OK, so I'm taking my stand. I thought the Hirshman article was freaking fantabulous. No, I don't disdain stay-at-home mothers or part-time mothers. Hear me out, people, before you cast judgment.
First of all, I am just so relieved to finally see a feminist address in a realistic way the glass ceiling at home that leads so many women to "opt out" of the pathways to power in the public sphere. Just hoping that on-site daycare and flextime will somehow materialize and resolve the pressures on women to opt out ain't gonna cut it. As someone who has been extremely ambitious in a very traditional way (i.e. I'd rather be a senator than start a commune), I have been perturbed pretty much all my life by the issues with which Hirshman grapples. What if no one wants to hire me because they are afraid I'm going to leave as soon as I have kids? What if I marry someone who simply won't do his share on the home-and-kid front (a possibility that would certainly have become reality if I had married the boyfriend I dated for three years in college)? Is it realistic even to expect a man to really support my career even (if necessary) at the expense of his own when that is so utterly contrary to every expectation of our culture?
Second, I understand why stay-at-home moms are so upset. Hirshman is unnecessarily derogatory about what stay-at-home moms do. She is also contradictory on this point. On the one hand, she says, "a common thread among the women I interviewed was a self-important idealism about the kinds of intellectual, prestigious, socially meaningful, politics-free jobs worth their incalculably valuable presence." She then argues essentially that women need to understand that work is never really like that and that you have to "lose [your] capitalism virginity." Then, later she says that upper class moms are not living up to their potential because they are spending all their time sweeping and cleaning up bodily waste. This is just silly because (a) lots of upper class moms outsource the most mundane tasks, (b) part of losing your capitalism virginity means you have to be prepared to do all sorts of mundane tasks in the workplace (I would happily compare the tedium of writing up interrogatories to the tedium of sweeping), and (c) there is a lot more to homecare and child care than just those tedious tasks, just as there is a lot more to practicing law than writing interrogatories. But I don't think this piece of Hirshman's argument is crucial to the essence of what she is saying.
Here is the thing: IF we believe that it is important to approach equality of numbers in the boardroom, in Congress, in the media, in the laboratory, and in the other corridors of power, we MUST address the fact that women are often simply not pursuing those goals.
I am the last person to ever say to you, "You have an obligation to live your life for the collective." I would scoff at any conservative who tells me I have an obligation to stay home and have babies because it is better for society as a whole if I do. I would also scoff at any feminist who tells me I have an obligation to pursue a law firm partnership or a judgeship because it is better for women if I do. (While I am personally on that conventional power track in my locality, I "opted out" of any chance in the truly big leagues when I moved to the provinces upon marriage.) That having been said, I am indeed very interested in addressing the current stagnation in terms of the numbers of women on the track towards becoming part of the power elite-- and I don't think we can close our eyes, say "feminism is about choice," and simply hope that cultural expectations will change or that the workplace will become more family friendly or that the first woman President of the United States will just materialize.
It may be that the only way to achieve the goal of more powerful women is to stigmatize other choices, like full-time motherhood, but I sure hope not. What I love about Hirshman's article is that she is clear-eyed about naming the problem. If you have "opted out," that doesn't make you a bad person, and it doesn't make you a bad feminist. You gotta do what you gotta do, including whatever is best for your own happiness and that of your family. But we have to recognize that "opting out" in itself does not advance the ball. Stay-at-home moms can certainly advance the ball in other respects -- supporting reproductive rights, getting involved in their communities, and passing on feminist values to their kids. I think talking more honestly and more practically with ambitious daughters of the next generation is a biggie, in fact.
What about other criticisms of Hirshman's article?
1) Aren't there other ways to have an impact in the world besides conventional "success?" Well, yeah. Personally, if I had a lick of artistic talent, I would drop all this law crap and become a writer or a musician. Not everyone has to be a corporate drone or a politician or a wonk. But the point is that Congress and the media and the judiciary and big business have a pretty darned big impact and they are overwhelmingly male dominated. What is happening to those women who would be senators or newspaper editors but for overwhelming pressures to do otherwise? We need to address this question and address it honestly.
2) Isn't this article awfully "elitist"? What about the concerns of women in poverty or women in other parts of the globe? Look, Hirshman is not saying, "Ignore the issues faced by women who are not part of the elite." Nor is she saying that solving the gender disparity among the power elite is the be-all and end-all of feminism. She named one particular feminist issue and she tackled it.
3) Why do we care about infilitrating a power structure that was created by men for men on male terms? Because it's all we got. Unless we are actually going to revolt like the Bolsheviks and create a new society wholecloth, this IS the power structure that runs our society.
4) Is parity in the elite corridors of power important? Um, I think most feminists believe it is important to have more women in the upper echelons of the power elite. Certainly, it is good for us, women like me, who have chosen the traditional male career track, because it means I am less likely to be stigmatized by the assumption that I am not as committed as my male colleagues to that career track. But, more importantly, as Hirshman points out, an overwhelmingly male ruling elite is more likely to be oblivious or indifferent to the issues that affect the female half of the population. This is a piece of her argument that I intuitively believe to be true but that I would love to see fleshed out more. I am hoping to learn more in Hirshman's new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, which I hope to read over the Fourth of July weekend.