Now that’s NOT what I call feminism!

The article by Linda Hirshman in American Prospect on ‘choice feminism’ ( is so wrong-headed that it’s difficult to know where to start with it. But since I suspect I may be one of those targeted (I definitely don’t count as an elite woman in terms of income, but maybe in terms of education), I thought I’ll try and answer at least some of the points.

The first thing to say is that her basic underlying assumption is wrong: that if more women get into positions of power that social systems will automatically become more women-friendly. Excuse me, we tried that in the UK. We had a woman Prime Minister, for quite a long time actually. Margaret Thatcher did not do an awful lot of feminism. If you have a situation where women get into high positions only be being as ruthless as men (which is what Hirshman seems to want), they’re quite likely to be happy with the system and say ‘If I can do it, why can’t every woman.’ [Ann Widdicombe MP is one of the prominent opponents of the very-limited measures suggested by the Conservative Party towards positive discrimination in choosing Tory candidates].

Hirshman’s detailed errors come under 2 headings: her attitude to work and her attitude to the home. On work, she seems to have a very limited range of what counts as ‘good work’. Basically, you only ‘work seriously’ if you make a lot of money. Money means power and power is good. I think her suggestion that young women are given better career advice is sensible, but it shouldn’t ignore people’s interests, aptitudes and values, and it shouldn’t be too narrow. One of the depressing things I heard at Cambridge University when I was there in the late 1990s was that the careers office was only useful if you wanted to be a management consultant or a lawyer. Given one of the criteria Hirshman raises for the ‘good life’, is ‘doing more good than harm’, are these really the only choices?

The sad reality is that there aren’t that many good jobs out there: there are a lot that don’t give job satisfaction and a lot that give it only at the cost of taking over your entire life. Hirshman says that many of the women who quit to have babies were ‘already alienated from their work’. Did she ask any of their husbands if they were? (Well, no, she wouldn’t have done a) because they weren’t there to ask and b) because it would be career suicide for them to admit to feeling this in the macho culture of capitalism that Hirschman so exalts).

And then Hirschman adds in passing: ‘It is possible that the workplace is discriminatory and hostile to family life?’ Hello, Earth to Planet Hirschman.

As for the home, Hirschman seems wilfully to conflate two different aspects: housework and childcare. I agree with her on housework: as Betty Friedan also says, housework is unfulfilling. But the dirty (literally) secret about housework is that it is not a full-time job or even a substantial part-time job unless you choose to make it so. Those who want to can fill up the time by impeccable standards of cleanliness, lots of baking or fancy place settings. The rest of us can fit housework round normal life. Hirschman is also right to say that a bit of creative neglect of housework does wonders to encourage men to do it. Start early here: I made it clear early on in the marriage (when we were both working fulltime, so things were equitable), that I wasn’t doing my husband’s ironing. He could do himself, he could pay someone to do it, he could wear un-ironed clothes: he had choices, just not me doing it. I’ve also avoided picking up too much housework as function creep now I’m a largely stay-at-home mum. My argument has been that I’m at home to look after L and I can only do such housework as is compatible with prioritising her. (Early on, I wasn’t necessarily even cooking tea while on my own, on the grounds that trying to cook while supervising a rampaging child got both me and L so frazzled that Edward might get food immediately when he’d get home, but he’d also get a very unhappy atmosphere.)

Childcare, however, at least of pre-school children, is undoubtedly a full-time job (and more – I always find it difficult not having a lunch break when I can just switch off). Someone has to be there all the time to ensure that the child is safe, vaguely clean and not too unhappy. You can split it between parents or have outside help (relatives, daycare) etc in various proportions, but someone must do it. Hirschman’s idea seems to be that if you’re a woman in a high-powered job, you should hire a nanny and go back to work immediately. She doesn’t answer the question: if a parent (male or female) is working 80 hour weeks, to what extent are they being a parent? Even if you merely work a 12 hour day, you will probably rarely see your toddler awake except at weekends. (The idea of quality time relies on one basic fallacious assumption: that toddlers can be scheduled effectively. You may want quality time, the child may want to sleep or watch TV or simply be with someone else). If both parents are working these kinds of ridiculous hours right from the start, you wonder why they have the child in the first place? The child is only theirs in the limited genetic sense, if they’ve missed out on the key role of helping raise them when small.

Childcare is often boring and repetitive, but it is challenging in a positive sense as well. My negotiation skills have never been so developed as with a toddler. I couldn’t cope with looking after L all the time, but combining childcare with study or part-time work does seem to me to be overall a good solution (if frustrating at times). It means that you can still have a life beyond the child, but it also gives time to instil your kind of values in a child. I think what I’m doing (and what my husband is doing) is a positive feminist experience for L. I’m showing her that girls can play with construction toys as well as dolls, can do lots of climbing and jumping around, can learn to love book and numbers. I’m also, I hope, showing her that mothers can have life beyond their families. At the moment, she just knows that I go off to London regularly: when she’s older she’ll hear about academic seminars. Meanwhile, Edward is doing as much childcare and housework as if feasible given a full-time job. (He has deliberately chosen one that does not require the excessive hours that some professional jobs do).

In contrast, if you just leave the childcare to the professionals, they will almost invariably be women, and often not very well educated women. (They have a lot of other very valuable, but undervalued skills). Nurseries are better at equal opportunities these days, but you’re still relying on someone else to install proper feminist principles in your child and they’re still likely to learn that only women look after children.

The ideal, at least for us, would possibly be for part-time work for both, but that’s tricky to obtain. It is important to encourage men to do more childcare and be more willing to do part-time/non-traditional hours. But you’re certainly not going to have this happen if you keep on repeating that childcare is boring and horrible and that it’s intrinsically demeaning to wipe someone’s bottom if you’re a member of the middle classes. (I’d have thought it was equally demeaning whatever class you are – or equally not demeaning if you take it in a different sense as necessary care for the helpless). A ‘feminist’ ideal that says that the only place for women is the workplace and denigrates mothers who actually act like caring mothers seems as unsatisfactory as a pre-feminist belief that the only place for women is the home and denigrates fathers who actually act like caring fathers. We do still need choice feminism, even if there may be a need to rebalance the equation slightly. Let’s say it together: ‘Work matters, children matter, housework doesn’t!’


4 thoughts on “Now that’s NOT what I call feminism!

  1. Beyond Feminism?

    What you say makes me wonder whether we should be looking just at ‘feminism’ or something more comprehensive like ‘the family’. The need today is not to treat women better but to provide a means whereby a couple with chidren can look after them while making a social contribution – usually paid work.

    My understanding is that until about 150 years ago men worked in or near to the home so they could fill the position of head of the family, playing a large part in their childrens’ upbringing. When home and work became geographically separate mothers became the more influencial parent. Today unfortunately many women are the only parent.

    This won’t be put right overnight but I feel the government should recognise that two involved parents are a great social investment and ensure that employers make it easier for parents to have time off, flexible working hours, part time employment when children are young and retraining for parents returning after a few years away – after all, everybody’s going to be working well into their seventh decade.

    I understand the difficulties. For a few years when my children were quite young, but attending school, I took a teaching job at a Comprensive. During this time my marriage broke up so I had sole responsibility for day to day care. Apart from the fact that I hated teaching (understanding my subject better than I could my pupils)it was a nightmare when one of my children was ill – I was treated like a criminal by the headmistress for getting in late or taking time off.


  2. If you have a situation where women get into high positions only be being as ruthless as men (which is what Hirshman seems to want), they’re quite likely to be happy with the system and say ‘If I can do it, why can’t every woman.’

    Or in some cases, to say I’d like the next woman who does this to have it better. It always saddens me to see Thatcher and Widdecombe held up as the epitome of the successful working woman. The person who did most for my career was also the only woman I’ve ever worked for. She was not the mythical caring sharing female manager but she did say I reminded her of herself when she was young.

    The arguments for highly placed female role models in the workplace do actually have some merit. A coworker commented years ago that if a man walked into a meeting, and was the only man present, he’d notice. And that if every meeting was like that, he’d eventually re-evaluate either himself, or his chosen profession. And it’s very true. Most of the meetings I’ve attended over 20 years of working life, I’ve attended as the only woman. I didn’t realise how much it affected me until I walked into a room full of primary school teachers and felt an instant prejudice because (1) no suits and (2) they were just women gossiping. These days I work in a much more mixed environment (13 female Directors instead of 1 and we’re all working for a woman At the Top). It does feel very different.

    As for the rest of it, well, yes, Hirshman does come across as yet another graduate from the University of the Incredibly Obvious.

    And I never have any trouble leaving the housework.


  3. In reply to your comments. Firstly, I’m not denying the existence of solidarity between women – many women who get into senior positons do help others. What I’m saying is that if women follow Hirshman’s prescriptions (regarding husbands and children only as obstacles to success, to be fitted round work, seeing women who aren’t solely devoted to their careers as traitors to feminism) then they are not likely to be helpful to other women who follow or to anyone else. Hirshman wants women to give up altruism in order to develop their careers: it’s not clear that if women do that then they’ll automatically be able to switch to altruism when they get to the top.

    Secondly, of course female role models are important – again I didn’t say they weren’t. My question is what sort of role models we should be providing. Am I a worse role model for my daughter because a) I am trying to pursue a career that fulfils me, rather than make a lot of money and b) I took time off to look after her? According to Hirshman, I am and I have been a traitor to my sex. As someone who is proud to call herself a feminist, I resent being told that. I am not trying to stop any woman from aspiring to any role. But I don’t see why I should be denigrated for trying to achieve a balance between work and family. A feminism that says that the only proper lifepath is identical to that of (a small minority of privileged) men seems to me to be a pretty stunted kind of feminism.


  4. And Germaine Greer and Camille Paglia would agree with you on that. Both have argued that society devalues the role of motherhood They also argue that not enough investment is made in an infrastructure that enables women to occupy roles both in the work place and as a mother.

    I’m not familiar with Hirsham but she sounds a bit 80’s shoulder pads to me, or maybe fanny pads would be more accurate!

    Capitalism isnt Macho.
    MEN are Macho!



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