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Commanding Women: Feminist Linda Hirshman on women in the workplace | The Nation

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Commanding Women: Feminist Linda Hirshman on women in the workplace

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Emily Amick

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Monday, December 18

In her recent treatise Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, Linda Hirshman came off as a bit inflexible. She commanded women: Don't major in art, don't have more than one child, and always bargain for a gender-neutral division of household chores. Pundits--some sympathetic and some hostile--couldn't get enough of Hirshman's reaffirmation of equality feminism, which asserted that feminist women can live their ideals only through public lives of work and activism, not private lives of family and domesticity. A former union-side labor lawyer from Chicago who stopped practicing law to teach it and then decided to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, Hirshman taught at Brandeis University and is number 77 on conservative media critic Bernard Goldberg's list of 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Hirshman spoke to Campus Progress about the philosophical choices of the privileged, why men should be forced to take parental leave, and the ethics of abortion up until birth.

Campus Progress: Some stay-at-home mothers reenter the workforce once their children go to school. Do you think this could possibly be a functional middle ground between working all the time and staying at home?

Linda Hirshman: Women go back into the workplace as their children get older, but they do not go back into the workplace with the commitment that the men go back with. They don't work as many hours, many are working part time, they are harmed by the time they've taken off, and they are not rising as fast or as single-mindedly.

You write that women should always work. Where does this thesis fit in for women with extremely low incomes who simply can't afford to enter the workforce because they don't earn enough to pay for childcare?

This is what philosophers call a situation of extreme scarcity, and in situations of extreme scarcity, moral condemnation is not appropriate. So for example, if people acted badly in concentration camps or when they are starving to death in Chad, you couldn't go and say, "They aren't behaving in a Kantian way, and they weren't fully using their capacities," because you need for there to be moderate scarcity for there to be moral choice.

So one of the reasons I didn't write about the "really truly needy," as Ronald Reagan called them, is because that would be immoral for me to criticize their decisions. They don't have enough maneuvering room to make morally interesting decisions. As with most philosophers, I do not write about situations of extreme scarcity. I'm interested in people who are in a situation where they have enough maneuvering room that they can make choices we can evaluate morally.

What are your feelings about maternity or parental leave?

I think parental leave should be required of both male and female parents.

So if the leave has to be split evenly between the two parties, so that both men and women equally sacrifice their career for childcare, how long should it be?

Oh gosh, I don't know. Maybe it would be a good idea to give them three months that they could use any time within the first two years.

Do you see a point in the future when both men and women are staying at home with kids at the same rates? Should everyone be working full time or part time?

I think that children can be cared for collectively. Where they can only be cared for by their parents, or by one adult, then that will have to be divided by two people. Do I ever think there will be a time when that is the norm even in America? No, I do not. We don't need everyone to change their ways for it to be a largely just society.

What do you envision as the steps toward women's liberation?

Women are very sensitive to tremors in the zeitgeist--they don't like being out of fashion--so if you can change the fashion, you can change women's behavior. I think those women at Yale were shocked when they said [they were planning on staying home with their future children] and they were so poorly received. I think the columnist at Forbes.com was shocked when he said that you should never marry a professional woman because she'd be unfaithful to you and never wash your socks, and got the firestorm of a response he did.

I'm retired, I'm not running for office, I'm happy to call myself a feminist and take shit from the stay-at-home mommy bloggers. It doesn't bother me at all. Thus liberated, I think I'm part of a wave of people who are finally saying "enough."

You've said that you think that abortion should be allowed up until birth, why?

I think that it is a relational morality and the relation with the creature is different in kind and not just in degree. Once the child is physically completely separated from you and to some extent you are caring for them voluntarily, you can look at them in the face and start to love them as a separate entity and feel unselfishly toward them in a way you can't do when they are biologically still part of your physical shell.

To me abortion is about the woman. I'm only interested in the grownup--the born person. So if you want to set it back from the date of birth some space so there is no moral ambiguity about it, that's okay with me as long as you give the adult plenty of time to make a decision about her future.

What do you think about the debate surrounding paternal rights, specifically men who don't want a baby when their female partners won't abort. Should those men have to pay child support?

I think that the one act of having sex should not burden you with the child for the rest of your life. That would be doing to men what making abortion criminal does to women.

Do you see your work in the same vein as

George Lakoff

's and other people who say that progressives need to take over the values debate?

Yes, I do.

Why do you think there is not a big push within the feminist movement to use values language?

Because women are afraid to argue with one another.

Emily Amick is a contributing writer for Campus Progress. She graduated in December 2006 from Wellesley College, where she is now a research assistant.

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