Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More on the whole opt-out thing

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.


Anonymous said...

Libby, I have so much to add to these posts about feminism and women's equality that I don't even know where to begin. But, one unintended consequence to our patriarchal society has been the invisibility of widows and their history. As a researcher, when I put together a bio on a widow, what I most often find is VOLUMES about the husband and nothing about the wife. Right this minute, I'm searching through a foot of documents of a deceased husband to find shreds of who the widow is - because SHE'S the one that will make the giving decisions. Her interests in history parallel her late husband's but all their activities focused on the history of HIS family. I wonder, who her family is and why there seems to be no interest or articles written about them. It's disconcerting and a bit depressing. They have no children so I wonder, when she dies, apart from the scholarships that carry her name, will she disappear?

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just read the article. I have to say that I haven't seen such a hateful piece of trash come out of a feminist's mouth (keyboard?) since some woman came onto my blog to yell at me for calling out transphobic feminists.

My critique of it got WAY too long to be a comment, but if you're interested you can find it here: Trading one set of chains for another

Libby said...

Tekanji, thanks--I left a comment over on your blog, too. And, Claudia, I think that's fascinating (but yes, depressing) about widows and family history. My grandmother did TONS of research on her husband's family, little or none on her own. So it's a pattern I'm familiar with.

Choco Pie said...

Interesting article. Hirshman urges women to apply themselves academically and aim for high paying jobs, but her NYT brides had already done that, and apparently they were ready to quit at the first opportunity.

So I guess what she's saying is elite women have a moral obligation to keep working even if they hate it.

Yet, other people are saying women have a moral obligation to quit working and stay home even if they hate it.

So what is it exactly that makes Hirshman a feminist? Just like anti-feminists, she thinks women have an obligation to sacrifice themselves to an ideal. She thinks women can't be left to make these choices for themselves--our culture has to decide on the correct role for women and then bully them into playing their part.

I think it's ironic that a women's studies professor is advising women to avoid the liberal arts and aim for high powered careers. If she thinks it's so great, why doesn't she do it?

Corporate careers pay well but the hours are terrible and they don't allow for much of a personal life. Telling anyone, male or female, to aim for that is really bad advice, in my opinion.

But I do like the part about marrying younger men! (The idea about marrying much older men is gross--and talk about sacrifice. She actually expects elite women to work like dogs and then come home to some old guy. She's really taking all the fun out of being an elite female.)

kate.d. said...

great post! i've been feeling burned out, low on my supply of feminist outrage, so i haven't been to Broadsheet as much in recent weeks. i guess i'm burned out because we keep finding these tired old arguments, and we keep having to explain (calmly and rationally, lest people think we're those "hysterical feminists" of whom everyone's so afraid) why the arguments are silly and/or flat out false.


in sum, it's going to take both an equalizing in the public sphere (work) and the private sphere (home) before any feminist visions really start to take hold in society.

kate said...

Thanks for linking to the article. I just read it and it has made me think about my own choices in this regard. I don't think I would, even if I could, go back and major in business, for example, but it is true that I have chosen to move to a country where my original chosen career path is completely impossible to pursue. I'm lucky in that here job status is much less important, and actually the career option I am going to pursue will put me on pretty solid ground, but a lot of what she said in the article (not all of it) really resonated. Especially the part about computing the childcare costs as taken out of the wife's salary-- definitely an "aha!" moment.

I'd love to think more about this and blog on it myself, but since I probably won't get around to it, I thought I'd at least add my two cents here. Now I'm off to Amazon to shop for Beauvoir and Friedan-- I can't believe I still haven't read either one of those!

Mrs. Coulter said...

An interesting perspective. I read Beauvoir and Friedan on my own between my freshman and sophomore year of college, and it really changed my viewpoint on women's lives (though I was always pro-women's lib). I think Hirshman is more right with her diagnosis than with her solutions, which encourage women to buy into a system that is inherently unfriendly to family life, rather than trying to alter the system to permit more balance in everyone's lives (male and female).

Oh, and thanks for the comment turning me on to your blog!

Libby said...

Exactly, Mrs. C: good analysis, lame solutions.

And thank you for commenting back! I love your name(s), by the way. I teach HDM fairly often in my children's lit classes and love the refences.