Hirshman’s Rules

The blogosphere (or at least the corner of it where I hang out) is lighting up over the American Prospect piece by Linda Hirshman where she argues that the "Opt-Out Revolution" among elite women is real and that we should care about it "because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times."  I found the article incredibly irritating and off-base, even though Hirshman cites one of my favorite books about work-family choices, Kidding Ourselves.

Let’s look at Hirshman’s claims in order.  She says that staying home is bad for the women who do it because:

"Finally, these choices are bad for women individually. A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world."

I think "classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way" is Hirshman’s convoluted version of the discussion we had here a few weeks ago about whether SAHPing is compatible with an intellectual life.  I’ve said all I had to say on the topic then, but I will note that even Amy, who never backed down from her original position that it’s not, agreed that not all paid employment is compatible with an intellectual life either.

I agree that "having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life" is important.  I think that Hirshman is right that women often make choices that make sense at the time, but that cut off future options and reduce their bargaining power in the process.  But I think that Hirshman is wildly off base in interpreting "autonomy" solely in terms of increased earnings capacity.  She’s equally scornful of women who choose "indentured servitude in social-service jobs" as she is of stay-at-home moms, assuming that this makes them less autonomous than the big firm lawyer working 80 hours a week at a job he hates.  (Ironically, at the same time that Hirshman is saying that feminism failed by not making women more career-minded, David Gelernter is whining that feminism is the reason his students are excessively career focused.)

As far as "doing more good than harm in the world," this could score as a point in either direction.  Hirshman makes no case for why she thinks this is an argument against at-home parenting.

Turning to "bad for society," Hirshman writes:

"As for society, elites supply the labor for the decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference. "

I agree with this, more or less.  BUT, I think it’s true precisely because women often have different life experiences than the men who are making decisions.  To the extent that women can only become part of the decision-making class by being what Joan Williams calls the "ideal worker" — fully available, without household responsibilities — they will tend have the same perspective that the men do. 

My fundamental issue with Hirshman is that she assumes that there’s essentially only two options — full-time continuous commitment to the labor force in a job that pays as much as possible — and anything else, including at-home parenting, part-time work, and any job that pays less than the maximum wage the worker could conceivably get.  And instead of arguing for more and better options — meaningful part-time work, on-ramps as well as off-ramps — she hands women a list of cookie-cutter rules to follow.  Hirshman dismisses those better options as "utopian dreams" but when Fortune magazine has a cover story on work/life balance — one not framed as a women’s issue moreover — maybe they’re not so utopian.

18 Responses to “Hirshman’s Rules”

  1. jackie Says:

    My favorite of her rules was that women should stop majoring in liberal arts fields and also stop working in nonprofits or carework. I think that flunking my way through the physical and social sciences would definitely make me a better person. and feminist. and mother. and citizen.
    I also liked the rule about having only one kid.
    “liked” and “favorite” are, of course, meant in a make-my-blood-boil kind of way!

  2. CGG Says:

    Hirshman’s op-ed was provocative, but I’m not sure that I even agree with her premise. There’s more to life and feminism than earning power, or at least there should be.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    Thanks for the Fortune magazine link. I found it inspiring (but depressing in that 80 hour weeks are apparently now normal).
    Hirshman’s piece – well I do agree, up to a point, with her separation of the public/private sphere, and the progress made in each. Even at the beginning of our careers, when there were no children to worry about, most of my friends had unequal (i.e. the woman did more) divisions of domestic labour when there was no reason for it. But most of the women were earning more money than their male partners.
    But the answer isn’t for each side to start a war of attrition to avoid doing anything around the home and spend as much time at work as possible. It’s, as you say, for the workplace to change in ways that make it possible to have a life, as well as a fulfilling career.

  4. Ann Bartow Says:

    Meanwhile, Hirshman is an academic – not exactly an income producing profession! Plus she is listed as a retired “visiting” professor, which may mean she opted off the tenure track, meaning she hasn’t followed her own proscriptions very well. Ordinarily I might refrain from trhis sort of personal criticism, but as she says, it’s a data point, right?

  5. jen Says:

    The part of all this that I find most troubling is the incessant focus on money, money, money. The Hirshman line of reasoning basically states that anything not generating cash is not worth doing. I perceive this as very American; we don’t seem to value things unless the market values them.
    I wonder how she would feel about parenting/caregiving if, for example, you got Social Security or tax credit for it? Or a state-sponsored stipend, as at-home parents receive in some portions of Europe?

  6. jen Says:

    Sorry for double posting but I just read the Fortune article you referenced. That article more than anything gives me reason for optimism.
    Although I can’t help but notice that it’s the broad-scale equivalent of that old workplace phenomenon: woman mentions something in meeting and is ignored, man repeats comment and is hailed as a genius. They even point-blank say in the article “Women have been complaining about this for years.” But now that men are also suffering it’s suddenly front-page material?
    Still, though, it’s a big step forward.

  7. dave s Says:

    I looked at the Fortune article – interesting, and I hope it describes a trend, but I think there are some severe limits to what you can do and be competitive. In our house, my wife is an expert in a field of law, and works 60-70 hours/week, lot of weekend work. Part of this is in working for people who want what she knows, part is in maintaining her expertise. She’s a reasonably efficient person, and I don’t think she could do what she does with a lot less time. Here’s an interesting article on ‘being an expert’ – http://www.leggmason.com/funds/knowledge/mauboussin/Are_you_an_expert.pdf She likes being an expert, the work she gets to do is interesting.
    We have three young kids, and the way we can do it is that I work a 40-hour-a-week job, and can dependably be home to relieve the babysitter and take them to their soccer games on weekends.
    I think that any conceivable ‘realignment of work/life balance’ on her part would result in some other firm being able to market itself as more expert in what she does. So we are in some ways a gender reversal of what Hirshman (who I think is a jerk, and who does not take into account that people can choose ‘lesser’ careers and still be valuable to themselves, their families, and their society) is talking about. There are some careers which take a lot of time, at which you won’t be very good unless you put in the time, and if people with that kind of career are going to be parents it has to be enabled by the other parent working a job which makes less time demand. Those careers can be held by men or by women.

  8. bj Says:

    I liked this article because it emphasizes three things I find frustrating about the “opt out phenomenon.” The first is the role of family choices, opting out because your unwilling to demand more of your spouse. The second is the long-term consequence of opting out. What are the women who opt out going to do when their children are grown? Is divorce gone? The third is the impact opting out has on society and others choices. I’m a research scientist. When my male colleagues spouses opt out to take care of their families, it makes my job just a little bit tougher. When my female colleagues opt out to take care of their families, it makes my life a little bit tougher, because I have to balance and my colleagues don’t.
    What I think Hirschman ignores is the real voluntary choices in opting out. There are clearly women who want to be mothers first, and everything else second. And I do believe there are more women who want that first than men who want fatherhood first.

  9. Mrs. Coulter Says:

    I see you noticed the weird way in which the Gelertner piece dovetailed with Hirshman’s also. Her approach dusts those of us who don’t share *her* preferences with a heavy dose of false consciousness. How can we argue with that? Any objection we raise to her conclusions is easily dismissible on those grounds. It also assumes that we lack the intelligence or ability to divine our own preference structures. As I’ve written on my own blog, I’m not sure how the notion that we are incapable of doing so is supposed to reconcile with her notion of personal autonomy.

  10. The Republic of Heaven Says:

    Gender traitors, all of us

    Looks like I’m not the only one foaming at the mouth about this article. Check out great contributions 11D, Half-Changed World, Playground Revolution, Rebel Dad, Angry, Pregnant Lawyer, and Blogging Baby. If you know of others, let me know in the com…

  11. Ann Bartow Says:

    I linked to you too, here: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/siva/archives/002468.html

  12. chip Says:

    I think one of the most disturbing things about Hirshman’s piece is that she buys into masculinist ideology totally. That is, you only have value as a person if you are in some high powered high income high status job; anyone — especially women — who choose otherwise are betraying women as a whole.
    I personally would never want to work in any job like that, and loved being a stay at home dad. I found that time incredibly rewarding, despite the boring and nonintellectual parts of it.
    Because of that experience I actually found Hirshman’s piece to be incredibly offensive. Yes, I understand the larger points being made but the way she argued, as someone above mentioned I think, is doing what patriarchy has done forever: devalued caring, devalued work that is about relationships and helping, and denigrating women (and I suppose indirectly men) who would prefer those kinds of jobs/ situations instead of 80 hour per week corporate drone kinds of jobs.
    Miriam at Playgroudn Revolution was actually interviewed by Hirshman for this piece and she has some interesting comments on it in her post on “One Tired Mom” (near the end of that post: < http://playgroundrevolution.blogspot.com/2005/11/one-tired-mom.html>)

  13. Libby Says:

    I’m with Chip, above, on Hirshman’s masculinist (actually, I might also add capitalist) ideology, and I tried to say so on my blog. I didn’t opt out, for various reasons, and am glad that I didn’t, but it’s not because it made me the big bucks.
    I do think you and she are right, though, that it’s important to see how “choices” are often conditioned. We can think we are making free choices and still be constrained. This is not to say we are all victims of some marxian false consciousness, but to say “feminism is about choice” is not always enough. Feminism also needs to be about expanding choices so that they are free-er for all of us.

  14. amy Says:

    clarifying, tediously: I’d say _most_ paid work involves little intellectual work. They don’t pay you to sit around on your ass and think all day.
    I don’t believe in Hirshman’s kind of solidarity, btw, and when it comes down to it I bet she doesn’t either. Am deeply suspicious of people who try to tell me I’m a traitor to the 3 billion other people with vaginas. I mean if you’re going to go that far, then for God’s sake, you might as well include the other 3 billion too.

  15. Devra Says:

    Okay, so tell me why it is okay to discriminate against women, if you are a woman, and this defines one as being a “feminist”? To me feminism is a belief, not a male nor female person. Anyone can be a feminist, even my son! : )

  16. Devra Says:

    Oops, late night posting means clarification needed. What I meant to say was “Okay, so tell me why it’s okay to put down other women and how they are living, say it is because you are a woman, and then claim you are doing so because you are a true feminist? Anyone can be a feminist if they believe in the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. My husband and I are both feminists. Our sons follow in our footsteps.

  17. Mel Says:

    You said: “The problem is that if you convince the world that “being a feminist means X,” (say, climbing the corporate ladder) the vast majority of people doing Y (e.g. staying home) won’t suddenly start doing X, but will decide that it must mean that they’re not feminists.” . . . and that is probably why I have never considered myself a feminist, even though I believe in equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for education, employment, etc.

  18. sue Says:

    I only just heard about this blog, in reference to Patricia Cohen’s article about Hirschman in the NYTimes, so I apologize if I am going over tilled ground…I am a 50 y.o. college-educated woman who has been financially supported by my husband since we married, so I could both raise our kids and paint. Even so, I had to stop painting for about 10 years when I had young ones at home, because trying to do both at once was frustrating and stressful. While we are very fortunate to have been able to live on a single salary, we also consciously made the choice to do without the extra income that might have bought us more or fancier things and experiences. I think the most significant effect of the feminist movement has been the opening up of the labor market to women. But the consequence of this has led to the devaluation of most of the positions that women have moved into – for both men and women – and the concomitant need for most families to have dual-income households to support a middle-class lifestyle. And although some men have colonized the traditionally female profession of teaching, this has not brought any improvement there. Primary education was historically seen as (and continues to be) a low-paying field dominated by women. Whether or not this is related to the fact that it involves a form of child-care is open for discussion. But what has changed during my lifetime is the stereotype of who is drawn to enter the field. Back in the 1950’s teachers were largely respected members of their communities, often better-educated than most. Today, despite the influx of many bright, dedicated young people, there is a disparaging phrase;”Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. It makes sense that an intelligent person given very few options (including teaching) is more likely to become a teacher, than is one with more choices. One unfortunate result of society’s consumption-driven focus has been less-qualified teachers, under-staffed schools, and uneducated children.

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