The personal is (still) political

Via Becca at Not Quite Sure, I read Meghan O’Rourke’s commentary on Linda Hirshman’s book.  The part of the essay that jumped out at me was this:

"If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn’t believe that a woman’s place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn’t ethical at this point in time."

Fair enough.  Our choices have implications for the environment, for the economy, for society as a whole, and yes, they have implications for other women.

But Hirshman simultaneously asks too much of women (insisting that they should stay in jobs even if they’re unhappy and unfulfilled) and too little (because just showing up in an office every day isn’t going to change the structure of society). 

I’ve been thinking of some ways that we can further the "common good," regardless of whether we work for pay.  Here are my initial thoughts — I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.  I’m deliberately not including voting or other political activism in this list, although I do think it’s critical.

If you are a stay at home parent:

  • Volunteer in the schools.  And spend your energy on things that improve education for all kids, not just your own.  If you’re in an affluent school district and are fundraising for extras, consider partnering with a school in a low-income neighborhood that doesn’t have access to those sorts of resources.
  • Don’t insist that all school-related functions happen on weekday afternoons, because evenings are "family time."  Let working parents participate as much as they can. Don’t sneer at them if they send in store-bought cookies for the bakesale. 
  • Don’t let your spouse off the hook for being an involved parent.  Fight back against the working world’s attempt to relegate family life to secondary importance.
  • Occasionally, cut a working parent a break.  Offer to pick up their kid when the schools let out two hours early with no notice because of snowfall.  I’m not saying be a doormat, but a little help can go a long way.

If you work for pay:

  • Stand up for your rights.  Show employers that you don’t have to be what Joan Williams calls an "ideal worker," free of family obligations, to be productive.  Especially if you’re male, don’t try to hide it when you have family responsibilities.
  • Stand up for the rights of others, especially lower-paid workers who tend to get fewer benefts and less flexibility, as well as less money.  Fight for systemic change, not just special privileges for the favored few.
  • If you have any hiring authority, take a second look at the resumes of people who are returning to the workforce after taking time off for caregiving.  I’m not saying you should hire people who aren’t qualified, but give them a chance to show their qualifications.
  • Appreciate the people who make your work possible, the daycare workers caring for your child, the next door neighbor who keeps an eye on the middle schoolers waiting for the bus, the boss who lets you telecommute one day a week.  And don’t just think it — make sure they know.

What else?

10 Responses to “The personal is (still) political”

  1. merseydotes Says:

    If you are in management, set an example. Leave at 5 o’clock whenever you can and talk about your family responsibilities as something that you value and enjoy.

  2. landismom Says:

    Thank you! You know, I have deliberately stayed out of the whole Hirschman debate, but I have to respond to this post. I think you have totally hit the nail on the head–the responsibilities to change the workforce and society do not just depend on the workers or the SAHPs–they are everyone’s responsibility. Great post that really helped me clarify my thinking on it.

  3. Devra Says:

    I like your ideas very much. Let us also remember though there are working parents who prefer lunch meetings as they too value family time in the evenings, and there are SAHP’s who would not necessarily find volunteering in the schools the best use of their time and talent as not everyone is cut out for being a room parent or doing PTA projects. I think people, and not just parents, can support society and make changes that do not necessitate unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes. I call the unintentional reinforcing a stereotpe a “stereotrap”. : )

  4. Ailurophile Says:

    Part of the problem, as I see it, is that with the recent recession hitting the middle class so hard, workers are afraid to stand up for their rights lest all they get in return is a pink slip. Feeling expendable and easily replaceable is not exactly conducive to assertiveness.
    I surmise this has been exacerbated by the huge glut of baby boomers, at least some of whom are now set to retire. An improving economy and less of a surplus of workers will make it much easier for women, and men, to demand a family-friendly workplace.
    And I say this ’til I’m blue in the face, but I’ll say it again: people without kids need flexibility, too. I have aging parents. I’m their only child. I can’t think of anyone who will never, at some point in their working life, not need some flexibility, even if they never marry nor have children.

  5. chip Says:

    excellent list! I think that your thinking on this is much more likely to move things forward for everyone than Hirshman’s dogmatic insistence that women give up their personal lives, and that women who don’t are somehow traitors. Thanks.

  6. jackie Says:

    Ailurophile, I agree completely– “family flexibility” should include any and all family members we care for, especially as the largest American generation ages and becomes aged. My own mother and aunt spent years sharing care for their father, who had Alzheimer’s and prostate cancer, and that care took at least as much time and energy as the kids each of them took maternity leave to have.

  7. Decomposition Says:

    I’ve been stumped with this one. I absolutely agree with your points re: Hirshman, but the list doesn’t resonate with me. Here’s the thing: my workplace already has all of those lovely policies in place. In fact, if I want to play hooky for a day, I blame Frances because no one here will question the legitimacy of needing to stay home with a sick child. My boss is a mother, her boss is a mother, and her boss is a mother; there’s five days of paid leave per year for taking care of family members, plus that wonderful 93%-paid year of maternity leave; I work overtime maybe five days a year; lots of paid sick leave (15 days) per year. I can take up to five years off job-protected to care for children, unpaid. I can take other time off unpaid and arrange to have the rest of my annual pay paid out in smaller amounts to continue receiving pay while on leave (leave with income averaging). My manager is actually working part-time right now so she can “achieve work-life balance” and all of the upper management was fully supportive of this. Etc. But these are all special perks of my workplace environment.
    So at my workplace, it’s done. There’s nothing to stick up for and no one to stand up to. Yet there is still a great deal to be done for society at large. While we have that marvelous maternity leave, less than half of new Canadian mothers are entitled to use it, so that many return to work before it is done. I know one woman who was fired when she told her boss she was pregnant and my SIL was fired from her old job when she tried to go back after her maternity leave, and it’s the kind of thing you can win if you take it to court but the financial costs could ruin you. In the private sector, there are expectations of regular overtime, difficulties taking leave, not much sick leave, usually no maternity leave top-up, and so on.
    So what I’m asking myself is, what can I do from my relatively privileged position with this employer that will have a positive impact on the working lives of people working for other employers, that doesn’t involve voting or political action? And I’m stumped. (My manager already knows that I appreciate the flexibility of my working arrangements; my husband is on the board of our daycare). I’m truly stumped. Do you have any suggestions?

  8. jen Says:

    Decomposition, I urge you to hire people out from under those other employers. Take their best and brightest. Wouldn’t that be fun? To show that a family-friendly model triumphs in the marketplace?

  9. Elizabeth Says:

    I like Jen’s suggestion.
    I also think that working parents who have flexibility can make a huge difference by participating in things like the PTA and standing up for the concerns of other working parents. Things like going to meetings and saying “This information is too important for it only to get to the parents who can make it to meetings or who talk to the right people in the car pool lane. Maybe we could email to everyone. I can set up a listserve.” Of course, at-home parents can do the same thing, but I think working parents are more likely to be aware of the issues, even if they themslves have flexibility. And you can also offer to help other families out on snowdays or whatever.

  10. dave s Says:

    Jen, I think the family-friendly model does NOT triumph in the marketplace. At least in the law business, on which Hirshman has focused so much, and in which my wife works. There have been a number of attempts – smart law school graduates try to set up their own firms and run them on less ravenous principles, or supreme court clerks try to negotiate better terms on which to join a firm. These are called ‘lifestyle firms’ in the business, and the big guys generally eat them for lunch. It is not efficient to have four people doing 40-hour weeks doing work which two people could do with 65-hour weeks – the four people will spend a lot of time communicating, and the two people will just do.
    My wife got home this morning at two, and will be off to do battle again all day today, with a big product due in court tomorrow. And I managed the kids and had some baby-sitter help. We don’t think both spouses can work the kind of hours she works and do decently with a family – Hirshman’s really discouraging advice being, have one child at most. And our strategy is, I work a 40-hour job and bring no work home, and we hire some help. Our kids would like more Mom, but I think they are doing reasonably okay.
    Now, Hirshman is interesting herself – I think she’s a lot like Caitlin Flanagan or Ann Coulter, in having said a bunch of things which would clearly enrage people and gotten herself into the middle of public discourse having done so. It’s not a bad strategy. In her Post profile she expressed surprise at the ill feeling people express towards her – I think she’s disingenuous, to say the least! She also reminds me of Phyllis Shlafly, in the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do line – Shlafly who talked stay-at-home motherhood and jetted off to testify to Congress, Hirshman who had 3 kids, and left the law firm life she advocates for others for the less pressured life of a college professor. And all four of them – Hirshman, Flanagan, Coulter, and Shlafly – have answers for ALL women.

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