Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hirshman's "feminism" as masculinist ideology

Being a feminist dad can be a challenge sometimes.

Let me start by saying I know there are lots of kinds of feminism out there. But feminism is important to me in part because it opens the door for guys to escape the gender straitjacket that we've often been forced into in the past. To do so we have to question and reject the masculinist ideology we've been imbued with. It's hard, but I believe well worth it.

This brings me to writer Linda Hirschman's arguments, aired over the past several months in the American Prospect and the Washington Post (see this post at Half Changed World for details).

Hirshman is angry at well-educated women who become stay at home moms. Here are her main points, in her own words, from a recent WaPost column:

... women who quit their jobs to stay home with their children were making a mistake. ... I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings. They do not require a great intellect, they are not honored and they do not involve risks and the rewards that risk brings.

With these arguments, Hirshman is reinforcing what I call masculinist ideology of the worst kind.

First, I think it's obvious to everyone that equality of opportunity for women has been an important goal of the feminist movement from the earliest days. But in my view, that's not enough.

What's necessary is to actually change the values of our society.

Currently those values are masculinist. That is, our society values traditional masculine-defined measures of success -- power, money, competition, control -- while it devalues things that are traditionally associated with the feminine -- caring, nurturing, relationships, nonmaterial values -- which are also all crucial to the process of raising children. The lack of balance between the two makes for an unhealthy society.

Hirshman is reinforcing the skew towards masculinist values in our society, rather than trying to shift those values. Her perspective is that of a person who has all the advantages that make for success in a masculinist world -- with the sole exception of being a female.

Hirshman is arguing that women who are wealthy and educated and class privileged should be doing exactly what men in the same position do: dominate society, and be rewarded for their domination. For her it's the only rational thing to do.

And she's angry that some intelligent, educated people disagree with her masculinist priorities. She's angry that lives don't play out in the black and white way she thinks they should, that, as Miriam Peskowitz points out in her own excellent book, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, moms' lives are complex, women go into and out of the workforce, work part time or full time, that they change over time in response to their own priorities and needs.

According to Hirshman's reasoning, I was insane to stay at home full time with my daughter, given my graduate degree from a top university, and my potential earning power. I was crazy to downsize my career ambitions, to forego higher pay and higher status, just so I could spend time with my kids.

Well, I know she doesn't really care what I do, since I'm a guy, but that's what she's saying.

But my wife -- very much a feminist -- who quit a corporate career exactly because it required the performance and internalization of masculinist ideology, because she wanted to have a full life more than she wanted to earn a six figure salary or move up the corporate hierarchy and exercise dominance over underlings, because she wanted to spend time with her kids while they were little, because she re-careered into a traditionally female job (teacher) -- Hirshman I'm sure would condemn her to the deepest pits of "feminist" hell.

Is money important? Is a challenging job important? Yes. But just as important are our kids. Hirshman just doesn't get it.

Hirshman continues:
the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing [are] not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings
I have to admit that this was one of the most offensive parts of her argument for me.

Think about what she's saying here.

Firstly, spending time raising my children is not a worthy goal.

Secondly, she is dissing those people who actually do those tasks -- and I think she misses the fact that though related, housekeeping and child rearing are two distinct activities that are very different in their importance. She is relegating people, men and women, who don't have the class privilege or personalities or skills to climb to the top of the class ladder, those people who from choice or necessity do those jobs, to the bottom of the heap, dismissing their contributions to society as second-rate at best.

Third, and I think most damningly, she totally negates the value of caring. She dismisses the value of spending time with children as they grow, the wonder of actively participating in their development. And that is tragic.

As a guy I'll say very clearly, I would not trade my time with my kids for the best job with the highest pay in the world. Those hours were more fulfilling and enriching to me than the best novel I've read or the most lucrative account I've ever managed. I feel sorry for Hirshman that she doesn't understand this.

This is all quite ironic given this complaint of Hirshman's:

Oh, and by the way, where were the dads when all this household labor was being distributed? Maybe the thickest glass ceiling, I wrote, is at home.

She is right about this. But by reinforcing masculinist ideology rather than trying to change society and its values, Hirshman reinforces this glass ceiling.

How many guys are going to want to take the time and energy away from being "successful" in Hirshman's terms, when Hirshman herself is devaluing what happens at home? When Hirshman is basically confirming these guys' view that housework and childcare are not worthy pursuits for intelligent, educated humans?

What will change things? The kinds of discussions we are seeing among dads, especially stay at home dads, who have grappled with what Jeremy calls the dialectics of dad-hood. The kinds of shift in values that leads guys to actually want to stay at home with their kids, to downsize career and status expectations in order to have relationships with their children.

In short, the only way forward is to reject Hirshman's masculinist feminism and reorient ourselves to a feminism of humanity, which recognizes the importance of a balance, not just of material achievement but also of nurturing, not just of dominating but also of caring.

Because only by making nurturing and caring into priorities, by privileging them over the pursuit of power, domination and money, will we truly be able to achieve the humanist goals of the feminist movement.

Cross posted at Daddychip2


Anonymous said...

Right on!

It's great to hear from a guy on this; in some ways it's a perfect refutation of Hirshman.

Anonymous said...

OUTSTANDING post on this subject. I have been following this issue with a sort of morbid curiosity, as I am 45 yrs old, female, never married, and always worked! Despite this, Ms. Hirshman manages to offend even ME with her "let's return to the bad old days of working for the man". If you take her argument along its logical path - we end up in the 1800's, with a kind of "Upstairs, Downstairs" kind of culture, where those with mere AA or BA degrees, or NO degree, are wiping the asses of the elite because to wipe the shit off of one's own ass is simply beneath those with an elite education.

Ms. Hirshman is a kind of 1950's "Company Man" in drag!

daddy in a strange land said...

Been reading this blog for a few months (via SeeLight), great, important stuff, before and after the move to a group blog.

This is was a cogent, intelligent, heartfelt response to Hirshman, and way better than what I tried to say earlier today in the comments on this post:

So after I read yours, I linked to you. :)

(BTW, my ID tag links to my solo SAHDblog, but I'm also part of the Rice Daddies collective at fyi.)

Thank you!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

This is beautiful, Chip. I hadn't heard the phrase "masculinist society" before but it's quite apt, esp. for refuting Hirshman.

My husband and I gave up all the things Hirshman lauds in order to live a fuller life in a small-ish town in Oregon. It had partly to do with the kids but was more about, you know, *living* instead of succeeding. I have always resented her stuff not as a feminist but as a human being trying to live a complete life, in which worldly success is but one component.

Chip said...

Jane, Thanks! And I wrote this because Hirshman offended me as a feminist guy!

April, Thanks, and you're exactly right about the logical path. It seems hard to believe that Hirshman is so clueless about class issues, but that's what it seems; otherwise she is just out and out classist.

Daddy in strange land, thanks for the link at your blog. I appreciate your comments, I'll check out your post, since unfortunately I've come to enjoy reading various critiques of Hirshman.

Jennifer, actually we're with you on this. I play up the kids part, because she focuses so much on denigrating exactly that, but we too moved out of the city to a simpler, fuller life. I love your point about living rather than "succeeding".

Lumpyheadsmom said...

This really is a fantastic, well-thought response to Hirshman. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU. I've had a hard time articulating why Linda Hirshman bothers me so without inadvertently reinforcing her argument. I don't like that she never questions the values of the American workplace and equates women's empowerment with class power. I also dislike the way she tears into people personally, with ad hominem (or is it ad feminam?) attacks on those who disagree with her civilly (such as Miriam Peskowitz). She's like the Ann Coulter of the left.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"My husband and I gave up all the things Hirshman lauds in order to live a fuller life in a small-ish town in Oregon. It had partly to do with the kids but was more about, you know, *living* instead of succeeding..."

Very nicely put. This has become THE issue in my life since my son was born. I've thought about blogging on it, and have in coded, policy-oriented ways, but since I have so little personal clarity I've so far just stewed in private.

In my past life I was a professional leftist and nonprofit executive, not a corporate drone, but in many ways the demands were the same and my life was no different from anyone else who lives for work. For the first year after Liko was born I felt so torn, as everything I worked and hoped for seemed suddenly less important and my priorities shifted.

Big changes have happened, but I still cling to my work and work identity and to San Francisco, the second most expensive city in the country. I can't seem to entirely put my ambitions aside, and the pressure to make money is relentless. We hold it at bay, but our financial future haunts me at night.

Well, as I said, no solutions here. Just trying to figure it out and work through a process. Hirshman is no help at all!

Chip said...

thanks Lumpyheadsmom!

marrit, yeah, the way she repeatedly and so disingenuously attacks and has attacked Miriam, and Miriam's own experiences of her, really do not lead me to trust Hirshman as a person. But in this essay I stuck to the ideas she's been peddling. I do thing, however, that her refusal to engage on the actual ideas, and her resort to ad hominem attacks is an indication that she knows how weak her position actually is.

Jeremy, I don't think the issue is that everyone should just quit their jobs or abandon ambitions. The issue is that we need to accept that there are values that are important to us that don't fall under the traditional standards of "success." So ambition, but also caring. Different people will come up with different balances. My problem with Hirshman is her attacks and ridicule of people who seek their own balance, because they don't buy 100% into Hirshman's masculinist and classist visions. And as you point out, Hirshman doesn't get us anywhere productive in our attempts to deal with the issues of real life.

Anonymous said...


I don't like that she never questions the values of the American workplace and equates women's empowerment with class power.... She's like the Ann Coulter of the left.

The classist nature and support of corporate world value as is would seem to negate any left leaning credits she may posess IMO.

Chip said...

Helen, I don't think she's really on the left, given her privileging of elitist views on status, etc. as well as the reason you point to. To be fair though I don't think she's anywhere near as evil as A.C. either; she has not yet called for the extermination of those who disagree with her politically, nor for any government officials. She does unfortunately mirror some of the less violent intolerance that is seen on the right.

Mom101 said...

This is outstanding. Truly. You said it as I would only a million times better, because I'm not always so articulate when I'm shaking with rage.

I wonder why it is that she only sees value in paid work. I suppose she also thinks that the more you're paid, the more valuable you are.

Chip said...

thanks mom101. Yeah, it really p'd me off too, and her stuff has been doing that for a while. I finally decided to sit down and write about why. And I think you are right, she only values work that is paid, reflecting of course the masculinist value hierarchy!

Anonymous said...

daddy in a strange land sent me over here. what a great response! I wondered in my comment to the Blogging Baby post about her new work about where the SAHD's fall in her theories, and it's great to hear from one.

I wrote a response to her on my and my husband's blog too, but I just got all up and angry - your response is so much more thoughtful. I wish Hirshman would read it. =P

Chip said...

Thanks Nina.

BTW, for anyone interested in more discussion of this post, over at my blog Daddychip2 there are more comments on this post, be sure to check them out!

Chip said...

averagedrinker, I don't think there's actually any "essence" of being a man or woman. What I do believe however is that for both moms and dads, taking care of our kids, spending time with them especially when they are little, has value in and of itself.

I understand that for some people, both men and women, their careers are going to be their priorities. That's fine. But I think that we need to accept that for many of us, activities such as caring, which is not valued in our society, which are in fact de-valued, actually have real value and meaning for people.

The problem with Hirshman is that she buys into the wider society's single focus on "success" in material terms, and very much denigrates caring. As a father and a guy, I have a problem with that. Because she in effect, despite claims to the contrary, wants to trap us, guys included, into the existing highly competitive structures that don't value caring.

k8 said...

i sort of want to frame this post and present it to potential fathers of my someday children. If they get it, they can proceed to the next level, if not NEXT.

Which is to say-brilliant! and Thank You! I am very much a feminist but I have no interest in turning into a power hungry corporate robot thank you very much.

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Celia said...

Hi there! Found you by way of Blue Milk and I absolutely agree with you. I think that -- beyond feminism -- Hirshman's argument is bad for the environment and our collective future. If "caring" is bad and we need to work, work, work and grow, grow, grow, it seems sustainability isn't given much thought.

I'm new here, but given what I've seen so far on wealth, work, and life, I was reminded of this video: