Salon's cool new (ish) blog, Broadsheet, tipped me off to this one. It's an article in American Prospect Online that takes all those "opt out" articles seriously. The author, Linda R. Hirshman, a feminist professor, is working on a book about "marriage after feminism." She interviewed 30 some-odd women whose weddings were announced in the Sunday NY Times over three Sundays in 1996. Most of them, she says, were staying home with their kids 7 or 8 years later. (Actually, 50% were no longer working for pay, and a third were working part time.) : Conservatives contend that the dropouts prove that feminism "failed" because it was too radical, because women didn't want what feminism had to offer. In fact, if half or more of feminism's heirs (85 percent of the women in my Times sample), are not working seriously, it's because feminism wasn't radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn't change men, and, more importantly, it didn't fundamentally change how women related to men.
I think she's right, that it's not just the workplace but male-female relationships (and, maybe, men themselves) that are at issue. This came up again and again in my class discussions on Beauvoir. With little apology, the young women in my class spoke of wanting mates who would "take care of" them. Or attributed such feelings to "most women." The men were fairly quiet in our discussions, but when they did speak, they acknowledged the heavy expectations on men: to earn, to provide, to "take care of" a partner, a family. It's hard to be equal when you're claiming a position of dependency. It's also hard to be the "superior," the bread-winner. But my students seemed to have a hard time imagining another future for themselves outside of that paradigm. So I think Hirshman's right that feminism has failed in that regard, at least for a lot of folks, both male and female.
I disagree with several of Hirshman's conclusions, though, most strikingly her fairly uncritical acceptance of capitalist standards of value. After arguing that it's relationships that need to change, she focuses primarily on workplace issues, and on women's need not to sell themselves short in the marketplace. This begins in college for Hirshman: The first pitfall is the liberal-arts curriculum, which women are good at, graduating in higher numbers than men. Although many really successful people start out studying liberal arts, the purpose of a liberal education is not, with the exception of a miniscule number of academic positions, job preparation.
I'd respectfully disagree with that claim on two counts. First, liberal arts degrees still do prepare folks for the workplace if they make them good researchers, clear writers, and/or experts at group work. Second, they may also, as my dad has always said, "teach you to despise the wealth they prevent you from acquiring." Or you might want to say "critique" or "re-value" instead of "despise." Is it possible that the women Hirshman interviewed who didn't care all that much about money (many turned down part-time or flexible work that their possibly enlightened employers offered) actually learned something, in college or elsewhere, about the dangers of making money their standard of value? At one time we used to say feminism would change the way we think about work, teaching us all to value care and cooperation over aggression and competition. That obviously hasn't happened yet, but is it worth throwing in the towel on it already?
Yet (sigh) I fear she's right that one way to change relationships is for women to increase their earning power. (She also suggests they could be changed if women would "marry down" in age or status, or if they married liberals. She reports this with--seemingly--no irony.) And her advice on what to do about the house does make me laugh:
The home-economics trap involves superior female knowledge and superior female sanitation. The solutions are ignorance and dust. Never figure out where the butter is. “Where’s the butter?” Nora Ephron’s legendary riff on marriage begins. In it, a man asks the question when looking directly at the butter container in the refrigerator. “Where’s the butter?” actually means butter my toast, buy the butter, remember when we’re out of butter. Next thing you know you’re quitting your job at the law firm because you’re so busy managing the butter. If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems.
Learned incompetence, it's called. It works for men, why not for women?
Again, there's more to say about all this. Read the article and let me know what you think.