There was quite the hullaballoo in the feminist blogosphere last November over this article by Linda Hirshman in The American Prospect. The following is my summary of how I understand Hirshman's article:
1. Women are opting out in significant numbers from the opportunity to reach the most powerful and influential positions in our society.
-- Elite American women (i.e the most privileged and best educated women) are indeed in significant numbers opting out of the opportunity to reach the most powerful and influential positions in our society (such as senator, congressman, Fortune 500 CEO, judge, law firm partner, etc.). Women in this class frequently are abandoning their careers altogether, taking a significant number of years off, or working part-time for a number of years. Hirshman supports this contention with an impressive array of studies and statistics (although I would have to question her decision to focus on a group of brides from the New York Times Sunday Styles section, since I would assume these women would be a somewhat traditonalist-minded group by definition if they care enough about their social status as brides that they get themselves listed in Sunday Styles). Because of the time-intensive dedication it takes to reach these powerful positions, women who take years off or work part-time aren't going to reach those heights.
CAVEAT: As Hirshman herself notes, this does NOT mean that prejudice and discrimination don't still exist. So this "opting out" is not a basis for simply throwing up one's hands and saying, "See? We don't need to worry about workplace discrimination." But that's NOT what this post is about.
2. The primary problem, which makes a farce of "choice" feminism, is the overwhelmingly pervasive and powerful cultural assumption that women are the primary careetakers of home and family.
-- The glass ceiling women are butting up against is most hard to break not in the workplace but in the family. Women are severely constrained by the overwhelming cultural assumption that homecare and childcare is the woman's responsibility. It is pretty much impossible to put in 12-14 hour days at the law firm if you are the primary caretaker of a small child. Yet, even in progressive circles, it is often simply assumed that the woman is to be the primary caretaker. Therefore, in a sense, the notion that a woman has voluntarily chosen to opt out is a myth because she made that choice in a culture which assigned the primary child and homecare responsibilities to her. "Choice" feminism is therefore a cop-out because it fails to address the grim reality that the circumstances in which women make their choices are different than for men and, to a large extent, socially constructed.
3. There are concrete steps we can teach ambitious young women to help them escape the false choice of "be primary caretaker of home and family AND super career woman" versus "be primary caretaker of home and family without being a super career woman."
-- A solution (assuming we want more women in traditionally powerful positions) is to give young women concrete guidance as to how to get there. It is one thing to say vaguely, "Women can do anything!" and quite another to explain how a woman can compete effectively in a society which places on her an unequal share of the burden of home and family responsibilities. Concrete steps ambitious young women can take are:
1) "Prepare yourself to qualify for good work."
2) "Treat work seriously." One problem is that women are often taught -- vaguely again-- that the work is supposed to be about "self-fulfillment." Men on the other hand view work as a necessity, a requirement for providing for one's family. This is a problem because if you think that work is just supposed to be meaningful and fulfilling all the time, well, then, you're going to be in for a rude awakening and "opting out" of the workplace might seem more appealing. As Hirshman says, the path to really getting into a position to change things often involves the mundane, the small, and the dirty business of making money. She quotes one woman who thought it was strange that her former male colleagues got so excited about making deals because "it's only money." But, you know, money makes the world go round.
3) "Don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources if you marry." The big, big problem is that if you marry a man who is your age and at your educational level, then you are in a position of unequal resources because every expectation in our culture supports the notion that the man's career is more important than the woman's and that the woman has the primary responsibility to tend the home fires. Unless you marry a guy who is extraordinarily progressive, you're going to have an uphill battle protecting your career interests when it comes time to make tough choices about balancing work and family. It seems the best options are to marry someone much younger, someone much less educated, someone much less ambitious, or perhaps someone much older who is already established and can afford to take time off himself because he has done his thing already.
Hirshman also advises having no more than one child.
4. It is important to have more women among the power elite because what the power elite does affects all of us.
A) If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, they will likely exercise their power based on obliviousness or indifference to women's interests.
B) Even ambitious woman will be tarnished by the knowledge that she is not likely to become a ruler. This affects how people treat her (i.e. based on the assumption that she is not going to go all the way) and her own confidence. The lack of women in the power elite thereby becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
C) People imitate what occurs among the ruling elite.
D) Opting out is bad for the individual women who do it because they deprive themselves of the opportunity for full human "fluorishing." Uh, as I will explain in my next post, I think this point is where Hirshman goes off the rails. This is also where she really pisses people off. But I think it would be unfortunate, as I will explain in my next post, to ignore Hirshman's larger point because she was rude to stay-at-home-mothers-- her larger point being, that IF we want more women in power, we MUST address the forces and pressures that cause women to not seek power.