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The “Elite” Talk Back


In Homeward Bound, published in The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman makes the argument that, among America's "elite" women, feminism has, essentially, failed. Her proof -- "Half of the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy."

She sets out to prove that, while the feminist movement altered laws and government and even corporations (which, frankly, is news to me), it really did nothing to redefine the patriarchal notion of family whereby women remain the primary caregivers. Hirshman, a self-described feminist, set out to prove her thesis through interviews with 41 brides featured in the New York Times Sunday Styles section in 1996 (she got this idea from an episode of Sex and the City, of all places) -- women who were the very definition of the "elite" for whom feminism had failed.

She offers some seemingly sound data to show that even though these women were being accepted into professional programs and hired at the same rate as their male counterparts, they were leaving the workforce in anticipation of having children. But of course this is not new information.

Where Hirshman begins to shake things up, is in her refusal to attribute this "opt-out" rate to a male-oriented society, to a workplace that is "discriminatory and hostile to family life", to a systemic problem with work itself. Instead, she seems to blame the women themselves. "Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions," she writes. She opines, "if half or more of feminism's heirs (85 percent of the women in my Times sample), are not working seriously [read: full time for high pay], it's because feminism wasn't radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn't change men, and, more importantly, it didn't fundamentally change how women related to men."

"Liberal" feminists are also to blame for not being harsher critics of women who continue to take the primary role in childrearing, be it full time or on the "second shift":

liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women "choices." The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying "abortion," and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as "feminist" as long as she chose it.

Hirshfield argues that the whole concept of choice, while an easier sell than radical feminism, is wrong. Women cannot choose to take on traditional, underpaid, undervalued domestic work and not undermine feminism: "Like the right to work and the right to vote, the right to have a flourishing life that includes but is not limited to family cannot be addressed with language of choice."

She lays out three rules needed for women to live by truly feminist principals: "Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry." She then goes on to say, what is in essence, avoid the liberal arts programs, pick the job that pays the best (forget altruism) and stick with it and if you want to marry and have kids, best you "marry down" so you retain the power in the marriage.

Gosh. It's all so very bleak. The only way for women to be feminist is to be a market-driven, work-oriented and treat marriage as economic decision -- the Feminism-as-Gordon-Gekko philosphy, I guess.

The author makes a number of assumptions which are just plain troubling. The first assumption is that brides featured in the style section of the Times are the best candidates for feminist living. I would make the assertion that this is almost patently not the case. If the style section in the Times is anything like those in the Canadian papers, the brides featured are not representative of the average upper-class, educated woman for whom feminism should be most alive. Rather, they are representative of brides who are accutely aware of social status (or whose parents or fiances are -- they tend to have the "I'm mortified" faces in the photo). And in my book, people concerned about "fitting into" and "keeping up with" society are not really the drivers of social change.

She also makes this assumption: "The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family." Nowhere does she challenge the notion of success or power. So a woman who chooses to work in not-for-profit or stay at home is less successful, less powerful, than a woman who runs a Fortune 500 company. It is true that in today's society, her work goes unmeasured. But perhaps instead of pandering to a patriarchal definition of success, we, as feminists, need to redefine it. I just do not understand why only a woman succeeding at a man's game (by making the money, picking the "right" spouse) is deemed to be a feminist. Can a woman not be feminist by seeking to shatter the patriarchal money-equals-success-equals-power paradigm.

I almost did not want to give the piece any more airtime. But I hate it when one of these articles lands in my inbox without some accompanying challenge. Because as an MBA, ex-Bay Street (Wall Street Lite) now 'just raisin' babies' mom, I see myself in pieces of the article. And I am annoyed that things aren't better for me and for all women. And for a brief second, I wonder, "my god, is this true? Am I failing the movement? Will my choices in some way negatively affect my daughter (and my son) at some point down the road?"

And in a time when women -- mothers -- so need to collaborate and cooperate, I hate to see yet another article which seeks to divide. Usually I can dismiss these pieces as conservative propoganda but this wolf was dressed in feminist clothing.

I think that Miriam Peskowitz says it best "She's trying to find a book contract for this, god help us all. And she's a scholar too, she should know better about how to use evidence. Enough, enough, enough. We've got a whole country out here trying to make ends meet, and this is the crap we get, again and again and again."

Amen to that.

Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.

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I blogged about this one as well (, Jen, and I agree that one of the most troubling things about this is Hirschman's failure to use the right evidence and use it well. (Though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my own marriage was, strange to say, announced in the NYTimes when it happened 18 years ago, and I turned out relatively feminist...) There are things in the piece that are just laugh-out-loud funny, though I'm not sure she intends them. Like, marry an older man to get more equality? And the whole butter riff, even if she did steal it from Nora Ephron. But what I'm most troubled by is the way in which she really doesn't seem to get that there are other standards of value than "masculine" or capitalist ones.
Disagree with me all you want, but I would not be so quick to recommend Miriam Peskowitz's sour grapes comments instead of devising arguments on your own. Since she feels entitled to spin her interview with me in public, I can reveal that she wouldn't even spend time being interviewed until I assured her that I actually had a contract to publish my article and wasn't writing on spec. So her crack about looking for a book contract, a little out of bounds in any discussion of ideas, is way out of bounds here. I did not use any of the interview, because I am trying to open a discussion of the justice of the traditional gendered family. The first thing she told me was that she considered the politics of the family not to be a legitimate subject for her feminist analysis. "We all have different families," she said, "and we have the right to live at home as we see proper -- patriarchy, lesbianism . . . " In an effort to see how sincere her commitment to the unreviewability of the family was (leave aside equating patriarchy and lesbianism), I asked her if she would therefore not condemn violence within families. "No,horrible," she replied, "I meant no looking at the NONVIOLENT family." LH: "So violence is not OK, but everything else is OK." MP: "Right." So, it's not that Peskowitz thinks the private family is immune from moral analysis, she just thinks the only immoral thing you can do within a family is hit someone. I disagree. I think -- and can defend the opinion -- that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological,ideological, economic or any other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or in the pages of the New York Times. So I don't blog on about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever qualifies as sincere feminism in the weird space the internet creates. But if you quit your job because you were living eight hours from good academic work when your first child came, I will be the one who will ask "Who decided to move THERE?"
What qualifies as "sincere feminism" in the "weird space" that the Internet creates is trying to understand where other women are coming from; and realizing that words in cyberspace have a different power and effect than words spoken face to face. On the upside, there are tremendous opportunities for sharing experiences and offering support -- an experience that would have left the members of the 1960s consciousness raising groups in awe. On the downside, there's not the same opportunity to ask for feedback or clarification in the moment so that you can ensure that you've truly understand what someone is trying to say. So you have to be conscious of what you're saying and its impact before you hit the post button. And then, of course, the Internet is a great equalizer. While real-world credentials still carry some weight, they don't carry as much weight. Some people find that hugely liberating. Others find it very threatening to carry on a debate in a medium where a CV is just another piece of paper.
Linda, what's up with you? You take one comment from Miriam Peskowitz in this whole long blog post and run with THAT. Who's refusing to debate the ideas now? And who's REALLY jealous--Miriam already has a book out. I blog about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever else the frack I want because the personal is political. Remember that little bon mot from the second wave? It's true. Over on my blog I wrote about your piece too. My conclusion is that, like much of the second wave, you have been co-opted by the corporatist agenda. I have two words for people who denigrate traditional women's work: Screw you.
Quoting from Hirshman as quoted in Jen's original post: "Like the right to work and the right to vote, the right to have a flourishing life that includes but is not limited to family cannot be addressed with language of choice." I think we have a problem with limited definitions, here. I left my full-time job when I had a baby. Shame on me, right? I'm failing my feminist foremothers, aren't I? Hardly. I lead a flourishing life that is not limited to family. I am a writer, a freelance journalist, and my new hobby is musical theatre. No, that life does not include a regular paycheck, expensive suits, and business cards. But who says that's the only way to flourish?
wow, back in the day when i was an earnest college student, singing holly near and meg christianson and hanging out at the "womyn's center," a "radical feminist" was a big ol' scary hairy dyke. not a rich white woman in a suit working for the man. what happened to audry lorde, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? what happened to "this bridge called my back" and adrienne rich, and oh my, i'm sure i'm really dating myself and that there's lots of new radical feminist thought out there that i'll admit i haven't kept up with (you know how your mind withers when you have kids...), but i *never* imagined that "you better not make choices that make me feel guilty about my demanding my equal right to be part of the patriarchal, exploitative, racist, classist, homophobic power-elite" would *ever* be cast as radical feminist analysis. wow. as for this radical lesbian feminist former big firm lawyer, i'm just oh-so-happy to be living an ecologically sound, spiritually fulfilling, whole, deeply meaningful, connected, community-service-oriented, anti-materialist, anti-consumerist, racially and economically integrated life ... yup, "just" raising my kids and making a home and being part of my world on *my* terms, guided by *my* values of non-exploitation, hospitality and sustainability. funny, but back in the day, *that* looked a lot like a feminist critique, but what do i know? i'm just living my "weird" life, even, *shudder* finding moments of the sublime in my quotidian existence. go figure.
Yes, I think it's definitely practical for women to leave all forms of work that *merely* work towards the better good of society rather than working towards excessively high salaries-- then we can just completely dismantle rape crisis lines, domestic violence shelters, daycare centers-- you know, all the institutions that feminism fought so hard to establish. Consumerism, materialism, and exploitation of labor are definitely better. Makes perfect sense. in BIZARRO feminism.
Amen to those commenters who challenged Hirshman's acceptance of money and status as the only markers of success. Why should women strive to emulate men if the end result (working long hours in a job we hate, marrying someone who's 'dependent' rather than an equal) makes us miserable? Why does Hirshman never ask if perhaps it would be better for men to emulate more 'feminine' notions of success? Why shouldn't both men and women be free to pursue their ideals, even when it comes at the expense of money? Why shouldn't both men and women have the choice to stay home with their children if that's what makes the most sense for them? With societal supports like paid maternity/paternity leave, affordable childcare, and employers willing to hire those with nontraditional career paths including time taken for childrearing, options for both men and women could be expanded.
---> "So a woman who chooses to work in not-for-profit or stay at home is less successful, less powerful, than a woman who runs a Fortune 500 company." I work primarily with not-for-profit agencies. Many of these have women at the helm who have the power to topple governments. It's true that you don't hear about these women in the mainstream media, but they exist and they are holding a lot of strings. ---> "But perhaps instead of pandering to a patriarchal definition of success, we, as feminists, need to redefine it." Here, here!
When I read this article, I was first struck, not by the many valid points raised here, but by the notion that feminism failed. I had no idea that there was a time limit on feminism, I thought it was an ongoing project, a long-term plan, and that it was accepted that chipping away at the patriarchy was going to take some time. I'm so tired of reading about the failures of a movement that is still in progress. My second thought was, 'Is she right? Am I letting the team down? Was this freelancing, kid-wrangling, theatre oriented, artsy life a choice pre-ordained by the patriarchy?' And I guess to a certain degree it was, because I don't have the option of a "powerful" and family friendly work place, but that is a factor of geography as much as a factor of the patriarchy. But within my family context, I had the choice whether to stay home and try this piecemeal (but ultimately satisfying arrangement) or to go back to work (for what was a limited satisfaction even before kids). I think she makes a good point, that we need to readdress gender issues in our households, but I don't think her evidence supports that point. I think Susan Mausharts 'Wifework' handled that issue in a much more direct way (of course, Maushart had a book to explore the issue in, and Hirshman is working at article length). I guess, the product of all this thought and rambling is that I feel that my decision to alter my worklife was very much a feminist one. Perhaps my being home, and having time to do volunteer work and help other people out of work/time crunches, lets a working mom off the hook so she can fight the battle in the work place without feeling unnecessary guilt about things not getting done at school (or wherever). I think we all choose our battles, and mine was never going to be in the corporate world. I'm not willing to sacrifice my happiness to maintain a workstyle that I'm not sure should exist for anyone. I guess if feminism becomes all about whether I am driven to be at the top of the corporate ladder (even just to make room for the next group of women), I'm going to have to take my ball and go home. (sorry if this rambles a little, my one year old is crawling around my feet as I participate in this 'weird' internet space.)
I can pratically feel the disdain Linda Hirshman has for me while reading her article. As a stay at home mother who left a successful academic career, I alone made my choice to stay home with my daughter. I was at the top of my undergraduate and graduate school classes and had a successful career, yet refuse to feel I am now unsuccessful because I decided to leave my position. Raising children is hard work and must be appreciated, especially by other women. My choice to stay home was made thanks to feminism, not in opposition to it. I wanted to be home with my daughter while she grew up. I postponed having children until I was ready. Once I was ready, I wanted to be home with them. I will not apologize for this decision, and I refuse to feel marginalized by so called feminists who believe my choice makes me a second class feminist. Women should support each other in their choices, not make them feel as though they have made the wrong ones.
Ms. Hirshman you are a disgrace to women everywhere. Feminism is not about picking on each other, forcing other women into YOUR idea of a successful woman. Rather, it is about acceptance of the choices each of us has made. Personal, none of your goddamn business choices. Why further internal bickering when the real goal is equality? You should be ashamed of yourself.
Ugh, I wish reasonably affluent women who can ditch the mainstream to pursue creative lives and still not be starving would see themselves as the exceptions that they are. You are not any more relevant than those 'Times brides' at whom everyone seems happy taking shots. I don't see how women can shatter paradigms by avoiding competitive, patriarchal, male-dominated work environments or by shunning the reality of the market-economy. I see how Hirshman's position seems harsh and extreme, but that shouldn't push us to the polar extreme position. It's great that many women can make the choice to opt out of difficult corporate or academic environments, but that's not an option for everyone. Isn't there a bit of elitism in deciding that *you* just can't be bothered with changing those environments and skipping off to piece together a more meaningful life? What about the other women stuck facing the realities of the "market economy". Tough luck for those chicks, right? They're stuck working insanely long hours for corporations still run by men because all the highly educated and motivated women got tired of trying to break into the upper ranks and bailed out to be freelance journalists and part-time violinists and drive the kids to ballet and blog about how raising children is nearly a holy experience and why on earth were women in the 1950s on tranquilizers anyway? For the record, I am neither aspiring to the pinnacle of professional success, nor the ecstatic rewards of motherhood. I don't care for either. To quote Kate Winslet in a great movie, "I'm just a f***ed up girl looking for my own peace of mind." That being said, I think a lot about how my choices do or do not affect other women, and about where we are in the feminist movement. Choosing to live your life how you please, without even considering the state of feminism, is irresponsible. Refusing to think critically about what it means to other women when you leave your promising academic or corporate career, in my humble opinion, is a blow to feminism. Of course it's fine for you to do what you want. But you are asking too much to be exempt from the critical evaluation of passionate, concerned women like Linda Hirshman. After all, someday your daughter may cast a critical eye on you, and wonder how you and your peers contributed to improving women's lives. Are you ready for her to "pick on" your choices? Are you ready for her to be unimpressed by your re-definition of success? Are you ready for her to say, "Well, how did you enhance my career opportunities by opting out?"
Nina71177: Choosing to leave the workforce and stay home with children isn't always an "elite" choice. In my case, it's a financial one, as in my salary will only *just* cover the cost of having two children in day care. So then the question becomes, is it worth it to continue working? The answer for me, is a resounding no. I just don't get enough satisfaction from my job -- and it's a pretty good one. I'm a news producer. It's what I went to college for, anyway. But once I had my daughter, my priorities changed. I get so much more fulfillment from what I do at home. At work (only part-time right now), I'm bored and wishing I could be with my daughter. So when Hirshman says a person can only find true fulfillment in the workplace, I have to just sigh and shake my head at such closed-mindedness. But she's a perfect example of why feminism is a dying movement.
Hirshman makes an important point about having women in significant positions of power. When women are involved with writing bills, making laws, judging and arguing court cases, sitting on juries, voting, different decisions are made that benifit women and children differently. How do we get more women in positions of authority where they can make a difference in our lives? Hirshman is trying to answer that question, and it's a question that needs answering. While her answers may not be right for every individual woman (we're not all lawyers, or doctors, or CEOs--but neither are all men), they are right for women in general. I benefit when women influence legislation and any other number of things I probably can't even imagine. This does not mean that we don't recognize the innate value of all humans. We are more than the sum of our deeds, and non-profit workers need not feel under-valued. But non-profit workers know very well how legislation affects the funding available for their work, and they can benefit from powerful congresswomen whose world views encompass different things than men. I think the tone of the article that is so insulting is the implication that child-rearing is in-valuable, or somehow consistes only of mindless house-work. I think this is selling out. Does Hirshman not value the child-care workers who raise children? Or, does she only value them as much as their income? And what about people who are involved with sanitation? Are they merely "untouchables." Maybe she considers these jobs only something that should be passed through on the way to something else, and only derides those who choose to stay in them indefinitely? No, these are probably jobs meant for the un-educated in whom we have not invested our money for college so they pose no poor return on America's investment. But, why should child-care and education be so under-valued? We can't expect high-quality young adults to miraculously spring from a low-quality system. And early childhood education (before kindergarten) has been proven in countless studies to have long-term affects on the success of children well into high school. And, as any educator will tell you, high-school is often too late to start getting kids ready for college. What we do for our children before they start school is significant, and while the ultimate effect of getting them onto the supreme court, for example, is not immediate, it is part of the critical path. This is my question, then, that needs answering. Why haven't we raised the value of raising, training, and educating excellent young people, which is the only way to make excellent adults!? We must continue to gain positions of already-established value and power in our society, but why haven't we added to the power structure the inherent value of mentoring/sculpting/educating/rearing the next generation!? I'm sure there are plenty of men who read this, say "here here", and assume their wives should take on that role. But, it will not be universally valued until men do it too. As long as posessing any perceived feminine trait is considered an insult, this won't be realized. Primary education used to be a highly valued field and was predominated by men--its devaluing went hand in hand with its becoming predominated by women. Which came first-the devaluation of primary education or the influx of women? The influx of women is the answer, and it points to our ultimate solution, I think. It's not merely that we must assume roles of power previously dominated by men (although this is essential), but men's perceptions must change as well. This means that we can't sell out and think like men, most of whom would not value a child-rearing position, we need to find ways to influence men. Hirshamn points to this with the butter analogy. But, why must it end with a dirty house and no butter? I think there are many men who want a clean house and will keep track of the butter because they value the family more than their pride. There are men who have taken on important roles in early childhood education, and they're making a significant impact on our society. Rather than the "us vs. them" mentality that emerges from Hirshman's marriage strategies, why aren't we working with the men who see the significant value of areas that have traditionally been "women's work" and raising it to a higher status?! (Again, let me re-iterate, I'm not talking about the Rush Limbaugh's of the world who would quote me and agree, but wouldn't give up an iota of prestige to work with pre-schoolers.)
Well, that's it. Linda Hirshman is OFF the Christmas-card list for good, now. Too bad, too, because this year's was going to include updates about my roofer. In my very humble, working-but-would-really-rather-not-be mom's opinion, any position that attacks other women and the choices they make in their own personal lives is, well...counter-feminist. Want to read a very nice, very *simple* description of feminism? Visit Grace D's site and read her post titled Two Feminists. Refreshing, inclusive, loving, and simple. The perfect antidote to the angry rantings of Ms. Hirshman.
Thanks Linda for sparking such a lively debate. It might bring me out of my depression from being a stay-at-home mom with no money and no future except adjunct hell.
Hi Tralee Pearce here from the Globe and Mail. I'm writing a piece on the Hirshman article - and its aftermath. Looking for Jen, who posted in November, and any other Canadian women who would like to comment on the complicated matter! I can be reached at and would love to hear from you. Cheers, Tralee
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