Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The “Elite” Talk Back: Linda Hirshman and Miriam Peskowitz Respond


One of the more provocative responses to yesterday's post, "The 'Elite' Talk Back" was by the original article's author Linda Hirshman. When I saw the comment initially, I steeled myself for criticism. Instead, my points were ignored (dismissal perhaps being the ultimate form of criticism) and Hirshman instead wrote an oddly personal response to The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother's Miriam Peskowitz, whose Playground Revolution blog entry I had referenced.

I'll urge you to read the comment in its entirety. Basically, it boils down to this. Hirshman and Peskowitz, both feminists, both authors, have different definitions of what is fodder for feminist analysis, as was revealed in Hirshman's interview with Peskowitz for the original article. Hirshman believes that the family must be redefined and "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." Peskowitz doesn't agree, believing that the family structure is rather more personal and complex and difficult to categorize as patently feminist or not. And, unlike Hirshman, she believes that there is still work to be done in making the workplace and society more family-friendly. Hirshman writes that she decided not to use any of the Peskowitz interview in her article "because I am trying to open a discussion of the justice of the traditional gendered family". Peskowitz's views did support her arguments.

But, surprisingly, Hirshman does not go on to offer evidence in support of her hypothesis that the family ought not to be immune from feminist criticism. She does not offer why she believes Times brides are a good indicator of feminism at work. She does not say why she did not challenge the patriarchal notions of money and power. She does not offer additional evidence to show how government and business are supportive of mothers and how the only real problem lies with us.

Instead of engaging in real debate, she simply simply dismisses Peskowitz's views: "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." And goes on to blame Peskowitz herself for her side-tracked career.

Literary Mama asked Miriam Peskowitz if she'd like to respond to Hirshman's comment and here is her emailed response:

Wow. How does an author/blogger/mom even respond to a personal attack like that? The post is clear evidence that writing about the Mommy Wars and about the judgment that's dished out to all mothers doesn't exempt one from taking it on the chin. Ouch.

Yes, once upon a time, I had a low-paying, high-prestige full-time job. Unfortunately, it didn't come with onsite childcare, paid maternity leave, or other supports for working parents. Not wanting to totally ditch my career, I took an unpaid leave of absence. I found part time work elsewhere. Then I quit the first job. My story of career sacrifice is shared by moms throughout America. 25% of us are out of the paid workplace, 37% work part time. Some feminists can only see us as disappointments. I disagree. Instead of judging us, why don't you look at where the problem is: The problem is not that smart women make bad marriage decisions. At core it's about how the workplace hasn't changed to support family life. Not nearly enough.

If that makes me a bad feminist, well, that's okay. Call me names. I've got better things to think about, like getting moms and dads across our nation, and in every neighborhood and economic class, to start thinking about how the frustrations our families face are structural, how they're not about our own individual failures but about a lack of paid family leave, fair wages for women and mothers, realistic work hours, reliable and affordable childcare, or chances to get back into the workplace after some time out. And that's just a start.

I'd like more of us to feel comfortable speaking out, and imagining what real change for mothers, fathers and families might look like. I'd like us to call our politicians, write to our newspapers, pressure our corporations, in short, use any of the usual tactics available to us as citizens in a democracy. I'd call that keeping our eyes on the prize. We need real social change for family life, and we need it now.

In my book The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother (Seal Press, 2005), I tried to write about all of us. About white women and black women. About a few affluent moms, and a few welfare and former-welfare moms. About ordinary middle-class school teachers. About daycare workers. About women who are honestly trying to make a go of it in a society that doesn't help. About women and families who are kept absent from our national media, which much prefers to focus on the affluent, as if only the rich matter. I stand by my comments, especially as they're echoed throughout the blogosphere. We're all having a time of it out here; there are few good family choices for mothers or for fathers. Our national media insists that only the upper economic sliver of families matters. That's a travesty.

Well, it's late, and I am a tired and very pregnant woman itching to get to bed. But I can't end without defending the mom-and-dad Internet, where we real moms have morning sickness, sick kids, and other frustrations. Real dads sometimes quit their jobs and stay home to care for kids. We do boring things like fold laundry and cook dinner, day in and day out, as do our partners and spouses. We work, earn a living, feed our spirits, and find ways to get our kids to sleep through the night. Sometimes we have homes that need new roofs, and yes, we write about all of it.

On our blogs we write about the work that fills our days. It may read like boring trivia, but it's the stuff of everyday life, and it matters. We have joys and regrets, happiness and anger. These lives don't come with fancy names or titles, but they're honest and they're real. We've created an interesting and connected world. We've ended the awful isolation that can affect so many moms and dads. We're here, we're real, and we come from all walks of life. I'm sorry to hear us described by Hirshman as "weird."

To end, I'll assume that most readers of Linda Hirshman's post will realize the odd way my words were out of context, and leave it at that. Since I was never asked permission to tape record our telephone interview, readers should know that they are not reading my transcribed words but an oddly remembered version of a conversation.

Miriam Peskowitz

Author, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother

I'll say it 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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Thank you, Jen, for allowing Miriam to respond. I think the response was thoughtful and convincing.
That's beautiful! Thanks to Miriam for her hard work and good writing! As long as Hirshman focuses only on the elite, I know that she won't have much to say that speaks to my (very un-elite) life but I'm so glad that we regular old parents have Miriam to speak out for us. I, for one, am inspired!
I continue to be flabbergasted that, instead of seeing feminists aiming their rhetorical efforts toward carving out a better American work place (one that works in concert with families -- both mothers and fathers -- to retain talented employees throughout the stages of parenthood) and at valuing the work that it takes to raise a new generation, we're again seeing women pitted against women. At-home moms versus at-work moms. Women who are at home,working part time or traversing alternative career paths while their children are young, are being labeled as feminist sell outs. It's such a waste of energy. We're all different people and pursue our lives different ways. I just don't get the vitriol.
Thanks, Miriam for saying it so well. I don't understand Hirshman at all. It's feminists like Hirshman who turn off other women to feminism. If that's what a feminist looks like, then I don't want to be one.
OK, Miriam rocks. That is all.
I chose to be at home with my children and pursue my writing career (for which there *is* no executive suite, anyway). My husband is very happy with his choice and I with mine; we both feel like the lucky ones. I realize that I am economically vulnerable if we were to divorce. But Hirshman's words are not out of concern for me, for the way the working world is stacked against women in general and re-entry women in particular, but rather an expression of her scorn for my choice. Why is it so hard for feminists to believe that a smart well educated woman would get real meaning from the role of raising children, among her other pursuits? It seems like focusing one's energies on children and women remains "soft" work. I learned that well when I was working as a manager at a rape crisis/ domestic violence center before I had kids, the meaning of social service work being inverse to the pay--doubly so when women or children are your focus. Fortunately many feminists are making room for mothers at the table, and lots of kick-ass mothers are coming in whether we are invited or not. And feminism is becoming more whole for it. I am sorry to see that some feminists of Hirshman's intelligence and passion are still so against... women.
Thank you for allowing Miriam to respond to Linda Hirshman's nasty attack. You go, girl! There were a lot of problems with Hirshman's piece: the capitulation to the values of the market, the contempt for family and the elite class and ethnic bias' that just reeked from the piece. If changing a diaper renders someone an untouchable, what, then does that say about childcare providers, the majority of whom are, ahem, third world women? However, the thing that bothered me most was that this piece represented a complete betrayal of feminist values. Instead of making the personal political, Hirshman is turning the mantra of the feminist movement on its head. In her view, we shouldn't fight to change an inhumane work culture, we should change our personal lives to allow us to achieve "success" in conventional, market-oriented terms. What a crock. Linda Hirshman is god's Christmas gift to Rush Limbaugh. Have only one child? Marry beneath you? This woman has set the feminist cause back by twenty years.
The problem I have with her conclusions is the assumption that greed and money will solve all the gender problems. I feel like I am an example of a modern-day feminist success story. I have a part-time job that I love. It's the same career I had before having children - I just do it part-time now. I can work from home or in the office or whatever. I have an amazing, flexible employer. I have also a husband who is extremely helpful with the kids and the house. But by Linda's yardstick, I'm a complete failure. I'm certainly not pulling in a 6 figure income. And I'm not in any executive suite. I didn't "marry down" and I had more than one kid. (And went to a liberal arts university in New England to boot...) Does anyone know if she is married? Or has kids? She just seems to be living in such a different world than I am.
I kept highlighting pieces of Miriam's response that I wanted to flag because they were particularly resonant to me, but I gave up because by the time I was finished reading I had practically the whole thing selected. So instead I'll say thanks to Jen and Literary Mama for giving Miriam the chance to respond to Linda Hirshman's uncalled-for ad hominem attack. I haven't read "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars" yet, but I'll go looking for it now. I am a mom who has to work outside the home and who has carved a relatively successful and fulfilling career niche, but who defines herself almost entirely through the prism of motherhood. As such, I have tried to stay out of this particular fray - in no small part because of simple jealousy. I wish I could be the kind of feminist who had the chance to wage this war from the other side of the fence. My respect goes to anyone who acknowledges the real value of what we do as mothers, regardless of how our lives are structured. There is always room for thoughtful debate, but no place for petty attacks.
I know it shouldn't matter one way or the other, Kristen, but based on Hirshman's description of the diaper-free group as having "voluntarily become untouchables," I'm guessing that, no, she doesn't have kids. Or, um, pets. Otherwise she would have an easier time with the idea that life involves bodily wastes -- even for NY Times brides! I can't wait to tell my husband (who's chief in charge of newborn diapers, potty training, and other untouchables) that he's become a member of the lowest caste!
I, too, am grateful that Miriam was given the opportunity to respond. Perhaps, Ms. Hirshman should actually READ Ms. Peskowitz's book and try to understand why continuing to incite "Mommy Wars" is counterproductive for all women. Instead of actually enacting workplace reform, sure...let's advise women to "marry beneath them" to "spouses with less social power". Don't forget to reassure them that this isn't as ruthless as it sounds, because, after all "you're just doing what men have done for generations: playing a safe bet." As a feminist, I refuse to believe that "doing what men have done for generations" is the sole way I can elevate the status of women. Hirshman calls this move the "easier path", for everyone knows that "men with an ideological committment to gender equality" (in her world-view) are mythical creatures unlikely to exist in reality. Maybe all of these "opt-out, elite" mothers are just too busy raising these men up for the next generation to give her narrow-minded comments any more thought.
What struck me most about the Hirshman piece was her contempt for the lives and experiences of children. Childcare and housework are not equivalent. Childcare can be difficult and taxing, to be sure, but it can also be intellectually rigorous, gratifying, joyous work. No one with any respect for children's emotional and cognitive complexity could dismiss them so abruptly. In Hirshman's cold world, in which people base their most intimate decisions not on human passion but rather on money and "power" (which reads a lot like contempt), there's no discussion of real children - their real needs, their real capacities, their real hurts. Presumably, children are to be resentfully birthed by mothers who are wholly preoccupied with "public spheres like the market or the government," then handed over to poorer, darker-skinned women who will care for them until it's time for the children to set out for Princeton. Is there anyone in this world who doesn't take advantage of other human beings, who doesn't cruelly exploit women (and men) "beneath" them on the Hirshman food chain? And Hirshman states that this is what "full human flourishing" looks like??
I love that this is even a discussion being covered by the media. I remember when the only time anyone listened to my mother's parenting issues was when she and her girlfriends got drunk together by the pool and started crying.
Somebody should call Hirshman's mother. Giving birth proved to be the most empowering experience of my life. It was at that moment I realized exactly what it meant to be a woman. I understood myself and the design of my body more than ever before. I found peace immediately. I experienced wealth everlasting, with nothing between.
I hear so much in the media of the conflict between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers that doesn't resonate with any of my experiences. I have been a stay-at-home mom and a working mom and a coordinator of a Women's Studies program and a feminist activist; no one side matches my lived reality. So, I won't takes sides in the current public debates between SAHM and working mothers because now I know that "sides" are an illusion. We are not the stereotypes offered us by the media, or even inadvertently, by mothers ourselves. I have never met a mother who doesn't think (contrary to what the book title Mothers Who Think suggests). I have met mothers who think differently than I do, and although it is tempting to dismiss them by saying "they don't REALLY think -- because if they did, they would think like me," I have found, once I get beyond the stereotypes, that they ARE thinking about their children, their lives, and their positions in the world. They just think differently than I do. Perhaps realizing that we are not the stereotypes is what could help us understand each other better. I think it is time that mothers and fathers start talking openly about the pain separation causes. We'll never be able to stop performing childlessness to further our careers if we don't admit who the real victims are. We'll also not ever value stay-at-home parents for the valuable nurturing work they do if we don't openly discuss the separation pain they are making financial and career sacrifices to limit. We'll never encourage our culture to value the parent-child bond if working and stay-at-home mothers and fathers don't all get into the debate together. And maybe, just maybe, the point of the mommy wars is to keep the issue appearing as a woman's issue rather than a man's. To encourage women to fight with each other. To distract us from demanding real change as parents. To keep parents of both genders and from all different perspectives from joining together as a voting block. If mothers and fathers from all different sides of the debates could talk openly about the grief separation between children and parents causes, then maybe, just maybe we could force some changes in the way both men and women do work in this culture: more flex-time, telecommuting, paid maternity/paternity leave, benefits for stay-at-home parents, help for parents transitioning in and out of the work force, longer maternity/paternity leave, benefits to part-time employees, more part-time, career oriented jobs, better child care, more on-site child care, and more family-friendly corporate and academic cultures. But, society at large doesn't want to know the reality of the lives of our children, because if they knew, and wanted to live up to ideals expressed in the phrase "family values," they would have to change. And change is not what most people want. Because what children need is time, and in our culture, time is money, not love. From a Mothering in the Ivory Tower column titled "Time" here at Literary Mama
Isn't this about second wave feminism meeting third wave feminism, at least in part? With a healthy dose of a generation gap thrown in? The strange comment about the world of bloggers reminds me of some of my older teaching colleagues who feel scared and defensive about their lack of computer skills. Because of the internet, mamas are able to make connections with each other, to write and think about our choices and the ways the culture may have shaped our choices, and, I hope, to start working together for change so that women and men might have better options for combining work and family. (Maybe, as the second-wave feminists need more caregiving, we'll all come to agree about that?) And Miriam--you rock. I log on to read about your roofers and your morning sickness (except geez, Linda, Miriam's WAY over that stage of pregnancy by now!) every day. Thanks for all you do.
The whole debate is icky. It all comes down to the fact that trying to lumps us moms into groups doesn't work. Everyone's options and choices are different. There is an imbalance in the system. Some women go back to work because they have to -- they can't afford to stay home. And some women stay home because once they've paid for childcare, they're better off staying at home. Some women like the career track and love the hustle of going to work -- working makes them better mothers because they are happy to work. Others find perfect contentment in days spent with their beautiful children. But these decisions are rarely easy ones. The key is to find the situation that works for you, that is the least stressful on hearts and wallets, and then look to your fellow women to support you in your decision. We should not be attacking and creating sides, but helping each other up in the true feminist way. It's no secret that it takes a village. Shame on Hirshman for playing the feminist card so poorly. Yay to Miriam for being so gracious. And Jen - you just rock.
First of all, Linda Hirshman could not be a mother - no caring mother would speak of motherhood in such a way. Secondly, the problem with feminism and the reason it has faded away is because of radical feminists like Hirshman. They are so out of touch and have no idea what their “sisters” are all about. Their radical views appeal to a very small number of women and basically insult the rest. One of the reasons why women are “opting out” of their careers after children is that you can’t have it all. I might be chastised for saying that, but that’s my experience. Working in a high powered job requires long hours and many out-of-town trips. It takes a toll on everything, including you. The only way it can be done is if you have help 24/7 or a husband who stays home. But for many, including me, that was not an option. I missed my daughter too much. A couple of years ago I left a high powered job in NYC for a job closer to home that requires fewer hours and travel. It was also for less money -- 30 percent less. But that was my CHOICE and I couldn’t be happier.
Jen, thank you giving Miriam a chance to answer back. This whole thing is so sad. Miriam, Hirshman's attack on you (and all unpaid caregivers, frankly) is a bizarre throwback to a type of feminism that could not be more out a step with the reality of the current women's movement. The National Organization for Women, which Prof. Hirshman cites in her piece presumedly to advance her own premise, has a Mothers' and Caregivers Economic Rights ad hoc advisory committee that (among many goals) is working to increase sensitivity and awareness in the feminist community regarding the massive value of the work performed by our unpaid caregiving workforce. Certainly, condemning the language of choice, as Hirshman does in her piece, has been used for other results in discussions of the "choice" to leave/alter wage work to perform unpaid caregiving work. Some women will say that they did not have a choice as to whether they leave wage work to raise a family because the corporate policies where unfriendly to their caregiving responisiblities. The fault lay with society. But Hirshman's is based on equality as the full embrace of the "ideal market worker" and, well, a brand of feminism that would demand us to assimilitate over true progress. This can only work if we are willing to do as Hirshman prescribes and all women, accross the board, outsource our the caregiving of our offspring. This is just not reality. This is the rationale of someone who is not living on this planet. Miriam, you are right. This whole moment in a movement that is by all accords moving in a positive way is, well, odd. I have no idea what prof. Hirshman was trying to accomplish here. All my best, Laurie Pettine NOW-NJ Mothers and Caregivers Economic Rights Task Force
I'm no Hirshman apologist; I have serious issues with her article: with the narrowness of her definition of feminism, her focus on elites, her refusal to challenge the status quo of sexist or capitalist institutions and the way she places all the burden of changing things on women. But I've got to say whoa there to suzy re "no caring mother would speak of motherhood in such a way." First, Hirshman apparently is a mother, according to her own blog: Her conception of feminism doesn't have to have anything to do with her quality as a parent. She could be a deeply loving mother who feels screwed by the way things are set up in this country and wants her daughter to be secure. She could be a mother who disagrees with her own daughter's choices, whatever they are, but loves her anyway. She could be a rotten mother. I have no idea, and I don't care; ad hominem attacks are unnecessary and (as Hirshman herself has demonstrated above) just make the attacker look bad. Second, who gets to decide how a "caring mother" would speak of motherhood? I know lots of caring, loving mothers who speak of motherhood, or rather of the role of "mother" as it's defined in this culture, with a lot of scorn. It usually has nothing to do with how they, personally, feel about their children. And even if it did, aren't you doing just what Hirshman is doing: trying to define how a proper woman (her: a proper feminist; you: a proper mother) should act? /rant
And thanks to Dawn at This Woman's Work for the tipoff on Hirshman's blog, and some thoughtful suppositions on how her stance might indeed reflect very caring motherhood, in this post:
Can someone explain Hirshman's observation that "...the right to have a flourishing life that includes but is not limited to family cannot be addressed with language of choice." Why not? What could be more empowering than choice? Hirshman tries to link the word choice with the pro-choice movment, trying to make choice look like a dirty word. Shame on you, Hirshman. That kind of rhetoric is lazy and self-serving. But about choice - if I encounter something that resists my ability to make a choice, I work to change it. I've read Peshowitz's book and it inspired me to make the workplace more family friendly in places where choices are limited. Thanks for your scholarship, Miriam. A second point - Hirshman makes it sound like an educated mind is a wasted mind if it doesn't go on to generate a full-time, high-paying job. My educated mind, while never featured in the Sunday NYTimes, is happily part-time employed in a creative field, and flourishing in marriage and motherhood. I use my educated mind for lots of things, not just generating a wage, and so far I'm happy with the results. It's helped me research the vaccination debate, invest well for my future, decide whether to red-shirt my summer born son, pick fascinating and accomplished friends and all kinds of neat things. It even helped me make the educated decision to stay home for 2 years, go back and work part time, and now it's working hard to figure out whether to change careers or continue studying in my field. Hirshman's article will only make sense to me when it's revealed whether or not she's a mother. If you're not a mother, Linda, you might think we're not achieving, but the truth is we found a really wonderful life between babies and boardrooms.
I am an at-home mom who is strong and intelligent. I cannot believe that Hirshman thinks that I'm so stupid that I don't know that at-home mothering is "bad" for me. I've done both, and both me and my family were happier and healthier after I decided to stay home. I'm not saying that's best for every woman. Unlike Hirshman, I don't think any one lifestyle is better than the other. I have employed friends who fret about their lives, and at-home moms who fret about their lives. I have friends of both lifestyles who are content and managing interesting, vital lives reflective of their choices. Hirshman doesnt' get this. But I do know she has a daughter. I just wish she would understand that just imitating what men have done is not necessary better. And there are some reasons women are more suited to home in the early years. We do breastfeed -- and in fact, breastfeeding causes a release of a hormone what increases nurturing responses. We also tend to be more interested in at-home parenting -- whether you want to argue it's by nature or nurture. So I find it very disrespectful and mean-spirited of her to say our lives lack importance. That's how all people who advocate prejudice get their start. Convince people that people you don't agree with are a drain on society (that what the Nazis said about Jews), and the contempt will follow. Its' not that I think at-home moms will be slaughtered, but the fact that the arguement that they are useless drains on our society are still very hurtful and intolerant. Cynthia
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