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August 12, 2006

To Work or Not to Work

I posted this darned thing, and then realized that somehow I posted it back in July instead of yesterday.

I left a comment in Hornblower's blog saying that I would blog about Linda Hirschman piece on whether or not women, should work outside the home.

And then I decided that I didn't give a damn about Ms. Hirschman. However, since then people have asked for my opinion, and because that happens so rarely, I forced myself to re-read the original article.

For twenty-five years, she watched as the backlash generation slowly walked away from the promise of a better life. Women — whether they stay home or, like most women, just carry the responsibility for home to work and back — are homeward bound. Their husbands won't carry enough of the household to enable them to succeed fully in the public world. Glass ceiling? The thickest glass ceiling is at home.

Their bosses, who are mostly someone else's husband, won't do the job their own husbands turned down, so there is no employer day care and there are no government tax breaks. Look deeply and you will see that liberal and conservative commentators largely agree that ideally women belong at home.

And women say they choose this fate, and the feminist movement backs them up.

The women Ms. Hirschman is concerned with are the "intelligent and privileged" women, women who are on track to high-profile, high-powered jobs: lawyers who could become Supreme Court justices; television producers who could shape programming for a nation; policy makers of all types. Her argument is that if these women drop out of the work force, feminism loses ground. Strong, important female voices disappear from the spheres of influence, a loss for all women. She also argues that although these women say they are freely choosing home and family, they're not; the glass ceiling at home weighs too heavily on their "choice." Besides that, she pulls no punches in admitting that she sees staying home as the wrong choice, undermining the aims of feminism. And so, these privileged women have a duty to have few or no children, and remain in the workforce leaving the childcare and housekeeping to someone else.

As you might guess, I disagree.

First of all, I disagree that these "privileged" women have as much of a glass ceiling influence as she claims. True, they may be married to privileged men with high-powered jobs who assume housekeeping and childcare to be beneath them (Ms. Hirschman provides not one single example of a supportive husband who actually shares in the childcare and household duties - presumably she doesn't believe the exist?). However, these are the very people who can afford nannies and housekeepers. They can pay to have the everyday grind taken care of by someone else. No, if these women are choosing to stay home, I believe they are honestly choosing to stay home.

That rubs Ms. Hirschman the wrong way, and I can understand why. When a woman has a first-class education and the resources to go forth into the world and be successful, to make a difference, it's a slap in the face to the feminist powers that fought for those very opportunities for her to choose to stay home and do childcare instead.

The unfortunate down side to fighting for freedom means that people just might use their freedom to make choices you dislike.

Do these women make the choice to stay home at the expense of other women? Perhaps. I'm not convinced. I sense a kind of social elitism in Ms. Hirschman's arguments that bothers me. I don't like her implication that this is the duty of the privileged woman, to work and advance womankind, while leaving her children in the care of ... presumably less-privileged women. Certainly Ms. Hirschman's portrayal of men in her essay leads me to believe she has no faith in men picking up the slack (all her examples of men are selfish and look on housework/childcare as anathema). So it must be professional child-care workers. You know, those people who do that job that is so looked down upon, and who do it for so little pay.

This is America. Is it not still possible for a less privileged, but determined, woman to make her mark on the world? To say this is the duty of the privileged is, I think, insulting. It assumes that the elite have to do it because they're the only ones who can. I don't buy it. I still think anyone can do anything, with hard work and ingenuity. Perhaps if one of these more gifted women bows out of the workforce after finding she'd rather care for her own kids, she's simply leaving the field open for someone with fewer natural opportunities but who wants the job more.

But back to the big question: Why do women who seem to have it all in the workforce choose to stay home? I think it comes down to this: Biology is destiny. Not in a sense that means women are only genetically capable of having children and cleaning a house. But realistically, it's women who have the babies. We can't change that. Men can't have them. We can't stop having them, not entirely. No matter what work we choose to do in the world, we have to take childbearing into account. We have no other choice.

If we choose to have children, we must choose to either interrupt our work or delay it. We must choose to structure our work around the lost time and chaos a complicated pregnancy might cause. We must manage the time and energy that giving birth and caring for a newborn take. We must accept the fact that we are likely to have strong feelings about the child, again based on biology, that prompt us to want to focus more on it and less on the job. For some professions and career ladders, these interruptions spell disaster. Sometimes they can be managed, and our work will go on. Sometimes the women choose to focus on the child instead and the career later, if at all.

Ms. Hirschman hopes that privileged women will choose to have few children if any, and manage the interruptions so the work can continue. In this way, she hopes we will gain and maintain equality in the spheres of influence in our society. But because women have babies and men don't, this is not equality! Our influential jobs, our definitions of success, our offices, our workdays ... all of these things are based on men, and on male biology. The only way for us to be equal in such a world is to eliminate, or at lease minimize, the childbearing aspect. But why is it "equality" for women to have to smother such a basic part of ourselves? How is it "equality" to pretend we're just like men?

Equality in the workplace, and in the leadership of this country at all levels, can only happen by a fundamental restructuring of values and social constructs. Equality doesn't happen when women have children furtively, pretending the job of motherhood is not important and keeping the whole baby business tucked away from the boss; it happens when we can change work and success to something that is more flexible, and that values the care of children. It happens when men accept their share of family and home care, and adjust their work accordingly. It happens when we change our definition of success, and influence.

So, yes, "choose your choice," ladies. Work if you wish. Stay home if you wish. Choose meaningful work from your home and have the best of both worlds. Find a real way to work for equality.

Besides, you've got to wonder what all this time of intelligent, influential women in the workforce has brought us, when we still get ads like this and this. I want to see a man in that bathtub. Pronto.

Posted by lynx at August 12, 2006 4:26 PM


I'm puzzled by one thing. Where are the stay-at-home Dads in both your and Ms. H's article? While not big, that is a growing segment of our society. It's one my own dh would choose in a heartbeat if I could earn the equal of his wages.

Posted by: Lioness at August 12, 2006 4:04 PM

My husband would choose it too, and I personally know at least three stay-at-home, homeschooling dads, as well as families where both parents work part-time or flex-time and do equal childcare/housecare/etc.

Yeah, I'm all for stay at home dads. Then we still have the fact that mothers have to handle work and pregnancy, time off for birth, time off after birth, etc., but after those hurdles the dad can take care of the homefront while the mom works.

From her article (I haven't read her book) I'm not sure Ms. Hirschman believes those men exist. Or, she would tell us that the fact that we can't make as much as our husbands, and so our husbands do not stay home - that's an example of her at-home glass ceiling ... which again, wouldn't apply to the couples she was talking about.

But in a nutshell, I got the impression she thinks they don't exist. Of course they do, and that's a very important part of any kind of gender equality in the workplace. (And certainly, I'm doing my best to raise four men to believe that children and family are equally their jobs.)

Posted by: MamaLynx [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 12, 2006 8:39 PM

How is it "equality" to pretend we're just like men?

Can I get an "Amen"?

I'm really tired now, but I feel a blog comin' on. Maybe tomorrow.

Love, Amy

Posted by: Amy at August 13, 2006 10:06 PM

The only reason I'm the one staying home now is because my hubby thinks he'd make dd stupid. If we hadn't decided to homeschool, he'd be the one home right now. I think he would be fine at it, but he has absolutely no interest in lesson plans, Latin, or chronological history. He's a numbers guy. I couldn't work full time, then be anal about school.

We always joked that once I was done with the schooling part, we'd trade roles. His career took off though, and I'm grateful that I have a quite a few more years to decide what to do after.

While it may be harder to shape a nation while doing dishes, or even making book lists, I'm very conscious about how I want my own daughter to see why we're doing things the way we are. Nations are shaped slowly and even though we shouldn't be complacent with the status quo , I believe optimistically that it's only a matter of time.

"It happens when we change our definition of success, and influence."

God, yes. I could ask 10 different people and get 20 different answers.

Posted by: Shawna at August 15, 2006 2:51 AM

If pretending to be like a man is what a woman wants to do, that's fine for her. I'm a bit too circuitous, mentally and physically, to enjoy that. But I don't want my femininity treated as somethng less-than-equal to masculinity.

Posted by: Lioness at August 15, 2006 1:21 PM

Right. Femininity has been put in the position of less-than-equal, because our entire system of production, our entire definition of success, productivity, work, is based on the masculine model. That works for some women. Hell, maybe for many women. It does not work for me.

I was offered a nice promotion right before I quit my job. I would have had a professional title - managing editor of the magazine I worked at. I knew that the job would require long hours and lots of stress. I had a brand-new baby and had seen, firsthand, how my company treated employees who dared to ever put family ahead of job. Officially all the policies were fair, but the unofficially political consequences of, say, leaving work early to get a sick child, were ridiculous. Did I mention that my boss wanted me to work from home while I was on bedrest near the end of my pregnancy?

And they thought I quit because I wanted more money.

Sorry. Digressed a bit, there.

Posted by: MamaLynx [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 15, 2006 4:28 PM