The article by Linda Hirshman in American Prospect on choice feminism (http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=10659) is so wrong-headed that its difficult to know where to start with it. But since I suspect I may be one of those targeted (I definitely dont count as an elite woman in terms of income, but maybe in terms of education), I thought Ill 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), theyre quite likely to be happy with the system and say If I can do it, why cant 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].
Hirshmans 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 shouldnt ignore peoples interests, aptitudes and values, and it shouldnt 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 arent that many good jobs out there: there are a lot that dont 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 wouldnt have done a) because they werent 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 wasnt doing my husbands 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. Ive also avoided picking up too much housework as function creep now Im a largely stay-at-home mum. My argument has been that Im at home to look after L and I can only do such housework as is compatible with prioritising her. (Early on, I wasnt 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 hed get home, but hed 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. Hirschmans idea seems to be that if youre a woman in a high-powered job, you should hire a nanny and go back to work immediately. She doesnt 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 theyve 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 couldnt 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 Im doing (and what my husband is doing) is a positive feminist experience for L. Im 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. Im 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 shes older shell 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 youre still relying on someone else to install proper feminist principles in your child and theyre 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 thats 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 youre certainly not going to have this happen if you keep on repeating that childcare is boring and horrible and that its intrinsically demeaning to wipe someones bottom if youre a member of the middle classes. (Id 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. Lets say it together: Work matters, children matter, housework doesnt!