Litmus test feminism

One more post in response to Hirshman’s article.  (See here and here for what I’ve already written.)

Hirshman is explicitly critical of what she dubs "choice feminism."  She writes:

"Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women ‘choices.’ The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying ‘abortion,’ and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose it."

Well, what’s the alternative?  I think the opposite of "choice feminism" has to be "litmus test feminism," under which there’s a set of prescribed answers for all women.  Change your name when you get married = bad.  Stay at home with your kids = bad.  Bake apple pies = bad.

I don’t know how I’d rate — I think I’d get points because both T. and I hyphenated our last names when we married, but I might lose points because we’re married at all, and even more because we met when I was 18.  I don’t know if I gain or lose points in Hirshman’s scorecard for being in a reverse traditional family.  (Good because it reverses the usual expectations, or bad because there’s a stay at home parent who is financially dependent?  Would it be ok to be a stay-at-home mom if your partner is also female?  What if you’re independently wealthy?)  And like Bobbi Harlow, I shave my legs to the knees.

But the problem with litmus test feminism isn’t that some of us might not get gold stars.  After all, being a certified card-carrying feminist and $2 will get you a ride on the NYC subway.  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.

In a comment at Literary Mama, Hirshman gets on her high horse and writes:

"I think — and can defend the opinion — that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological,ideological, economic or any other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or in the pages of the New York Times."

I agree.  But demeaning the choices that real live women make is another means of perpetuating hierarchy.  (Hirshman also takes a ugly swipe at Miriam Peskowitz and the choices that she’s made, as well as making a bizarre crack about "the weird space the internet creates.")

The bottom line is that I think feminism is about asking questions, and yes, sometimes those questions may make people uncomfortable or even defensive.  But it’s not about telling women what their answers are supposed to be.

20 Responses to “Litmus test feminism”

  1. Andiamo Mama Says:

    5 issues more pressing than elite woman opting out

    I wish that I had the perspective of this womans work and could dismiss the recent anti-mommy media hit courtesy of Linda Hirshman but Im petty and I cant let it go. Im not even American but I feel affronted by all of this…

  2. amy Says:

    I don’t understand — maybe I’d have to read the book. But the problem doesn’t seem to me to be choices, it seems to be the way we support those choices taxwise, legally, & through respect. I’m a lousy SAHM, but why shouldn’t a woman who loves the job do it, apart from the fact that you very easily end up broke & downtrodden, the way we’ve got things set up?
    Maybe I need to read more. I just don’t get what she’s after.

  3. amy Says:

    Oh, OK. I get it now; it’s about dependence and the screwing-over that comes with it. The problem is she’s wrong. If you’re a woman, as soon as you have a kid, you’re screwed, looking at it strictly as a matter of independence. Doesn’t matter what kind of job you’ve got.
    Until that kid is grown, you’re entirely at the mercy of the nice stay-home daddy, nanny, daycare workers, legislation re daycare centers, etc. Why? Because you can’t walk away from the kid, and God help you if you try. A man can walk; people may think he’s a shit, but that won’t stop him from getting promoted, dating, marrying again, etc. A woman…imagine a woman in your office who walked away from her own kids. Voluntarily. And who’d gone on happily with her life and wasn’t fighting to get them back. Very different societal reaction. That’s not a shit; that’s a monster. Chilling, etc. I’d bet a great big pile it’d have a profound effect on her promotability & chances of remarriage. Consider too the effect on your life v. the father’s life if something happens to the kid while out of your care.
    Anyway. The point is that once you give birth to the kid, you’re in a well-nigh permanent position of weakness. Doesn’t matter what kind of job you’ve got. If other people drop the kid, you have to stop & catch that kid, or you’ll pay. Either way, you’ll pay.
    The keep-power answer is not to have kids. I think that’s too steep a price to pay in terms of one’s own development as a human being. And that’s subjective enough an issue that I don’t see how right or wrong could be persuasively argued.

  4. kim Says:

    To some extent, I can understand where Hirshman is coming from – that without a level playing field between men and women, women are making choices from among an incomplete set of options. But her solution that women need to change their choices rather than expecting society or the workplace to change the options (in respect to both men and women) seems to fall flat for me.
    As for litmus test feminism (what a great term), I think we already have a working version. Just ask anyone who calls herself a pro-life feminist. I’ve heard many feminists insist that someone cannot be considered a feminist without supporting abortion rights, although many pro-life feminists come by their views for moral and ethical reasons rather than a desire to uphold the patriarchy.

  5. jen Says:

    I continue to believe that Hirshman has some good points about the current situation, although why she chose the upper crust as representative is beyond me. (Imagine: children of incredibly wealthy people not being committed to working like a dog every day!)
    But Hirshman’s responses are inappropriate. There are so many things you can do to fight the domestic glass ceiling beyond requiring all other women to share your life choices! Like for example teaching your sons that they have as many chores as your daughters. Like encouraging all your direct reports — men and women, childless and parents — to leave work on time and balance their lives. Like not judging your women friends when their houses are filthy, or at least vowing that we won’t teach our daughters this female-specific shame.
    Perhaps we are members of a transitional generation. It doesn’t mean all is lost.

  6. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    Bravo, Elizabeth! That last paragraph especially nails it. What’s the difference between a litmus-test “feminist” telling me what to do and a fundamentalist telling me what to do? Not a damn thing. They both think that they have my best interests at heart. And they both think I’m too weak-minded to arrive at my own answers.

  7. Leggy Says:

    I just can’t figure out why its so horrible and so demeaning to stay home with your kids, if that’s what you want to do. Where’s the social ill in that? Its like she has this disdain for anything related to child-rearing and that to enjoy spending time with your kids means you are betraying the principles of feminism? Ugh, who needs that crap.

  8. EdgeWise Says:

    Not that you are doing this, but I think some Litmus tests are good. What about the women at the IWF such as Wendy McElroy? I think that hostility to advocacy for women’s rights makes a person not a feminist.

  9. amy Says:

    Leggy, she has a kid, and besides I don’t think that’s her point. Her point’s that we repeatedly screw ourselves by choosing weak positions. And she’s right. SAHM is a socially weak position. No money, no backup, no respect, no resume, no retirement, and generally no financial power to walk from a bad marriage. Nice in many ways, fulfilling in many ways, but in terms of social power, weak. (If it were stronger, we wouldn’t likely be chewing over the Kozol book. Or any of the Crittenden genre.)
    As far as the sisterhood of woman thing goes, I expect she’s alluding to the fact that if you help normalize that weakness by saying “sure, I’ll stay home,” you make things harder for the women who go against type & try to work from a position of strength. (Don’t bother trying to spin out ‘strength’ to mean moral, emotional, whatever strength; we’re talking strictly here about political, legal, and financial strength. The kind of strength you need if you want the ability to pay for comfort in your old age and the right to choose how you’ll live, how many children you’ll have, who you’ll sleep with, when & where you may work, etc.)
    I still think she’s wrong — apart from the weakness-through-children thing, I think your odds of turning a natural literary critic or preschool teacher into a killer energy trader aren’t great — but that she’s making some good points.
    Jen, compare “make boys do chores” with “make police chase deadbeat dads,” or “make courts implement Joan Williams’ family-wage idea” and you start seeing the limits of the kind of feminism-support you’re talking about. It’s nice if the boy learns to do chores, but there’s no guarantee he’ll keep doing them after he leaves your house. (Or even before he leaves your house.) Running your household like an early-20th-c. balabusta doesn’t necessarily translate to power or tangible respect for women outside the house.
    I think what it really comes down to is “Do I owe 3 billion other women my life & family?” And part of my response is, “I dunno, what’re they going to do for me when I’m in trouble?” To which the answer is “Probably nothing.” Hirshman wants us to be good feminist soldiers, but I don’t see anything about a return except pie in sky. It’s a great battle-cry for true believers, women inclined that way in the first place, and women who don’t have anyone but themselves to take care of. For everyone else, well, it looks a little expensive, and I think that’s what she’s seeing in her Times brides. Which is unfortunate for all the reasons above, but that’s the setup I see.

  10. AB Says:

    I had problems with major parts of Hirshman’s piece, but her critique of “choice feminism” wasn’t one of them. I think you’re creating a false dichotomy between choice and litmus-test feminism: there are more options than not being able to analyze and critique choices at all and demanding that all choices fit one template.
    Like, say, believing that feminist women should be willing to apply a bit of analysis to their own lives (and perhaps lives of women more generally) and come up with arguments about why they believe certain actions are progressive or not progressive. And while I might not at this point believe that being a SAHM is a more, or even equally feminist choice as being a working mother, I’d be more than willing to engage, debate, and listen to women who do think it is if the argument could move beyond, “Well, I choose this and thus it must be feminist.” The implication always seems to be that if an action was consciously chosen, and makes a woman happy, it must be a feminist (or good) choice. (If I remember correctly, Elizabeth, you wrote a wonderful review of the book on Raunch Feminism that critiqued this very line of reasoning as a defense of “feminist” actions.)
    I understand that it is a sensitive subject that makes many women defensive, because there are already so many competing voices out there telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. I think it’s tempting to take the view that because it’s hard to look at other women’s lives and judge the choices they’ve made because we can’t know their individual circumstances, that we somehow shouldn’t try to formulate what an ideal choice would be. But all that, in and of itself, does not seem to me to absolve us of the responsibility to think analytically about what we do, and more importantly, what we think we should do if we didn’t have our choices constrained by structural inequality.

  11. bitchphd Says:

    I think Amy’s right: If you’re a woman, as soon as you have a kid, you’re screwed, looking at it strictly as a matter of independence. Doesn’t matter what kind of job you’ve got. And I think that’s Hirshman’s point, and the argument against “choice” feminism. Feminism is about looking at structures and systems and the way that “choices” are proscribed. The problem with “choice feminism” is that it ends up being essentialist: any choice any woman makes is okay, as long as it’s a woman making the choice. Focusing on choice in that way undermines our ability to step back and look at broader structural problems, and it invalidates any meaningful distinction between “women” as a biological category and “feminism” as a political movement.
    There are, of course, very good reasons for women to stay home with kids, just as there are very good reasons for middle-class families to keep their kids out of underfunded public school districts. On an individual, micro-social level these choices make sense. But limiting the discussion to that micro-social level inhibits any ability to look at the political consequences of those choices on a macro-social level. If middle-class and professional families keep their kids away from underfunded schools, there is far less motivation to improve those schools (given that middle-class and professional families have more political clout than the poor), and if middle-class and professional women stay home with their children, there is far less motivation to change the work structures and economic conditions that make it so difficult for working parents to care for their children.
    Now, there is an argument that having women pull out of the work force does provide an incentive to change some economic problems, e.g. the difficulty of providing a middle-class living on one income. And that’s a valid argument, but it doesn’t revolve around “choice,” it revolves around poverty and security, because the problems of the one-income household are the same–worse, even–for single-parent famlies.
    I really think it’s a huge mistake to take feminist analysis (or any kind of social or political analysis) personally: to make the argument about whether Hirshman is saying women who stay home are “bad” feminists. What she’s saying is that staying home is less *effective*, as a political decision, than pursuing power in the public arena. Again, there are perfectly good arguments that this is oversimplified: that stay-home moms are not pulling away from the public arena, that they are often very politically active, etc. But getting bogged down in defending the *choice* to stay home, again, doesn’t make those arguments, because it substitutes microanalysis for a broader view.

  12. Elizabeth Says:

    Bitch, I agree 100% with your statement that “Feminism is about looking at structures and systems and the way that “choices” are proscribed.” But I didn’t get any sense that was what Hirshman is doing.
    I saw nothing in the article that discussed the structural problems that lead to women opting-out. (I’m thinking along the lines of Joan Williams’ work on “ideal workers” and how that assumes that someone else is available to deal with the rest of life.) Rather, the article was explicitly critical of elite woman who have chosen to stay home.
    I like your school system analogy, and I’m going to run with it. I think Hirshman’s article is like blaming middle class black parents for the crisis in inner-city schools because they choose to move to the suburbs or to send their kids to private school or homeschool. It totally lets white parents (equivalent to men in Hirshman’s article) off the hook, and it doesn’t discuss the whole problem with using local property taxes as the primary funding mechanism for K-12 education.

  13. amy Says:

    Thanks, B. And for the definition of feminism (which I was wondering about, plus “why care”, after AB’s post).
    I don’t know that it’s possible, though, to take the personal side out of it. I mean I think you can ignore it, saying the attacks do no practical good, but the fact remains that if you’re trying to make it out in Man’s World, every time a well-educated woman goes home to raise kids, it screws you a little. I don’t know how you avoid taking that personally, on some level, or call those individual women feminists, if what you’re talking about is structural power. We might philosophically support feminism, even throw a little money to feminists and go to candidate dinners, but we’re not doing the work.
    I think the whole flamewar might cool off a little if we looked at feminism over a lifetime and as a rational choice, rather than a required ski tag among a certain narrow population. I don’t think I have the right to call most of my life feminist. In college I was headed into finance and government, got on the ladders and did well, then ditched it to be a starvingartist with nothing but a mouth and time, which I didn’t use to advance women’s power. Worse, I married and had a kid, and vanished for two years to take care of the kid and the sick man, abandoning my career and turning down requests & backing to run for public office. I’m entirely dependent, financially, on the goodwill of my husband and father, my resume’s rusting away, and I probably couldn’t get a job now that paid better than $35K or so. My contributions of my husband’s and father’s money to Planned Parenthood, candidates, and women’s centers, are very small. My own retirement account is very small. I serve on a board that deals mainly with collapsed families, distributing state money for services to women who are unlikely to use our help to influence social policy or budgets.
    The spreadsheet and my husband’s illness both say I’d better get my ass in gear, turn professor, and take care of the money solo, but I’m starting late and it’ll be a fight. And I’m not talking metallurgy professor, either. If I’m successful, I’ll make creative-writing-professor money, which is a little better than what I made out of school on my original track. If I’m really successful (and fast), I’ll marginally influence some public policy and have a tenure-protected salary, and that’s about it. I don’t expect to run for office anytime soon. I’m not a feminist at all — though I’m happily using the goods feminists have paid for.
    Will I do better for feminism? Maybe. But I think it’s a good idea to be honest about what we’re really doing. If the choices are not to tangibly support structural feminism, we may as well say so. Not to wear a hair shirt, but to turn back to the questions, “What does it cost? What’s in it for me and mine?”

  14. amy Says:

    Elizabeth, I think maybe that’s “structural” in the sense of “feminists sacrifice what they must to change the structure,” not “structures stand in the way of would-be feminists.”
    While it also sounds to me like she’s letting men off the hook, I think her point is the basic political one: It’s unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the men in power to just share, so there’s no percentage in pointing the finger, esp. when there are things women aren’t doing to help themselves.

  15. Lauram1111 Says:

    excellent post, Elizabeth, and comments by Amy.
    The decisions at the micro level does have an impact on the macro. Certainly. If women stay at home, it does impact on the decisions of others. But also the women who go back to work impact on people who want to stay at home. It means that those women have less support in their community, businesses feel that they have no need to change policies to become more child-friendly, yadda yadda.
    You can go crazy with that reasoning. Ultimately, I’m with Amy on this one. If the choices are not to tangibly support structural feminism, we may as well say so. Not to wear a hair shirt, but to turn back to the questions, “What does it cost? What’s in it for me and mine?”

  16. Laura Says:

    oops. those last lines are Amy’s. Meant to have them italized.

  17. Moxie Says:

    Hirshman completely and utterly lost me when she used a cross-section of Times brides as her research data. If she really thinks that the women who get in the Synday Styles wedding section represent a good cross-section of high-powered/high-potential women, then her understanding of social structures and culture in this country is weak at best. For the most part, Times brides are born and raised to be SAHM helpmeets for their husbands. Even if they’re lawyers when they marry, no one thinks for a minute that they’ll still be practicing once they have kids. So for Hirshman to use this population as her research sample is just ludicrous.
    Hirshman has such rage at women who stay home for even a few years, and at men. I wonder if she’d be able to do better research and communicate her ideas more effectively if she could get past her own personal feelings and look at thing objectively.

  18. amy Says:

    “For the most part, Times brides are born and raised to be SAHM helpmeets for their husbands. Even if they’re lawyers when they marry, no one thinks for a minute that they’ll still be practicing once they have kids.”
    Is that really true? Back when I was young enough to have a lot of friends marrying, I used to see classmates in the Weddings section every so often. I recall the women having been pretty serious about their careers in college (mid-late ’80s). Not on the Macy’s-buyer/Short-Hills track.
    I mean I guess it could be true that honest-to-God serious career women don’t send their wedding info to the Times. But I’m inclined to believe that more have the Belkin story: They got halfway up the ladder, had kids, discovered 80h workweeks don’t go so well with seeing the small critter you’ve just given birth to, and found their employers wouldn’t budge. Were miserable, said “screw it” and went home.
    While they’re totally unrepresentative, I wonder if Hirshman’s point is essentially Crittenden’s: It makes sense to focus on this group of women, because they’re the ones who have the money, education, demeanor, self-assurance, and connections that come in handy if you want to change power structures — legislation, judicial precedent, agency cultures, corporate cultures. (Consider O’Connor’s view of spousal notification v. Alito’s, and the effect of her sitting on the court for Casey.) For this class of women to go home is a real blow to Bitch-defined feminism.
    Bitch, damn it, I still can’t get used to calling you that.

  19. Mel Says:

    Well, shoot. I put my comment at the end of the wrong post (I’m holding a baby and I’m a stay-at-home mom, so that explains my ineptitude, I’m sure), but essentially, I said that this (“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.”) explains why I have never thought of myself as a feminist, though I believe in equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for education and to vote, etc.

  20. airplane Says:

    I realize I’m coming very late into this string of great comments. Boy, what a great blog!
    One thing that struck me about reading these posts and comments about Hirshman’s article is that no one here, unless I missed something, has really said anything about women’s power outside the home. Hirshman’s arguments about women seeking power redeemed the whole flawed essay in my eyes. Maybe because I’m a 23-year-old non-married non-mother (oops, maybe I just lost all my credibility right there), but all I could think about was how, as we sit around taking everything personally (as bitchphd put it, don’t take it personally) and worrying about whether we’re bad feminists, lots of really sick people are running the world, making decisions that affect us. Are women effective decision-makers on the national or the world stage? Do women have a say? Do women have political, economic, or financial power? No, no, and no. This is what Hirshman’s article meant for me.
    Although I’m not in the age demographic, I can already see the enormous challenges that lie ahead for me. I agree with Amy that it’s hard to think macro when you’re wondering, “what’s in it for me?” Why be a feminist soldier when you love your children and the corporate world is meaningless?
    Hirshman stubbornly refuses to touch these issues. And while it is really maddening and dismissive, I think it’s great, too. Hirshman wants to women to see that they and power belong together. What would happen if well-educated women my age really believed that? That’s the bottom line, figure out the rest, Hirshman seems to say. What’s missing from Hirshman’s argument is how to do it without losing hold of everything else that matters.

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