Mommy Wars, Round 587

Mommy Wars, Round 587

Antifeminists engage in moral discourse while feminists tend to speak in the language of personal choice. But what happens when choice is a bad idea–for yourself, other women or society?


Caitlin Flanagan, scourge of upscale working mothers, meet Linda Hirshman, champion of same. You’ll like each other, you have a lot in common: a bomb-throwing writing style, a gift for oversimplification and a deep conviction that your life is the one true path to happiness and glory. (Well, let me amend that, because Flanagan, whose loopy attacks on working mothers in The New Yorker and The Atlantic have been collected in To Hell With All That, seems not to understand that she is a working mother herself–and a very well compensated, nannified, cleaning-ladied and personally assisted one at that.) Here’s another thing you two agree on: Whatever women are doing wrong is feminism’s fault. Flanagan thinks the women’s movement has filled women’s heads with silly notions of independence, equality and achievement that have ruined family and community life. Hirshman thinks it stood up for those values for about two minutes, before filling women’s heads with namby-pamby twaddle about “choice.” Rock the world or rock the cradle? Use your diploma or tuck it in a drawer? Equal spouse or trusty sidekick? Whatever you want, sweetheart!

Hirshman first made her vigorous, no-holds-barred case against stay-home motherhood in an article called “Homeward Bound,” in The American Prospect. She got a huge amount of media attention–at last, a feminist who admits she thinks stay-home moms are wasting their lives!–and has now expanded the essay into a (very slender) book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. Fans of the original article will be pleased to know that the book preserves the abrasive, my-way-or-the-highway features of the essay. Don’t major in art. Do prepare yourself for a lifetime of work–and by work Hirshman means things like corporate law and business, not social work or, I fear, writing for The Nation. Don’t ever “know when you’re out of milk”–i.e., don’t take on the role of domestic expert. Do “marry down”–i.e., a lower-earning husband, so his job won’t be more important than yours. Don’t have more than one child.

It’s easy to make fun of Hirshman’s directives. Corporate lawyers are miserable! Everyone should know if there’s milk in the fridge! As for marrying down, well, whatever floats your boat, but anyone who thinks a less successful husband means a more equal marriage doesn’t know much about men, or women either. Her potted history of second-wave feminism as a contest between a properly “judgmental” pro-work Betty Friedan and a wishy-washy “choice feminist” Gloria Steinem is off the mark too. For Friedan the enemy was not stay-home moms but “man-hating” feminists and lesbians; Steinem, for her part, could be plenty judgmental: I once heard her compare women who enjoyed pornography to Jews who enjoyed Mein Kampf. On work and family, though, both women had similar, flexible views, as indeed any leader who hoped to make a mass movement would need to have.

That said, there’s something refreshing about Hirshman. Why should the antifeminists monopolize the high ground? It’s about time someone asked, again, such basic questions as: If cleaning the house is so fulfilling, how come men don’t want to do it, and how can you get them to do it anyway (cf., milk, obliviousness to lack of)? And if having a mom at home is so beneficial to kids, how come even Flanagan admits she could see no difference in children raised by stay-homes and working mothers except that the working mothers’ kids seemed smarter?

Like other kinds of conservatives, antifeminists have no problem engaging in moral discourse. Feminists have indeed traded that language for the I’m-OK-you’re-OK language of personal choice, and are now in the philosophically absurd position of smiling politely at everything women do, from naked mud wrestling to home schooling. But what happens when the choice is a bad idea, for yourself, for other women, for society? Don’t we ever get to talk about that? “Choice,” moreover, assumes people have, and know they have, real alternatives. But what if the “choice” is the forced, or at any rate predictable, result of a lot of previous choices you didn’t realize you were making? (This crucial insight was not originally Hirshman’s but Rhona Mahony’s, in her brilliant 1995 Kidding Ourselves, on which Hirshman rather heavily relies.) Antifeminists are always telling young women to be strategic–restrain your ambitions, marry straight out of college, have kids right away or end up alone and infertile. It’s about time feminists pointed out that equality at home and on the job takes planning. Hirshman’s gotten flak for advising women to have only one child, and only with a man who agrees to be an equal parent. (As it happens, most of the professionally successful mothers I know have two kids.) But a few months ago the New York Times front page featured an upscale businesswoman who was astonished to find that having a third child sent her careful balancing act tumbling down. How, I found myself wondering, could that have come as a shock?

Hirshman’s weakness is her assumption that the social problem of women’s inequality can be solved if enough women make the right individual decisions. She mocks “the same old public day-care business that has gone nowhere since 1972.” But really, isn’t the stay-home vogue at bottom a response to the fact that society has failed to adapt to working mothers? Isn’t choice feminism itself a way of dealing with the whole complex range of resistance to women’s equality, by throwing up your hands and saying, Let each woman make her own tradeoffs? Unlike Flanagan, who wants women to give up the struggle, Hirshman wants individual women to fight harder and smarter, and that’s great. But it only goes so far. If better personal decisions could bring about gender equality, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today.

* * *

Finally! Bernard Baran, whom I’ve written about here several times, just won the right to a new trial. In 1985 Baran, a 19-year-old teacher’s aide in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, became the first person convicted in the great wave of daycare sex-panic cases of the 1980s and ’90s; he’s been in prison more than half his life. Nation readers have particular reason to rejoice: Their generous donations helped fuel his appeal.


Buy Katha Pollitt’s latest book, Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time (Random House). And watch for her latest readings, news, and events at

Ad Policy