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Reviving the feminist mystique

On Linda Hirshman's "Get To Work"

Review and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

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I warned five years ago that if the women's movement didn't move into a second stage and take on the problems of restructuring work and home, a new generation would be vulnerable to backlash. But the movement has not moved into that needed second stage, so the women struggling with these new problems view them as purely personal, not political, and no longer look to the movement for solutions.

-- Betty Friedan,
"How to Get the Women's Movement Moving Again," 1985


Unless you've been living off the grid lately, you've probably noticed Linda Hirshman basking in the glow of the same high-intensity media spotlight that recently illuminated the likes of Caitlin Flanagan, Judith Warner and Leslie Morgan Steiner. And although she rarely misses an opportunity to infuriate conservative stalwarts and the public intellectuals of the blogosphere, perhaps the best course of action is to stay calm and let Hirshman savor her fifteen minutes of notoriety in peace.

Because when all is said and done, Hirshman's little red book about "the problem that stays the same" will not restart the gender revolution (even the allusion to Chairman Mao will be lost on some readers). Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking, June 2006) will not inspire women to shatter the glass ceiling at home or anywhere else, nor will it persuade at-home mothers to reorient their thinking about the virtues of work versus the value of family. Feminist organizers won't abandon their egalitarian principles to embrace radical elitism as a political strategy -- and in any case, Hirshman's grand plan to reform feminism is unlikely to restore the flagging vitality of the women's movement. In time, Hirshman's newfound celebrity as a contrarian and troublemaker will fade.

Although Get To Work won't be remembered as a great or groundbreaking book, Hirshman's position on what constitutes a flourishing life and uncompromising prescription for female conduct raise a number of provocative questions. Namely, how do societal conditions influence our understanding of gender roles and the moral imperatives of collective and private life? Do cultural pressures and prohibitions change undesirable behaviors -- and if so, who makes the rules? Does the manipulation of individual behavior accelerate social transformation, or not? How should we measure women's progress? And above all, who speaks for feminism?

The small picture

Get To Work is a modest expansion of Hirshman's 2005 essay, "Homeward Bound" (The American Prospect, December 2005). Since I've summarized the reaction to "Homeward Bound" in a previous (and, thanks to Hirshman, now infamous) commentary and discussed the author's idealization of Betty Friedan in a later essay, I won't revisit those topics here. I will add, however, that the potency of Hirshman's original argument suffers from lightweight treatment in its new incarnation. If Get To Work has any remaining shock value for those familiar with Hirshman's essay and interviews, it's probably related to the astonishingly poor quality of the text. Hirshman's would-be manifesto is badly organized, badly written and badly edited; the author's casual approach to research and citation might be suitable for pop culture ephemera, but it doesn't satisfy the criteria for rigorous inquiry. Whatever judgments Hirshman's detractors have about the substance of her argument, as a piece of writing "Homeward Bound" was skillfully executed and intellectually sound.1 By comparison, Get To Work is underdeveloped and disappointing, and leaves the impression that Hirshman does not take her own ideas seriously.

Even so, it's intriguing to watch Hirshman hone her theory of female flourishing, particularly her strategy for limiting the field of possibilities. The central argument of Get To Work is this: According to the teachings of Plato and other giants of Western philosophy on the nature of moral action and the content of a virtuous life, high-potential women who prioritize child-rearing over public achievement are selling themselves short and doing more harm than good to the society. Feminists, Hirshman contends, must overcome reservations about making value judgments when women settle for lesser lives and mobilize their forces to quash the "opt out revolution" without further ado.

It's notable that Hirshman's prescription for the advancement of women hangs on her appraisal of current proposals for collective solutions as dreamy and impractical ("The promises of reduced hours and government day care," she concludes, "…are just cruel diversions from what can be done now"). With public policy off the table, the author can indulge her elitism (by Hirshman estimation, women armed with good breeding and superb educational qualifications simply need to lose their innocence and get with the capitalist program, but precisely how this will free other women to lead lives of dignity and prosperity is a bit vague). It also gives her free rein to lump her liberal opponents -- whom she characterizes as haplessly disconnected from the joys of work -- with family values conservatives who want to isolate women in the home.

By dismissing her critics as blinded by ignorance or ideology (or both) and concentrating exclusively on women's private behavior, Hirshman also evades research-based evidence of structural and cultural barriers to women's advancement. Readers of Get To Work will find nary a word about studies on the prevalence of cognitive bias among male executives, or how it disadvantages women in hiring and promotion for positions of corporate leadership. Nor is there any mention of the wage gap for women with advanced degrees -- which is greater than the wage gap for any other group of women workers, even for high-level professionals with continuous full-time employment (see page two of this table). Hirshman's mandate to women to break free of the self-imposed shackles of domesticity and tough it out in the workplace might seem less arbitrary if she'd taken a stab at addressing the range of material and subtle incentives for men to spend more time at the office, and equally powerful disincentives for women to do so. For example, it's possible women are less inclined to sacrifice their private lives to get ahead because even if they do work as hard or harder than men in the same position, they will always be outsiders in the male-dominated culture of corporate elites and get paid less. Although Hirshman wants to reduce the argument to the ripple effects of women's bad choices, it's not all about who does the housework and the mommy mystique.

But the fatal flaw of Get To Work is Hirshman's failure to acknowledge the scope of feminist critiques of Western philosophy, which are rather more varied than Carol Gilligan's theories of moral development (which Hirshman derides for spawning backlash-y "relational" feminism). Hirshman apparently draws many of her conclusions about the privileges and obligations of the ruling class and the content of a good life from Plato's Republic, yet avoids an in-depth examination of the origins of her thinking on values and morality, including a response to feminist analysis of the Republic and Western political philosophy in general. (A couple of passing references to "my female colleagues in the philosophy biz" really doesn't cut it.) It matters because Hirshman locates her authority as an arbiter of feminism in her mastery of philosophy (as she announced in a June 18 op-ed for the Washington Post, "I'm a philosopher, and it's a philosopher's job to tell people how they should lead their lives"). Hirshman knocks stay-at-home moms for circumscribing the debate by insisting that how they organize their work and family lives is their "own damn business," yet the author's default position is because I said so.

Then again, Hirshman may have a singular view on how philosophy should inform critical thinking in everyday life. While clarifying why it's okay to berate educated mothers for leaving the workforce, she makes a somewhat jarring statement: "We care about humans, because we think that they have the capacity for free will." I suspect her intended meaning is that we care about what humans do, because we understand humans have the capacity for self-control and the ability to weigh the consequences of their actions. As for why "we care about humans" -- I imagine we care about humans because we are human. People weighing moral decisions are more likely to be guided by the "golden rule" -- treat others as you wound want to be treated -- than abstract theories about how the ruling class should behave in a perfect society.

In her introduction to Philosophy in a Feminist Voice (Princeton University Press, 1997), Janet A. Kourany proposes that philosophy may not be the very best tool for evaluating human motives or navigating the complexities of real life:

…[M]uch of the philosophy most Western philosophers engage in and teach and study is significantly flawed in what it delivers. Indeed this philosophy often provides outlooks and ways of thinking unhelpful to everyone, but especially unhelpful to women. Far from functioning as the proverbial gadfly that rouses everyone from complacency on every question, this philosophy tends to ignore women even while it reflects and reinforces or in other way perpetuates some of the most deeply entrenched and abusive biases against women in our society.

Which brings us to the subject of feminism.

who speaks for feminism?

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