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?