Dana Goldstein

Monday October 2, 2006

It’s always pleasing to see a man try his hand at feminism. That’s what James Wolcott, long one of my favorite magazine writers and bloggers, does this week in his New Republic cover review of three “mommy war” tomes. As Wolcott rightly points out, the mommy wars–endless battles for moral superiority between privileged, educated, working moms and their privileged, educated stay-at-home counterparts–are insufferable. A small army of female writers, including the anxiety-prone Judith Warner, the maddening Caitlin Flanagan, and the brilliant Linda R. Hirshman, have jumped into this fray. Parodying this “cat fight” (the subtitle of his essay is “meow mix”), Wolcott muses on behalf of the male gender:

We don’t understand why so many women are so avid to sit in moral judgment of other women’s difficult choices, why they care so much about what other women do (often women they barely know), and why so many of those women are writers.

Maybe I can further Wolcott’s understanding of the fairer sex by stating the obvious. Women are engaged in a circular firing squad over balancing career ambitions and domesticity because men are giving them so little help–certainly too little help around the house (women still do 60 to 70 percent of domestic chores), but also too little help thinking through issues of work-life balance. Almost all serious male thinkers sit this debate out, and far too many of our contemporary feminist voices discount men completely: in her book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and her Times Select blog “Domestic Disturbances,” the hand-wringing Warner seems to believe men are hapless and reticent, while Flanagan’s To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife paints them as horn dog, he-man breadwinners.

I, for one, give men more credit than that. That’s why I’m disappointed that Wolcott, in a 6,000 word essay, had not a word to spare for men’s role in creating the big mess that exists at the intersection of money, ambition, love, sex, children, and dirty laundry. In fact, Wolcott goes a step further, ignoring completely one of the central arguments of Hirshman’s “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.” Men, Hirshman writes, need to be retrained.

Let me be clear about my loyalties: Hirshman’s book is the best work of contemporary feminism I’ve read; her take-no-prisoners brand of equality feminism is the only kind I can stomach. Hirshman rightly points out that men still benefit from centuries of gender privilege in which their domestic apathy was excused because they were just so busy working outside of the home to make ends meet. She writes, “Men come to the choice intersection with a wallet full of inherited entitlements and women come with a designer bag–of expectations.” But now that even most married women (59 percent in 2005 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) are working their asses off away from home as well, it’s time for men to step up at home.

Wolcott, while admiring Hirshman’s strident style, ridicules her command for women to “never know when you’re out of milk” so as to avoid having to do the shopping, ignoring the larger argument behind her rhetorical flourish. “Bargain relentlessly for a just household,” Hirshman advises women, because if you don’t, you are likely to end up cutting back your office hours, halting progress on the next great American novel, and neglecting relationships with other adults. As your husband ascends in his career, you’ll be scaling back, schlepping the kids to soccer practice, ordering the take-out, loading the dishwasher, and making the doctor appointments. Soon you may not be working outside of the home at all.

What I love about Hirshman is that she unequivocally makes the point that it is not enough for men to be thankful for their wives’ sacrifices. Instead, they should make some sacrifices themselves. Hirshman’s rule is, simply, “Don’t draw the short straw at the dining room table.” This means women should be negotiating their household responsibilities as aggressively as they would negotiate for a raise or promotion at work.

The trouble for us younger women and men pondering this advice is how unromantic it seems. We don’t want to envision our future marriages as business transactions for which we plot negotiation tactics. And especially if we have progressive gender politics, we’d like to think we’ll avoid the pitfalls of past generations. Sadly, both history and our society’s current social expectations are stacked against us. Wolcott is right–some of the mommy war writers sure can get annoying. But since there are serious sociological, economic, and cultural problems underlying these battles, there’s no reason why only 53 percent of Americans should be giving them serious thought.