Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hirshman vs. Parents

Linda Hirshman is gaining more publicity, this time in the progressive media: in The Progressive, Ruth Connif takes her ideas apart and doesn't bother to put them back together again; in AlterNet, readers do the job. All the hostility naturally makes me want to give Hirshman a second look: are her ideas really so terrible? I gave it some thought.

But I'm afraid that the answer is still a big, fat YES. What's good about Hirshman is what was good about second-wave feminism. She calls for smart, talented women to resist to the pre-ordained role of the housewife and use their intelligence and skills to make a difference in the world. "You can't have an equal, just and fair workplace and a gendered family," says Hirshman. I agree; I'm all for de-gendering the family.

Hirshman says she wants to start a social conversation about women and work - also fine and good - but unfortunately she doesn't do much to bring the conversation to the next level. She's still stuck in the second wave, and doesn't see how men have changed and are changing as a result of the feminist movement. "What about those who say raising children is the most important job a person can do?" asks the AlterNet interviewer. "I have no idea what they mean by that," replies Hirshman. "If, in fact, it were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it? They'd rather make war, make foreign policy, invent nuclear weapons, decode DNA, paint The Last Supper, put the dome on St. Peter's Cathedral; they'd prefer to do all those things that are much less important than raising babies?"

First, as documented here and elsewhere, more men are "doing it" - the advances of second-wave feminism made it possible for more and more men to become caregivers. Wasn't that one of the goals? Second, for forty years many men have been explicitly rejecting the destructive empire-building roles Hirshman identifies as more desirable (making war, nuclear weapons, etc.) than raising children. (There's also considerable psychological, medical, and sociological evidence that focusing on work and neglecting family leads to profound unhappiness and health ills such as high blood pressure, but that's a point to be made at another time.)

Most perilously, I think the very existence of Hirshman's obtusely and arrogantly rendered argument drives a needless wedge between people who should be allies. Recently I've been reading and thinking about the political competition between Red States and Blue States (as part of a project for Political Research Associates), which is more accurately characterized as a rural vs. urban split. In his new book Welcome to the Homeland, public radio reporter Brian Mann cites example after example of "homelanders" (as he calls rural conservatives) who vote Republican because they feel scorned by the intellectuals and city folk whom they see as dominating the Democratic Party. "There's nobody there that I can relate to," says Mann's brother Allen, a homelander.

Mann's numbers, mostly from the 2004 election, are chilling: they show that Republicans have almost completely lost the cities and Democrats have mostly lost the country. The American political mix (e.g., the structure of the electoral college and the Senate, etc.) has given Republicans an edge in recent decades, but it's a precarious edge. Their small towns are in demographic and economic decline, while the cities keep growing stronger. Politically and culturally, we really and truly are becoming two nations, divisible and alien to each other. Though city folk are losing most of the national battles at the moment, in the long run we stand to win the war. Homelanders can sense that their way of life is dying; their fantasies of persecution do have some basis in reality.

Sure, to a degree homelanders have brought it on themselves. In a global society, fear of immigrants and foreign ways is an economic and cultural liability. In a knowledge-based economy, distrust of education and the scientific method is economic death. Homelanders are fighting Darwin in the classroom, but for their own sake they should be reading him. "It's not the strongest of species that survive," Darwin writes, "nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change."

Sometimes when I think about this I feel galvanized; I want my side to "win" and I want the rubes to "lose" (yes, I'm angry, too). In more reflective moments, I just get depressed and I wonder what kind of country Liko is going to live in when he's my age: it can't be good for a culture and an economy to be split so severely and thrown so far out of balance.

That's why Hirshman's relentless scorn for childrearing, which is so inescapable and important to so many people, troubles me. I'm in favor of fighting when fighting is the only option: we can't afford to compromise with homelanders on issues of human and civil rights (I'm thinking of gay marriage, abortion, and the use of torture, in particular). But does it follow that we have to sneer at everything they stand for? We shouldn't be wasting time telling potential allies in the homeland that it's "stupid" to focus on raising children instead of making money.

From where I stand, our children and the experience of parenthood might be all that we have in common. It is, at least, what I have to talk about when I'm talking with someone from the homeland, and if our styles and roles differ, well, that's something we can talk about. For those of us who have freely chosen to have children, raising them is the most important job we can do; working is a part of that, but I've learned the hard way that there's more to life than work. Denigrating caregiving - as Hirshman certainly does, despite her denials - confirms the worst stereotypes of homelanders hold about selfish urban yuppies; it burns the only bridge we might have.

Perhaps it doesn't matter what Hirshman says or what I say; maybe all the good will in the world doesn't amount to a hill of beans. There are forces at work that none of us can control. But we can never know that for sure, and though there might be things happening that are bigger than any one of us, we as individuals still have ethical choices to make. I don't disagree with Hirshman because I believe (quoting from her interview) "that women's lives aren't important enough to merit a real analysis." I disagree with her because her message is completely at odds with my experience.

OK, that's the last thing I have to say about Hirshman.


Unknown said...

I'm a parent, so's my wife. We love our little girl, Violet. We each take a day off each week to be with her and take care of her. We love our family time. She's the greatest.

But with all due respect to my little angel, raising Violet is not the most important job in the world. It's not anywhere near the most important job I could be doing. Raising Violet is not social change work. It's raising a kid--actually, it's raising MY kid. Important (particularly to Violet), but not revolutionary. Not even, I would argue, of much good to anyone else except the three of us. Although I love her so, the world in no way NEEDS Violet. I wanted her.

Hirshman isn't talking about everyone in America. She's talking about the rarified few who actually have access to the series of choices and opportunities that allow them to get into law school, become lawyers, and then just throw the whole thing out to raise their children. She's speaking to a refined few (of which I'm one), but we're the ones who need speaking to (most parents don't have any choice about working or not, so it's not an issue for them).

I think it is at least intellectually dishonest to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking up America's higher education resources (law school, medical school, etc) and then deciding to just stay home and raise your own children.

Each of us has a responsibility to society, not just our own children. If you don't want to take up the responsibility, that's fine, but get out of the way of those who do and stop sucking up all the opportunities to make the world a better place for those unfortunate enough to not be your children. It's an unbelievable waste, if you ask me, and anyone who would argue against that is coming from a place where opportunity is perhaps a little too abundant.

Most people would die for the chance to advance themselves through post secondary and professional training. When someone "takes a spot" just to drop out a few years later, it's spitting in the face of the unprecedented opportunity that person has been given.

Look, let's say it's fine to decide that maybe being a lawyer is not what you wanted to do (although one could certainly have figured that out in ways taht did not involve three years of school and a coup,e years of work). It may even be OK to say that you love raising your kids (it's not raising "kids" or child care centers would be filled with ex-lawyers). But don't expect anyone to let you off the hook. I believe it's something you have to answer for. Like spending your lottery money on a couple lambourghinis: people get to look askance at first.

The second wave is far from dead. Simple everyday parity and equity advancement for women is the highest feminist priority in my eyes. Maybe the major disconnect between city folks and so-called "homelanders" is that city folks all think America's post-feminist. It's freakin' not.

Chip said...

Justin, actually the most important thing IS raising your kid. The world and our society DOES need Violet.

One of the unfortunate parts of this whole "mommy wars" thing is that it misses the fact that peoples' lives are complex, and our priorities change over time.

Yes, we need activists committed to change our society. But those same activists are also needed by our society to devote part of their lives to raising their children, for the sake of their children as well as for the sake of society.

Just because someone takes five or six years out of their life to devote to raising their kid does not make them not an activist, does not mean they are not working for social change, does not mean they are not doing revolutionary things. In fact I have found that one of the most revolutionary things I can do in my everyday life is exactly to raise my kids.

When they were little, we spent much more of our time on them and less on our jobs. Now that they are older, the balance is shifting.

I also strongly disagree with the way you are portraying higher education as a good to be consumed. When I was at home full time with my daughter I certainly did not feel like I was "wasting" my graduate education, in part because I see that education not as just a "tool" to help me on the job market, but as a way to learn about myself and the world. Maybe I'm old-fashioned in that way, but I really believe that people who take time off to raise their kids, and feel like they are "wasting" their education, miss the whole point of education...

So I do not think it's intellectuallay dishonest at all to "take up" higher ed resources and then stay home to raise your own kids, in part because of what I've just written. But also in part because staying home to raise kids is one phase of someone's life. As Miriam Peskowitz has shown in her book, people go in and out of the labor force. It is the rare mom who doesn't work at all.

Finally, I'd just point you to my own critique of Hirshman, posted a few months ago here on DD: Hirshman's "feminism" as masculinist ideology

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Justin: I hear what you're saying, on all points. Unfortunately, I can't write a lot at the moment (my family is in Reno, NV - near the homeland, if not of it! - preparing to go on a week-long camping trip).


On one hand, I agree that raising your kid isn't social change work, exactly, and I can understand resisting the intrusion of politics into parenting. On the other hand, at this point in my life I can't think of any better way to influence society in a positive way than to raise my kid right, according to my values. (Once he grows up, he can do whatever he wants with my values.) A parent's life is political, whether we want it to be or not; there are ways of raising kids that are in fact revolutionary. Parents revolutionize society all the time, through an accumulation of their individual choices, consciously or thoughtlessly.

I absolutely agree that we should use whatever gifts and privileges we get in life to give back and do whatever we can to keep the world running and getting better. I just think parenting is a legitimate use of those gifts and privileges. In any event, the way it works in reality (at least among my friends and neighbors and colleagues, who are mostly members of the talented tenth) is that the caregiver takes, at most, a couple of years off - is two or three years spent focusing on your kid time misspent, from a personal, political, social, or even economic perspective? In my opinion, no - it's the best possible use of everybody's time and resources. Even scaling back to part-time for up to five years (until they reach school-age) isn't necessarily death to a career or to a person's maximum contribution to society. It depends on a lot of factors, too many to list here. I don't know anybody who has thrown away a career over parenthood (though I know such people exist), but I have met lots of people who have changed course and were happier for it. Count me among them; I would argue that taking the time to stay home with Liko (this week I started a new job, more on that later), dramatically enhanced the contribution I can make. I'm a better, more sensitive and thoughtful writer, and I think that I'll be a better manager of people. I'm also a better dad and husband, but that's not the issue here.

It occurs to me that what really pisses me off about Hirshman is that she seems to be trying to make people, women in particular, feel guilty about such choices - like, oh, you're letting down society and feminism and the economy, get to work! I say, enough with the guilt, already. We get enough of that from our in-laws (uh, not you, Wayne and Pat...) and in this case, it's pointless ideological guilt.

Lastly, I agree that the work of the second wave is not yet finished; there's nothing in my post that says otherwise. But the terrain has changed; people who fail to respond to the change are doomed to irrelevance.

Unknown said...

Well said, Chip. I don't disagree with much of what you wrote. I guess the strength of my feelings comes from this very severe backlash against Hirshman. It seems to me that it comes from some post-feminist perspective, which is not the reality for the overwhelming majority of Americans. While East Bay yuppies like me may actually be trying to convince people that men are more involved in childrearing with a straight face, the numbers simply do not bear the truth of this out.

As I've said before, there are 7 times more Wiccans in the US than stay at home dads. To say that we're somehow beyond this second wave stuff, that we shouldn't be concerned about women's workforce participation, their actual opportunities and career realities, and their actual homelives is abandoning at least half of the mission of feminism. I really think it's still more important to have more than 14 women Senators than it is to convince people that every single choice they make in their lives is empowering and meaningful.

It seems there's a line of reasoning here that says that equal pay for equal work and equal workforce participation and social and economic parity for women are somehow "masculinist" goals. I'm sure there are plenty of Christian conservatives out there who also agree that raising children is just the most important thing a woman can do. Hirshman's kicking some butts and telling people to get back to work is a welcome reminder to all of us that there is still much, much work to be done before we all curl up with our lattes in our post-feminist enclaves.

We still have a responsibility to strive for parity, in tandem with the admittedly long-term goal of changing the entire society's beliefs about women. I believe we still must encourage and support women in attaining high-profile, high-power positions in our society today, which, unfortunately currently, does not truly allow for the type of 5-year drop-out that many anti-Hirshmanites believe is somehow really doable.

I don't have a problem with men dropping out to raise their kids. I think they should, if only to get some sort of sense of what happens to women (squared!) when they do so. It's also a lot of fun. But we cannot simply WILL some sort of equality by doing so.

Unknown said...


Thank you for your thoughtful response. I basically outlined my anti-anti-Hirshman reasoning in the post above.

I want to clarify that I believe parenting is very important. I try my hardest with my little Violet P and we have a good old time together. I know she loves me and appreciates what I do for her. But I just don't understand why parenting cannot just be important; it needs to be "the most important job in the world" or the "best use" of people's skills. Again: I love parenting and think it's important, but I don't think we need to swallow the right wing line that family is the most important and enriching thing we can do.

I mean, isn't it more than just a coincidence that we in the male Talented Tenth, with opportunities and advantages galor, just happen to engage in "the most important work in the world" and it just so happens to be the extremely pleasant activity of raising our own children? I mean, who's cashing in on privledge and who's making the revolution?

To repeat what Hirshman says: if raising kids is so great, why are so few men doing it? To paraphrase and expand on her: if raising kids is so great for the Talented Tenth, why do so few raise any children other than their own?

I'm not saying that parenting your kids right is unimportant. But, again, it's not revolution--just like buying a Prius is not revolution, either.

And, yes, I have one.