Love and the Good Life

On February 8, 2007, in Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D, by Betsy

by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D

A review of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World by Linda R. Hirshman

Feminists have long preached that sex differences must be eradicated because they are merely cultural-no matter how universal, deep-seated, or persistent they may be. Given enough “choice,” they believe, women will choose the androgynous life. But this agenda has stalled in recent years, as young mothers have become increasingly willing to embrace traditional gender roles. In an effort to reverse this trend, retired law professor Linda Hirschman ignited a firestorm last year with an article in the American Prospect, which asserted that educated women who leave their professions to raise children are “leading lesser lives.” She has expanded her argument into a new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for the Women of the World.

Hirshman goes beyond “choice” to promote a substantive theory of the good life for women. She quite correctly notes that invoking choice “does not remove decisions to a special realm where they can not be judged.” Surely relativism is at an end when it is discarded even by feminists who did so much to popularize it.

Get to Work begins by considering the Greek philosophical tradition and its emphasis on the Good Life. But Hirshman presents a curiously truncated view, omitting anything that does not support her simple equation of “exercising of rational capacities” with “engaging in market work.” She fails to mention Aristotle’s reflections on friendship, including the friendship between husbands and wives. She overlooks the pursuit of Beauty, and of Truth. And she evidently forgets that the Greek concept of the good life required ample leisure time, unavailable to the vast majority of men and women alike in modern times. No doubt the generations of philosopher-gentlemen who regarded work as beneath their dignity would be surprised by this celebration of the marketplace as the only setting fit for any self-respecting person.

Hirshman’s nod toward Greek philosophy turns out to be pseudo-scholarly dressing for all the old tired feminist claims. Motherhood is for ninnies. Paid employment is the sole source of dignity for women. Monetary income is important not only for what it buys outside the home but for the power it creates inside the home.

Children are the most important barrier to the equal participation of men and women in the labor market, because children affect men and women differently. The particular focus of Get to Work is that men should share childcare equally, so that women can participate equally in the labor market. Like many feminist policies, this is a demand that the impact of children be neutralized.

So, why are so many well-educated young women rejecting the feminist program? The truth is that the younger generation has seen the results of feminism and they don’t like it. They’ve seen kids raised in too much day care. They’ve watched women wait too long to get married and have kids. These women end up either alone or infertile or both. Becoming a gray-haired adoptive mommy or a single In Vitro Fertilization mommy are second-best, back-up plans, not anybody’s conception of the Good Life.

Above all, the younger generation has seen way too much divorce, starting oftentimes with their own parents. These kids don’t need studies to tell them how much it hurts to miss one parent or the other, how complex the divided loyalties in blended families can be, how alone they often felt during their childhoods. They are determined to get married and stay married, and not put their own children through what they went through. But as much as they want their marriages to work, they know that success may elude their best efforts.

These young wives are hardly going to be persuaded when Hirshman quotes approvingly the strategy of one “Blogger Bitch”: The Blogger Bitch, Ph.D., who is a working mother, has another promising approach. She advises, “Don’t f**k around with ‘household strikes’-it will drive you crazy before it does him, probably and you’ll cave…. Go ahead and do what needs to be done, but let him know what you are doing every goddam step of the way, and let him know that it pisses you off. ‘I’ve just gotten home from work, it’s nice to see you’re home earlier than I am. Before I take off my coat, I’ll put your shoes away for you, shall I? Oh, and I’ll pick up your coat from the floor and hang it up. Okay, now I can take off my own coat and hang it up right away, instead of dropping it on the floor for someone else to pick up later.’

This somehow does not sound like the Good Life.

The heretical suggestion that feminist gender ideology correlates with marital unhappiness has been floating around the literature since at least 1993. Last summer, Professors Steven Nock and Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia found that the single most important predictor of women’s marital happiness is her husband’s emotional engagement. Women who are married to men who make an effort to listen to them, who express affection and appreciation on a regular basis and who share quality time with them are happier than others.

The second most important factor in wives’ marital satisfaction is her perception of fairness. But most wives do not define fairness as a 50-50 model of equality in which each person does half of every job. The vast majority of wives did the bulk of childcare and housework. The 70% of wives who thought their marriages were fair, took into account all of paid and unpaid work of caring for the family. Thirdly, Nock and Wilcox found that American wives, even those holding feminist views are typically happier when their husbands earn 68% or more of the household income. Further down the list, item number five: women who stay at home are happier than those who don’t. Coming in at seventh in importance is gender attitudes: women who hold feminist attitudes are not as happy as women who hold more traditional gender attitudes.

In one of the most disingenuous sections of Get to Work, Hirshman cites Terry Martin Hekker, whom she considers a cautionary tale about mothers without careers. Ms. Hekker wrote a book 25 years ago about the joys of marriage and childrearing. On her 40th wedding anniversary, her husband divorced her for a younger woman. Hirshman’s comment is that such powerless wives are “dependent on the productivity and continuing good will of the men they married.” But the deeper point of Ms. Hekker’s story is that her husband faced no penalty for his faithless behavior. Ms. Hekker is more a victim of our unilateral, no-fault divorce regime, which feminists did so much to create, than a victim of her own decision to devote herself to full-time childcare.

Laws that allow either party to divorce for any reason or no reason create an incentive for women to continue working simply as a strategic move against the possibility of divorce. These rules affect everyone, from the most radical feminist to the most devoutly traditional. No one can “opt-out” of this legal regime. Forbidding the courts to take account of marital fault has created grotesque injustices for abandoned spouses, male and female alike, who remain true to their vows of fidelity and support.

Hirshman becomes short-sighted and downright irrational when she advises women to consider going on Reproductive Strike if hubby won’t cooperate. And if you must have a baby, for goodness sakes, just don’t have two (italics hers.) This advice is short-sighted because as anyone with their eyes opened knows, women want babies, sooner and more urgently than most men their own age. The women who don’t want babies already put their careers first, and need no advice from Hirshman. A Reproductive Strike is an empty threat that will leave most women in a weaker, not stronger, bargaining position.

Moreover, it is irrational because societies cannot survive without reproduction. Evidently, the women of Italy, Spain and Japan are already following the author’s advice. Each woman has 1.2 children, thus creating a death spiral from which their countries may not recover. Ideology partially accounts for the apparent suicide of the modern world: women’s dignity requires that their employment be equal to men. Women can only be equal to men if they suppress everything that makes them distinctively female, including and especially child-bearing. Societies populated with people who believe this cannot sustain themselves.

In the final analysis, demands for “equality in the home” are based on fear. I’m afraid my dignity will suffer if I don’t work. I’m afraid my husband will leave me, so I must work even though I’d rather be home with my children. I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid. American women refuse to suppress everything that makes them distinctively female. The new generation of stay-at-home moms regard their relationships with their husbands and children as worthy of time and attention. These women reject the life of fear, and embrace instead the counter-cultural view that loving and being loved are crucial elements of the Good Life.

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