I’m not going to hold forth on Leslie Bennetts’ new book, The Feminine Mistake, because I haven’t read it (that hasn’t stopped plenty of others in the blogosphere from weighing in), and I don’t disagree with Bennetts’ premise that dropping out of the workforce to raise kids can be financially risky for women, especially if they get divorced. But cyberkerfuffles over this book are raging, as they are over Linda Hirshman’s op-ed in yesterday’s Times, “Back to Work She Should Go,” ordering stay-at-home moms back on the job (yet again: Hirshman is also the author of Get To Work: A Manifesto for the Women of the World). Hirshman has her panties in a twist about a study showing that slightly fewer married mothers of infants under a year old are working now than in 1997. She’s particularly cheezed that — surprise! — rich, well-educated women are the most likely not to work when their children are babies. (The actual study, by Sharon R. Cohany and Emy Sok, economists with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is interesting but hardly alarming: the percentage of married moms of infants who were working fell six points, to 53.3 percent in 2000 — the beginning of a recession! — and since then, according to the authors “has shown no clear trend.” The labor force participation rate for married mothers of school-aged children has fallen only 2 percentage points since 1997: 75 % of them were on the job as of 2005.)
In any case, isn’t it time for writers and academics to stop telling other women how to live their lives? Our workdays are much more flexible than most people’s, and although we do face some difficulties — huge expenses of health insurance, if you’re a freelancer, and of child care — we’re lucky: we get to do work we enjoy and spend lots of time with our kids. Many people (men and women) don’t get to do either of those things. It is obnoxious when Caitlin Flanagan waxes judgmental of other working mothers, from her fortunate position as a writer for the New Yorker and Atlantic magazines, working from a comfortably large home in Connecticut with several nannies. But it is also obnoxious when pundits like Hirshman wax condescending about mothers who choose not to work; she wonders who will be the “role models” for future generations of girls, as if women who take a little time off when their babies are under a year can’t be role models. There’s something elitist — and a little disturbing — about the clear subtext here: the labor of childcare is all very well for impoverished immigrants but a waste of time for women with Ivy League degrees. Hirshman — who retired as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University — doesn’t care much, either, about the value or content of other people’s work, indeed, in past writings she has criticized women for taking pay cuts to teach or work for social justice, when to truly advance the cause of gender equality, they should be sharking it out in the corporate world. I’m guessing that neither Flanagan’s, nor Hirshman’s, nor Leslie Bennetts’ work life looks very much like that of a Starbucks barista — or a hedge fund manager. Or that of your average suburban office park commuter.
Much more helpful than the exhortations of pundits are strategies to improve life for regular working women who are not among the super-rich, nanny-hiring, private-school-volunteering set — and aren’t writers or retired professors, either. Moms Rising, the Internet organizing group, along with many other activists and policy organizations, have been fighting to get a Paid Family Leave bill passed in Washington State — and this week, they won! Now that bill is headed to the governor’s desk, where it is expected to be signed in early May.