Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hirshman on the Home Front

Linda Hirshman's article, "Homeward Bound", in the American Prospect, is bound to create a lot of controversy. It's almost axiomatic: it's about gender relations which, along with sex and religion, is what controversy is largely about in the U.S. these days. (Though it hasn't yet. I rather thought that the feminist blogosphere would start in on the piece immediately; but checking around a few sites -- Pandagon, Alas, Feministe, Majikthise, Echidne, some of the sites that took the articles which Hirshman mentions early on to task -- I haven't seen anyone mention it yet, to complement it, critique it or any combination.) But it's coming, I'd think. Indeed, I rather suspect that the controversy will touch every bit of it as time goes on. For starters, then, here are a few off-the-cuff reactions to the article.

(Note: I won't be talking about every aspect of it. For example, I won't talk about the question of data and whether the phenomenon she is talking about is, contra the blogosphere's reaction to earlier articles on the topic, real or an anecdotal mirage. I won't be talking about it because I have neither knowledge on the matter nor the impulse to go get some. So these reactions are simply to things that caught my attention.)

What I liked in the article was the counter to the conservative it's-biology's-fault answer to the problem of female under-representation in the professions. I also liked one of her central replacement answers: ask more of men. I think that she's probably right that domestic relations remain unequal, that this has a big effect on women's careers, and that this is, ultimately, an unjust social situation that must be changed. And that to do this, men must take on childrearing and household duties to the same degree that women do.

There were things I didn't like. She acknowledges the elitism of the topic -- " most people aren’t rich and white and heterosexual, and they couldn’t quit working if they wanted to", she writes towards the article's end -- but I think it's a more central fact than she gives it credit for. Some of her suggestions (marry older? marry poorer?) make my skin crawl, if only at the sheer, relentless pragmatism they show. (I think her other answer -- marry someone with a raised conscience -- is a much better one; even better is one she doesn't raise -- make sure you raise the conscience of whomever you would otherwise marry (hard, to be sure -- but so are the other possibilities on offer.))

Even more, I didn't like her taking of the culture of elite work -- that elite work must demand extraordinary hours and a willingness to make everything else in one's life secondary if not tertiary or quaternary -- for granted. She writes as if this inevitable, and that the answer is (therefore) to negotiate around it. But I think that if we are going to set out to chance family life -- no small task! -- we should change our culture's insane notion of workplace expectations, too. Nor are these separate tasks: if enough men as well as women prioritized family, then workplaces would have to change, since they couldn't find people to fulfill their insane schedules.

As part of this, she has a brief section casting scorn on liberal arts degrees, encouraging women to pick their educations with career-goals in mind. Good for people's careers, maybe (although not definitely). Good for people's humanity, our society's sense of priorities -- not at all. I wish more people, men and women alike, majored in the liberal arts; I wish that our society valued things besides careers more.

And the same goes double for her suggestion that careers be evaluated on the money they pay since that is our society's currency. (And I have to say that, personally, I think the world would have been much better off if Condoleezza Rice had in fact been a pianist. And if George Bush had been the brink-of-bankruptcy used-car salesman he was clearly made to be. But that's another issue.)

Towards the end of her essay, Hirshman writes that "a good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world." Well put. But a good life for humans requires keeping work in its place, evaluating life choices by standards besides monetary ones and learning for reasons apart from cold calculation (at least in societies and sub-cultures rich enough to afford these luxuries, which are clearly the ones Hirshman is discussing.

Hirshman argues that the home front must be for feminism what the workplace was in the 1960's and the vote in the 1920's, suggesting that this requires a more radical feminism than we have grown accustomed to. Fair enough. But I'd like to see a feminism (and a humanism) radical enough to challenge the workplace values that saturate our culture at the same time, too.

Preliminary thoughts, as I said. In any event, the article is interesting, and, agree or disagree, is well worth reading.

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