued. So, my first rule is educate yourself for the workplace.
And my second rule is take work seriously. One of the things that I found was that the stay-at-home moms [who had elite professional training] believe that there is no job in the world that is good enough for them. So, in deciding that the law firm wasn't good enough for them, they have retreated to a job that certainly isn't good enough for them.
Meaning the domestic sphere?
Right, it's just hilarious to listen to these women describe their investment-banking jobs as not good enough for them, and then to have them tell me what they're actually doing with their days.
You write that young women who opt out in this way have inflated ideas of how much they can control their world. But there are a lot of women—I’m one of them—who spent some years at home with our kids when they were little, and who treasure that time. Are we deluded?
It depends on how long you stay out of the workplace and what price you pay. One of the delusional conversations I had was with a woman who was 39 when I interviewed her. She had been out of the workplace for three years, and she was planning to go back when her second child, who was in utero at that moment, was in full-time school--6-1/2 years later, right?
So, I said to her, " I am going to say you're going to be 45 and a half when you start to try to reenter the competitive world of journalism," where she had been before. And she said, "I am not." You have to wonder when someone with a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University can't add six and 39.
What is going on there is that she's walked away from any hope of a meaningful career, and she doesn't want to face it.
You reject, even ridicule, the pushback from the opt-out moms who tell you and others that it's their own business.
They're engaging in wishful thinking, number one. And then, they protect themselves from any evaluation of their insubstantial thinking by saying “It's my own damned business.” It cannot be reviewed by anyone else, so that they're like someone who thinks he's Napoleon.
And then, when you say, “You know what, you're not Napoleon, it's the 21st century and France is a democracy,” she says, “It's my own damned business.”
That's really worrisome, especially when it seems to apply only to women. And the reason that men treat women's decisions as their own damned business is because they don't matter. If they mattered, then men would treat them as everybody's business.
Are you willing to consider that this dilemma for mothers has to do with the objective fact that it's hard for women to balance family and work?
That's because they don’t follow my rules. They don't take their education seriously, they don't take their work seriously, and they marry a jerk. If you make those mistakes, okay, or you have a passel of children, if you make those mistakes, then you're going to be in a very tough situation.
But what about the structural realities of American society? We don't have reliably good child care, we don't have policies that are "family friendly" in terms of parental leave, for example.
There's only one way that any of that's going to change, and that's when it becomes men's problem as well as women's problem. As long as men can download that problem onto women, we will never have any social change.
This whole business about having employees take care of your children rather than taking care of them yourself has been demonized to the point where it's embarrassing to admit that you're a nanny, which is nonsense. Most of them do a fine job.
Ramping up the job of mothering, laying it entirely on the women, liberating the men totally from it: they've reinvented the '50s. I find it to be, yes, immoral. And I think that enabling the men to lead a completely family-free life is completely immoral.
You cite examples from an elite group of very driven men whose wives who are willing to forego their own high-powered careers so that their husbands could pursue theirs. Are they really typical?
The University of California just did a study of their faculty, and they found that, between the ages of 35 and 44, the women did twice as much daycare, childcare, and housekeeping as the male faculty did. Twice, ouch.
Does this apply to working-class women or women without a professional education?
I would certainly say that it applies to the very large number of the next generation that are going to college. I looked at elites, because elites have more choice. And because they have more choice, their choices can be morally evaluated.
You write that a large portion of the backlash against your argument comes from religious people--the “Salvation crowd,” as you called them. What's the connection between their beliefs and their reaction to your argument?
I got a flood of really rabid e-mail--very personal, very harsh. And unlike the usual e-mails, they also were notable for their bad grammar and spelling. So I couldn’t figure where this flood of e-mails was coming from, and then someone sent me a speech by Albert Mohler, the head of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said, “This woman is the instrumentality of the devil.” He lied about what I said, and then he told everybody that I was the end of civilization as we know it. That was my first clue that the forces of organized religion in America were going to be aiming at me.
By no means are all the criticisms that I'm receiving coming from religious people. I get a lot of e-mails from people saying I'm just a secular mommy on the Upper West Side with my industrial-strength stroller sitting in the Starbucks dreaming of being a freelance writer.
You describe the stay-at-home moms and their workaholic husbands as living in "unjust households."
Yet, you admit that conservatives and even many liberals see this choice as the morally correct one--liberals often because they view the workplace as soul-shriveling tedium.
So, liberals and conservatives are arriving at the same place where they think they're making the morally correct decisions by having moms stay at home, and many liberal men have the fantasy that they'd like to do the same thing--stay home and raise the children.
It’s obviously nonsense, because they never do it.
Putting aside the question of religious dogma, a lot of people believe they've made the morally correct choice. You come along and say, “No, your choice is unjust and immoral.” How do you know you’re right?
When people are confronted with someone telling them their choice is unjust, they say things that really mean we had no choice. On the right, “We have no choice” takes the form of, “God told us to do it.” And on the left, “We had no choice” takes the form of, “Darwinian evolution told us to do it.”
None of these men who write about how much they wish they could stay home actually wish they could stay home.
So, they vote with their feet, and it keeps the wives serving them, and they offer the women a devil's bargain, which is protection from the hard work of the workplace. And they get a domestic servant, and everybody's happy. It's just wrong.
Is there a moral issue in upper-middle-class educated women turning to very poor women to take care of their kids and having them essentially function as servants?
I would say there is no more or less moral content to that than there is to their law firms employing immigrants as their messengers, or to hospitals employing immigrants as sweepers and cleaners and nursing assistants. Just because women are doing the employing doesn't mean that it's subject to a higher moral standard.
If these women really care about the immigrant working class, they ought to get their husbands to allow the workers they employ to organize a union.
You argue that the gay rights movement is a model for the direction feminism should take now in making social change. Can you explain?
They figured out that you cannot simply ask for tolerance of your lifestyle. You have to say, “What we're doing is right.” And that's what I'm trying to do for working women.
You cannot simply say, “Oh well, whatever floats your boat,” because the next thing you know 100,000 right-wing women are telling you that you're life is nothing but a pile of pay stubs. You have to say, “Here's why what we're doing is right.”
The gay-rights movement began to make a moral argument for the goodness of their lives, and that's what I'm trying to do for feminists.