God, all this Hirshman discussion, has my blood pressure boiling right now. Why? Because this is the very hardest stuff for women to talk about: our personal choices as to how to deal with career and family. These choices are deeply personal, they go to the core of who we are, and they are often wrenching and painful. I would submit that the angst women suffer over work-family issues is well-nigh universal (except for those women who simply accept a traditionalist lifestyle in which they accept being subordinate). But despite the fact that these choices often reflect our values and affect our self-image, the key thing, I think, is to be dead honest about what the trade offs are.
This is the thing I appreciated so very much about my wonderful homemaker mother. A shy, passive, easily dominated person who never went to college and was either a secretary and homemaker all her life, she might seem at first glance to be the farthest thing from a Hirshman feminist. But, man, my mother was brave and gutsy as all get out at NAMING the factors that had constrained and shaped her life. No matter how painful it got, she was clear-eyed about the ways in which she got the shaft because of her sex.
My mother was born in 1941 and was heavily socialized throughout her childhood to aspire to a very traditional femininity. She was raised in a devout Lutheran household that stressed the teachings of Paul, including the teachings regarding a woman's proper submissive role. In high school, despite an excellent academic record, my mother was encouraged by both guidance counselors and parents to choose home economics classes whenever given the chance for an elective. After high school, there was no thought of my mother going to college because there didn't seem to be any reason for a girl to go to college. My mother married up (my father was a Harvard educated professional), putting her at a distinct disadvantage in terms of the power balance in the family. If there was ever a disagreement, well guess what, dad was going to win because (a) he was better educated, (b) he was the breadwinner, and (c) my mother didn't have the ability to be assertive. My mother did absolutely everything related to home and child care. All my father had to do was go to work. When he got home, dinner was on the table, the bills were paid, the laundry done, the house immaculate, etc.
Now let me be clear. My mother has never taken any steps whatsoever to change her subordinate status at home and in society. I asked her once why she didn't leap on board when the women's movement broke out in full force in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her answer was that while the women's movement had her full support, she felt that it came slightly too late for her.
My mother also takes full responsibility for the choices she made (choices, of course, made within the constraints placed on women on those days). She both relished and made the most of her life as a stay-at-home mom and a homemaker. She nurtured my education, my sense of humor, my values, and my interests. She created a wonderful home. She gardened, cooked, sewed, and restored furniture, and was invariably cheerful and optimistic. Her worst error (in my opinion) was in not walking out on my father. But that would have been an awful lot to ask someone who was raised to be a wife and who could not have hoped to approximate the income that my father was able to provide both me and her. Striking out on her own with a child would have been simply too daunting.
But here is the extraordinary thing: My mother was always very clear about the sex-based injustices that had constrained her life. I would ask all sorts of obnoxious questions when I was a young kid (not because I was trying to be disrespectful but because I was worried): Aren't you humiliated not to even have your own name? Yup. By not earning an income, aren't you basically a second class citizen? Yup. Isn't it unfair that dad gets to tell you what to do? Yup.
What I loved about my mother is that she would never pussy-foot around. She never tried to pass off the obvious inequities she suffered as anything other than what they were. She didn't try to say, "Oh no, I am not a second-class citizen because I have influence." Or, "I'm a lot luckier than your Dad because I get to stay home with you." Or, "Your dad and I are a team. There's a give-and-take. We each have equal but separate roles." It was my mother who first made me see in a lightbulb-going-off-in-my-head kind of way why abortion is a key feminist issue. (In a rare bout of assertiveness, she also went off on an Opus Dei priest, who was a guest in our home, when he said a prayer at our dinner table for all the unborn "children" who were "murdered" by abortion.) She also criticized quite vocally the religion in which she was raised, her own socialization, and the educational choices towards which she was guided when she was young.
In short, the woman called things by what they are, and for that I will be eternally grateful. It would have been a lot easier for her to rationalize away the complete subordination of her position in life. It must have been horrifying for her to see the truth about how she was deprived of the tools to make her own way in the world and to view the unvarnished reality of her subordinate position to my father. But she always, always, always told me the truth, no matter how painful.
Sure, my mother could have fought. She could have taken her destiny by the horns and battled all of the expectations and constraints of her situation. But my mother's not a fighter. She is, however, a terrific feminist because she had the brass ovaries to NAME the stark realities under which she lived. Her willingness to do so gave ME the tools to lead a very different kind of life.