A duel in the mommy wars

Posted: Mar 06, 2006 12:05 AM

Good Morning America recently devoted two days of coverage to "The Mommy Wars,"  highlighting a feminist named Linda Hirshman, a retired law professor. Her argument is that "choice feminism" has been a failure, because too many of the younger generation of highly educated, promising women have chosen to stay home with their children. 

I reply, "Out of Touch Feminism" has been a failure. These self-appointed spokeswomen for American womanhood have no idea what makes women tick and have contempt for what real women actually want.

I plead guilty to Hirshman’s charges. I am an expensively educated woman who has joined the "opt out revolution." I have a doctorate in economics. I did a post-doc at the University of Chicago. My first teaching job was at Yale. I had tenure at George Mason University. I loved my job.

But I left my tenured position to follow my husband to the West Coast where I had no immediate job prospects (Gasp! It doesn’t get any more retro than that). I did it, because I learned from experience that the kinds of claims Hirshman makes are simply untrue. Let’s take a couple of examples from her TV appearance, and from her December article in American Prospect.

"Your kids will be fine if you work."

In her words, "Statistically there is no difference in the happiness levels of the children whose mothers work and the children whose mothers stay at home."

This is extremely misleading. The data do not support her claim. The research on the impact of day care on children is complicated and subtle. Researchers have studied things as varied as academic achievement, social skills, attachment, and aggression.

The results are mixed, as any sensible mother could have told you. Some kids do fine in day care. Others do fine in some ways but not in others. Still other children are for a variety of reasons, so needy that it would be inhuman to leave them in "non-maternal care." For Hirshman to sweep all of the years of research and mountains of personal experience under the rug of "happiness levels" is appalling.

"You will be happier if you work."

There are two variants on this. First is that the work of "work" is more fulfilling than the work of family. In her words, "I’ve read a lot of diaries online, and their description of their lives does not sound particularly interesting or fulfilling for a complicated educated person."

Since when is all work outside the home fabulously fulfilling? My husband, a photonics engineer, comes home routinely with stories of rocket scientists doing the equivalent of sweeping the floor. I can recall hours of tedium in academic life, especially grading exams and going to faculty meetings.

The second variant is that you will somehow have a happier marriage if you work. Although this point was not highlighted in the TV interviews, it was a central point in her American Prospect article. Her answer to What is to be Done? in the family, is "don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry." To ensure you can keep your own commitment to the labor force intact, you must "avoid taking on more than a fair share of the second shift."

Once again, this approach is not supported by the data. Gender equality ideology is not generally correlated with marital satisfaction. In fact, I was just reading a study in the recent issue of Social Forces, a leading sociology journal, which contradicts Hirshman’s advice. Steven Nock and Bradford Wilcox found that the biggest single determinant of women’s marital happiness was not the husband’s share of housework. Nor was it the income equality of the couple. Rather, "husband’s emotional work" of providing love, understanding and quality time, was the best predictor of women’s satisfaction with their marriages. Contra Ms. Hirshman, the highly educated women who leave the labor force are on to something real.

Hirshman has no business making the blanket generalization that the way to personal fulfillment, all things considered, is to keep score on your partner to make sure that you don’t take on too much of the housework.

"The choice to leave the labor market is objectively bad for women."

"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 orld. Measured against these time-tested strategies, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives."

Ms. Hirshman, are we doing more good than harm when we leave a six week-old baby in the care of strangers? Does autonomy mean being completely unencumbered by any human relationship that might reasonably make demands upon us?

We educated, competent women do have a choice. Will I place my intellect at the service of an employer and my ego? Or will I place my intellect and energy at the service of my family and my community?

I challenge Ms. Hirshman to debate the proposition as she herself stated it: "An educated, competent adult’s place is in the office." I will debate her on the airwaves. I will debate her in print. I will debate her in person.

We will see who is more successfully "using their capacity for speech and reason."