I just finished reading Linda Hirshman’s controversial book Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. Her ideas seem to have enraged a generation of conservative politicians and stay-at-home-moms (SAHMs). I have spent much of my time in graduate school studying work-family issues – from both individual and organizational perspectives. As a mother of two with a part-time corporate career, I am constantly juggling my own life to try and find ways to meet my competing needs for nurture and ambition. I believe that God put me on this earth to be a mother and to achieve, and the resulting struggle colors my daily existence. Therefore, I knew that reading Hirshman’s book was probably going to irritate me in a lot of ways. That’s exactly why I read it. I don’t agree with everything she said – in fact I found myself talking back to her several times throughout. But I am glad I read the book because it challenged a lot of my notions about what work and family are all about.
Hirshman’s basic position is that a fully flourishing human life involves using one’s talents and capacities to the fullest and reaping the rewards of doing so (p. 3). Drawing on Plato’s dialogues she notes that what makes us human (as opposed to animals) is i) our capacity to envision and accomplish goals, and ii) our habit of living in organized communities. She then asserts that women must fully participate in envisioning and accomplishing goals (think building and creating – a market economy), and in helping to create an organized society (think running the government, creating policy, etc.). Her concern is not that men are terrible and shouldn’t be allowed to do these tasks, but that men, like women, are flawed, and they will therefore make mistakes. And if the tasks of running the government and market economy are left up to men, they will naturally make mistakes that will benefit men – not because they are evil, but because they are human. So for the sake of a just society, we need diverse perspectives (that includes women’s perspectives) involved in the decisions regarding how our market economy is run, and how our government is run. Makes sense to me.
Get to Work has been attacked in some circles for being poorly researched, assuming a “feminazi” posture, and levying judgment on women and their choices - just check out the reviews on Amazon.com. I can certainly see where those comments come from – there are some annoying contradictions and omissions in the book. Consider the following few examples:
- She advocates that in order to get the help they need at home, working women need to “let go” of their ideals and standards for how the house is run – either let the dust pile up, or else accept their husband’s version of accomplishing a domestic chore, no matter how substandard the effort may be. Not too many pages later, she suggests that working women should keep up a running dialogue with their husbands (who are presumably on the couch watching TV) while they go about the house taking care of things (i.e., “Now I will start dinner. Wait, before I do that I must clear the counter, which means I need to empty the dishwasher…”) The idea is that after a week or two or three of this running tirade, men will finally come to see the vast amount of work it takes to keep the household running. The contradiction in these two approaches is obvious.
- Nowhere does she mention that after childbirth and during 6 to 12 months of nursing an infant, women are just plain tired. It’s awfully difficult to think about envisioning and creating something new, or running society when you are that tired. I’m not advocating that women stay home forever, but based on my own experience (and I am a strong, healthy woman) and the experience of my girlfriends, I would say that after childbirth there is a period of physical recuperation needed before one can shine at work again. I don’t know if it needs to be years in length, but for most of us 6 weeks just isn’t going to cut it.
- Her suggestion that women go on reproductive strike, or only have one child is just plain ludicrous. First of all, ask any mother and she will tell you that after the initial adjustment there are so many ways in which having two children is easier than having one. Secondly, watching two siblings play together creates an immense sense of satisfaction. It is so awesome to know that after we as parents are gone, our children will have close blood family in the form of a sibling. And you can talk all you want about society or friendship networks filling the gap and about dysfunctional families where siblings never speak. But I remain convinced that done right, there is nothing like a blood brother or sister!
I could go on, but I think this is enough to make the point that the book arguably has some flaws. That said, Hirshman also makes many excellent points that ought to make any woman take notice and think about what she is doing in her work and in her family. Her position is “prickly” to be sure, and I can see why women of the “opt out” revolution are enraged, but an enraged reaction in no way diminishes the value of her message. Consider these points:
- Hirshman takes issue with the “It’s my choice and you are not allowed to judge my choice” argument used to support the “opt out” revolution as one of many ideal options available for college educated women. Instead she notes that we hardly accept “it’s my choice” as a legitimate argument for many things that we consider to be less than favorable for society, so why do we need to accept that women staying home with children is just a choice vs. a socially constructed hierarchy that ultimately holds all of us back. A choice that is truly morally superior should be able to withstand rigorous scrutiny and discussion.
- When one parent stays home to take care of the domestic duties, unless a trust fund is involved, it usually necessarily implies that another parent is working harder and longer. The net result for children is reduced relationship with the working parent and a one-sided view of how life is organized. This can hardly be considered ideal for children.
- And my favorite point Hirshman makes is that of the women she interviewed, those that had been involved in satisfying work that they were good at/rewarded for were more likely to return to work after children were born. They did not see their work as diminishing their children’s quality of life. On the other hand, women who had never really enjoyed their work or experienced success in their career were far more likely to grab on to the importance of their domestic role as a means of escaping a situation they never enjoyed anyway. If you haven't experienced the upside of having a career, then your critique of the epxerience is necessarily skewed and shouldn't be a benchmark for other women who are weighing their options. Some women even referred to the corporate world as “soul destroying.” Never mind the fact that their escape comes at the expense of a man continuing to work in that very same “soul destroying” environment. How can that possibly be good for the children?
Again, I could go on with all the things I agree with from "Get to Work." The bottom line is this: whether you are an at-home mom, work full time, or work part time, I encourage you to read this book. It can be an aggravating journey, but it forces you to consider why you are making the decisions you are making and to justify them to yourselves more intelligently and more articulately than with a childish and selfish, “It’s my choice.”
In a free and educated society, why would we want to expect anything less of ourselves?