News & Politics

Linda Hirshman's Manifesto For Women

The political philosopher discusses why men don't stay home and why having Ph.D.s wiping butts is immoral.
In her new book, "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," retired professor and political philosopher Linda R. Hirshman says she did three bad things: "I talked badly about motherhood, I violated the relativism principle, and I actually treated women as if they were entitled to political analysis." Meant to provoke, this feminist tome seeks to undermine the very premise of the "mommy wars."

In doing so, she takes the highest of high roads, focusing only on highly educated, elite women, and taking them to task for staying home and out of the workforce. This is meant to inform, but not judge, women of other means and education who largely cannot afford to stay at home. Hirshman argues that no one can lead a full and meaningful life without staking out a position in the public sphere, and in her discussion she resurrects the foundations of Western morality -- big questions like, What would be the nature of the ideal society and why? What is it that makes us human? What is the role of freedom in a good human life?

To Hirshman, stay-at-home women deny the larger world access to their talents and intelligence and cut off their own development. In the course of her argument, she hopes to both apply a corrective to the "cheap relativism of the left" and reclaim the moral high ground from the right.

MINDY FARABEE: Why do you take issue with what you call "choice feminism"? Why not live and let live?

LINDA HIRSHMAN: When women opt out, and make what they call in preemptive language a "personal choice," they're doing harm to two interests I have. One is they're doing harm to themselves, and insofar that they are human beings, as a political philosopher, I'm interested in every one of them. Secondly, they're doing harm to others. Opting out makes women dependent, it hurts other ambitious women, and it doesn't use their full capacities. I want to have a social conversation about it.

FARABEE: You write that women shouldn't use marriage to solve their job woes. What did you learn about the ways women and men view work?

HIRSHMAN: What I seem to be finding is that the culture has taught women that they don't need to work. If they don't think that they need to work, then they don't take it seriously. And then they don't take getting ready for graduate school seriously. They also keep changing jobs, and they take offense when their bosses look at them cross-eyed.

They feel free to do this, because they have at the bottom of their minds [the notion] that they can always stay home. I would never suggest that the workplace treats women well or equally or takes them as seriously. Women are not idiots, they can perceive that they're being treated unjustly, and it's painful to be treated unjustly. But women then retreat, and the mistake they're making is thinking that they're going to a more just place, a more fulfilling place. And we have no reason to believe that.

FARABEE: You say in your book that if feminism failed, it failed because it wasn't radical enough.

HIRSHMAN: It didn't fail, but it faltered at the critical subject which is the sexual family. Now it's time to finish. You can't have an equal, just and fair workplace and a gendered family. If you're carrying 70 percent of the responsibility for housework and child care, you're going to be so disadvantaged in the workplace. And you're going to know it's coming at you, because of seeing your mother and your older sister doing it. You're not going to take work seriously, because you're going to know you can't sustain it. You can't have a half-changed world.

FARABEE: What about those who say raising children is the most important job a person can do?

HIRSHMAN: I have no idea what they mean by that. If, in fact, it were the most important thing a human being could do, then why are no men doing it? They'd rather make war, make foreign policy, invent nuclear weapons, decode DNA, paint The Last Supper, put the dome on St. Peter's Cathedral; they'd prefer to do all those things that are much less important than raising babies?

I love these sayings, because they're so stupid. I'll tell you what I think is actually going on: People think that women's lives aren't important enough to merit a real analysis. We get aphorisms in place of analysis. Why do we say stuff like that instead of actually trying to figure out what's going on here when it's women whose lives are at stake? If you can make an argument for why childrearing -- especially in the context that they are at school from the age of around five on for most of their waking hours -- why that is the most important job, I'd like to hear that.

FARABEE: What about the idea that women have innately more cooperative/less competitive behavior patterns and the world should be reshaped to accommodate that?

HIRSHMAN: I get a fair amount of this from the left: We want to change the terms on which human intercourse is conducted so that women's behaviors will be valued, and all you're doing is telling women to act like men. I have an answer to that: my answer is, I'm 62. I'm probably not going to change the fundamental way in which the world has worked since people dropped from the trees in the African savanna.

I think we'd better just see if we can find a place for women in that world. I think wishing for an ideal world is just an excuse for not engaging the world as it exists. If women would engage in the world as it exists, they could make it better a little at a time. I say in my book: elect a congressman who doesn't tax you more if you work than if you don't work, that's a start. The last time a philosopher suggested that we completely change the fundamental way in which the world is organized, we got Marxism. There were many good things about Marxism, but I'm not sure I want to be responsible for reviving it.

FARABEE: Do you think that arguments about reshaping the world could actually serve to naturalize the non-threatening behaviors women are socialized to adopt?

HIRSHMAN: Obviously, in a time when we're seeing a newly militant, fundamentalist religious international development, probably less aggressive militancy seems like a good idea in the abstract. Let's see: Wahhabist Islam on the one hand, female non-aggression on the other? I prefer female non-aggression.

But Aristotle said something about this ... he said that in every society it's the philosopher's job to try to bring society more toward the mean. So, just as it's the philosopher's job to try to pull that very rich and old belief system away from the extremism it's going towards, so too I believe it's my responsibility in this society of American females that I happen to live in, to pull it away from this passivity it's in, this refusal to test their capacities against other people and to take risks and to be judged.

You just have to keep fighting. And you have to keep naming it. You wouldn't want the hundred women who submit their op-eds to The New York Times every day and never get them accepted to stop. If you think about the sort of world this sort of mom-ism is offering, it's pretty horrifying. Ph.D.s who are wiping butts. I'm sort of surprised I'm the first person to get out there and say this is immoral.
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