Linda Hirshman's new book is causing the same storm that her essay "Homeward Bound: The truth about elite women" caused when it first appeared in the American Prospect. Almost all of the reaction is negative. Almost all of the negative reaction stems from the fact that Hirshman questions the decision by many so-called "elite" women to pull back from the full-time career path after they have kids.
My take on Hirshman's views and the surrounding controversy is a bit different. Even though she is a somewhat abrasive messenger, I find her message to be one that is universally applicable and one that needs to be stated: if women expect to be truly free and empowered -- especially over the long haul and taking into consideration the stumbling blocks of divorce and downsizing -- they must shake off their complacency and they must retain the ability to support themselves.
Her un-PC stance and her courage in speaking out about it made me curious about Hirshman's own genesis. It is not clear how she tackled the work-life balance issue in her own life and how that might affect her world view today. Being a woman is not in and of itself sufficient to understand how and why she came to her stated position. According to her web site, she has been married twice and has one biological daughter and two stepdaughters. Did she work when her daughters were growing up? Did she have a husband who supported her during those years? Does she come from a family marked by the experience of a dependent/helpless/unfulfilled woman? I think Hirshman hurts her cause by her reluctance to address these questions.
I realize that some would consider it unfair -- indeed, an ironic failure of feminism -- to consider the author's family background when evaluating her writing. After all, a man would not be judged in the same way. However, in this case I feel it is relevant because this is an intensely personal issue and I cannot imagine how one's take on this issue could not be informed by one's own experiences. After all, the only people passionately weighing in on this issue are mothers, particularly stay-at-home ones: precisely the people whose views are informed by their personal journeys.
For instance, here is my story: I quit full time work when my daughter was born -- almost two decades ago. During that time, I did not "not work" for any but the first two years. Even though I now work fulltime, I don't expect to achieve even a modicum of what might be characterized as "career success". Yet, I cannot imagine doing any of this any other way.
Looking back, I realize that I have been adamant about earning a living. At the risk of coming across as abrasive in the Hirshman mold, I want to state that my idea of feminism requires that I earn a living, keep myself employable and share with my spouse the burden of providing for the family: while also not giving up on the expectation that my spouse will support me in these goals and not giving up on the expectation that the world of business will find use for a committed and passionate employee (even if she is available only part of the time).
Where did this insistence to "have (at least some of) it all" come from?
We are all creatures of the time and place in which we come of age. As someone who grew up in a vastly different culture, I am particularly aware of this fact.
My world view is informed by the fact that the society in which I grew up (middle class India in the 60s/70s), did not consider educating girls subordinate to educating boys. This was primarily because most people viscerally understood that educating women was the only sure way to empower them and shield them against poverty, lack of opportunity, misfortune and abuse. Women's education -- ultimately leading to employability -- was seen as the salvation of the family, the community and yes, the newly independent country.
In that spirit, many sacrifices were made by my family (and by the student me), in the pursuit of a quality education. I have no doubt that it is that education that offers me the opportunities (such as they are) that I enjoy today. It is that education, too, that gives me the ability to think critically and to weigh in on this issue and similar issues.
I am mindful too of the struggles and sacrifices of successive generations of feminists here in the United States, starting from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the "Iron-jawed Angels" and relatively recently, the women (of Hirshman's generation) who fought for equality in the 70's.
I recognize that just like all those foremothers, we remain caught in an "in the meantime" continuum -- a continuum that will, hopefully, lead towards better working and living conditions for all caregivers. By fighting to work I seek to redeem the hopes and struggles of which I am a beneficiary. By fighting to work I seek my own and my family's security and stability. And by fighting to work, I do my small part in the struggle against the forces that, intentionally or not, seek to deny me the attainment of my full potential.
So, I agree with Hirshman to the extent that I too believe that it is vital for women to stay in the workforce after they have kids.
My take diverges from that of Hirshman when it comes to assigning blame to just the women who drop out.
As someone who has tried, at some or other time over the last 19 years, all types of working arrangements, I know how hard it is to a) work full time b) not work at all, c) find a flexible part-time job and d) make up for lost time after even a handful of years spent on the mommy track as it really is. And, forget about finding a job that is challenging and stimulating, that has a ceiling (glass or otherwise) to aspire to and that offers any kind of job security.
According to me, the blame lies with employers who, especially in the current economy, have no incentive to allow for and respect employees' family commitments: quite a contrast from the period during World War II when, with a large percentage of men away at war, women were welcomed into the workforce. (And, never mind the fact that those employers that do make small adjustments for their caregiver employees are richly rewarded - they get passionate, committed, overqualified employees for considerably less than top dollar.)
Once again, here is my story: about ten years ago, I was offered a full-time job that would have had an hour-long commute each way. I requested that I be allowed to work from home at least part of the time. The request was refused on the grounds of data security (I work in IT.) How ironic then, that companies that were reluctant to outsource within the county, don't mind sending all manner of data, as well as core competencies half a world away. As a mother, I find myself getting the short end of the stick regardless of the circumstances: first because I asked for outsourcing (albeit within the county) and now because much of the work is sent to off-shored workers or done here by in-shored ones.
With two young children, I did the only thing that made sense to me: I declined the job offer, but continued to work in my part-time freelance consulting mode.
The bottom line, according to me, is that the business climate will have to change before family caregivers are able to attain their fullest potential. And, let's face it, this is not likely to happen any time soon.
In the meantime, we need to start recognizing a new class of elites. They are the neo-elite -- not because they have high-powered jobs and careers, nor because they once obtained degrees from elite schools.
They are neo-elite simply because they never give up. They don't accept the status quo. They keep on fighting -- for time with their families on one hand, and for fulfilling work on the other. And, by their unrelenting struggle these neo-elites keep the issue on the front-burner of society. Ultimately, if (and it's a big if) all this results in real change, the benefits will accrue to men and women alike.
I like to think that I may have managed to accomplish more than simply eke out a living while carving out quality and quantity time with and for my family. My greatest contribution may well be this: that I remained in the workforce and by my mere presence made a case for successful and productive flex working arrangements; that, having been raised on the staple of their mother's angst and struggle, my daughter as well as my son will continue the struggle in whatever roles they play as adults: employees, managers, business owners, voters, taxpayers and parents.
mmo : august 2006