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.