Thursday, September 07, 2006

Personal Choice vs. Social Responsibility - Should you represent? Or should you choose what's best for you?

From Po:

In June, a book was published that did nothing but piss people off. The book was a mere 120 pages. It was titled “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.” The author was Linda Hirshman, an old-style feminist in her 60s. When Ms. Hirschman went on The Colbert Report, she basically insulted stay-at-home moms, arguing they had made the wrong choice to stay home, and their lives weren’t as meaningful or impactful as a woman in the workforce. Many of them went on ABC News to read the first chapter and then went to Amazon to declare the book a complete waste of time. Working women also seemed offended by Ms. Hirshman’s attack on stay-at-home moms – who was she to deny these women their personal choice? They also posted criticisms of Hirshman.

Hirshman was probably not surprised. This all began last year, when she wrote an online article for the journal The American Prospect. For that essay, Hirshman went back to the wedding announcements in the New York Times from exactly ten years ago – January of 1996. Hirshman called all the brides up and asked what they were doing. Prior to their marriage, all of these women worked hard at their careers, with early success – (those are the kind of women who make the New York Times wedding page). But ten years out, half of these women were not working at all. Another third were working only part time, in fields not related to their earlier career (they had some work, but weren’t really pursuing professional excellence.) Only six women – out of an entire month’s worth of brides – were working full time at their career. As an old-time feminist, Hirshman was appalled, and critical.

Her article in American Prospect was widely talked about, but Hirshman herself had few fans. Career women didn’t like Hirshman’s condemnation, calling them out: “If you quit your career to stay home with your kids indefinitely, you’re letting women down.” Like it was taboo to even consider it.

Hirshman made a crucial point. Today, women want the personal choice to be a career woman or to be a homemaker. In Hirshman’s opinion, feminism has lost its way by being focused on personal choice. There is a social obligation all women (and men) have to making sure women are leaders in all fields of society. If super successful women (like those that make the Times’ wedding page) drop out 8 out of 10 times, where will be the next female supreme court justices, the next great female business leaders, the next great female movie producers?

(In 2000, research with a slightly larger sample found a similar result. Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart surveyed the women of the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 as to what they were up to. Only 38 percent of female Harvard MBAs were working full time, continuing their careers.)

For Hirshman, to stay at home was the wrong choice. Personal preference be damned. The work of feminism isn't done, if so many women are opting-out of public leadership roles. For most women who disagreed, they felt most of the work of feminism was done, and now that the choices had been opened, those doors opened, it was a matter of personal choice - and nobody should be telling anybody what their choice is.

I didn’t like Hirshman’s tone, either. It was one of those books where having that manifesto clarion call outrage did not help it. The stridency turned too many off. But beneath it all, I kept wondering if there was some truth in there – but not quite Hirshman’s truth. It’s been bugging me for months.

This is one of those issues that won’t affect me personally, because I’m a man. But I’m a father to a daughter, husband to a wife, son to a mother. I love them all and I was raised by my mother to care very deeply about the choices women have in this world.

So let me try to put forward the soft kernel that Hirshman missed. Hear out this thought, then let me know what you think.

If all women only make their own personal choice, (and for so many that choice is to opt-out of careers,) will that choice still be there a generation from now? Or might we slide backwards, fatefully?

I really hope that my daughter and son to grow up in a world where half of the leaders in every field are women. At the very least, I want my children to have the choices women today have. But I absolutely believe it’s a matter of choice – neither choice is wrong. That said, if a career woman is considering whether to end her career and give the next ten years to her family, does she have a social obligation to factor into her personal decision? Not that it should rule her decision, as Hirshman argued. But should it be a factor to consider? Or should her choice be entirely based on personal concerns, without regard to the status of women in society?

Do I really fear we could slide backwards? I don't know. In many ways, it seems like our society takes steps forward and steps backward continuously, on every front. Many of the choices we took for granted are starting to disappear.

Ashley tells me that the number of female supreme courts clerks has dwindled, and there's very few left.

African Americans are routinely taught that their individual actions reflect on all African Americans. Immigrant children are commonly taught the same – “your choices affect how all of us are seen.”

My wife has a career – she cures cancer – but she also has a very balanced life, never overworking, and not really making many family sacrifices. She says if she were considering quitting, she would really hesitate, because she wants our daughter to see women doing good things out there in the world. This wouldn’t rule my wife’s choice – but it would raise the bar.

But many other women I know who've chosen to stay home say "hey, not so fast. I represent, by all means. I represent the greatness of this alternative. I made my choice, and I represent tht choice just as much as any career woman represents the other choice."

So what do you think? When making your personal choice, should social concerns be a factor? Or are we past that? If you feel a need to “represent,” how strong is that need? How much weight is it given?

11 Comments:

Blogger rrn777 said...

What I find lacking in choices for women (and men) are interesting, responsible part-time positions. Ideally, one could continue a profession and devote considerable time to a family. Economically this does not benefit a business which is one reason I assume part-time work is not more common.

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. It sounds to me as if different people have different perspectives on what the definition of feminism is. This reminds me of an article I read in college or when I was working in politics. The article was about the feminists from the 1960s being upset with women in my age group because it seemed that we did not really understand why they worked so hard for equal rights.

I am trying to remember if ERA was ever ratified?

I was thinking about the Supreme Court having fewer female clerks. Why did that happen?

I wanted to quote something Po said but I am not sure how to get the quote here. Po said something about personal choices. I like the idea of personal choices. In my opinion, I feel that if a "feminist" was going to read the riot act to someone for choosing to stay home with kids, then that person is just as bad as an "old-timer" who believes that women should NOT work after marriage. Both of these individuals are the at the end of the opposite sides of the pendulum (sp?).

Why cannot there be a middle or a "balance"?

- Hayley

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have one life. If my life is constantly constrained by what I "should" be doing (whether out in some high profile career or at home with my children), then my choices have been taken away by my own people-pleasing.

Men don't go around thinking about social responsibility to other men; they do what they need to do for their families and careers. Why do women put this onus on themselves to be something they aren't?

I was a physician for ten years. It didn't work for me or my family, and I decided to change careers. That my career change was to a homemaker seemed to be some big heinous crime, instead of lauded if, say, I had decided to be a lawyer or a stockbroker instead. I say to hell with what anyone thinks. My family and my life are MINE, not the property of a feminist who thinks I have some duty to sacrifice myself to the god of political correctness.

Freedom is freedom to be what I want to be. Telling me what I should be, forcing me to bow to some "righteous path" is nothing more than attempted slavery.

7:33 AM  
Blogger communicatrix said...

I think the social responsibility lies with both men and women, and is much larger than a gender rights issue.

We're reproducing and consuming and acting pretty thoughtlessly in general, and we're starting to hit critical mass on some problems that will overwhelm the human race and possibly the planet if we don't wake up.

Frankly, it's a smokescreen to frame this as a feminist issue. There are much larger issues--the viability of the planet, the promotion of human rights globally--than whether or not it's evil to be a suburban SAHM or a working mom with nanny.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I won't ask a woman to give up her bliss for the good of society, slogging to work day in and out even if she doesn't want to do so. Yet we routinely expect men to do this. Men usually cannot choose not to work.

Perhaps we all need a little liberation from the concept that only financially productive activities make a contribution to society. Parenting, community-building, volunteering, art, having fun, caring for sick relatives - these are all important contributions!

My wife stays at home with our son most days while she works toward her plan to get a PhD in US women's history. When she eventually becomes a professor, I intend to quit being a stock analyst and become a stay-at-home dad. We want to be creative, flexible, and unconditionally supportive regardless of what choices The Market gives us.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny, when my mother chose to stay home with me in the 80's, she received the same consternation from feminists. Now, 26 years later, I am a professional pregnant woman who plans to stay home with my children.

It's an interesting question... if I don't stay home, I probably would continue to succeed in my career, and perhaps another company would have a female CEO. However, if I dedicate the effort, energy, and talent that I would have applied in the marketplace to my children, what impact will they have on society?

Social responsibility does weigh very heavily on a successful woman's choice to work or stay home. On balance, I decided that I could make the most impact on world around me by raising my children personally and with great care, and not leaving it to a nanny or daycare.

My mother made a sacrifice to stay home with me and my siblings. She didn't quit the real world. Neither will I. Personal choice is the foundation of the feminist movement... statements like these alienate reasonable women from activism on womens' issues that really do matter.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous pumeza said...

As some have pointed out here, the problem is with the limited choices offered by the world of work as it's currently organised. An economy organised around 9-5 (at least) work in an office a long commute from home is profoundly hostile to families - including fathers and children - not just to mothers. It's unsustainable in the long run on several fronts, including ecologically. This may be why just about nobody I know has a conventional job -- we're all running our own businesses, freelancing, part-timing, working from home or some combination of the above. The rhythm of a healthy, whole human life is far more complex than "work" as it looked in the 60s can accommodate. I wouldn't bet on the current system lasting very long.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean your wife is "working towards a cure for cancer."

I'm a woman and I honestly can't say that I care what people think of women in general, especially if it means it limits my ability to make a personal choice. Every person does not have to be the poster of their gender, race, ethnicity, religion or anything else other people think they represent. Life is about experience and no one has a right to make me identify with groupings.

Let's hope, for instance, that Deni Leonard, who was your model for a Native American man who leveraged his skills to supposedly benefit his own, really doesn't end up being representative of his tribe or ethnicity.

Your daughter will, hopefully, learn that she is more than just her gender. Hopefully the people she interacts with, will also see that. Hopefully, she will believe in herself and her abilities.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Forcing a parent to go to work (with ideology, need for health care, whatever) is every bit as oppressive as forcing one to stay home. Hirshman et al. send up a false opposition betweeen obligations to society vs. to family. A really progressive vision of the family will cut through that: raising great kids is one way we help make society a better place. We need social policies that will support that instead of pushing us all into a Darwinian labor market.

It occurs to me that what really pisses me off about Hirshman is that she seems to be trying to make people, women in particular, feel guilty about their choices - like, oh, you're letting down society and feminism and the economy, get to work! I say, enough with the guilt, already. We get enough of that from our in-laws and in this case, it's pointless ideological guilt. Few people in the talented tenth take more than a few years off to take care of young children; it's rarely the death of their careers and those of us who have done it, male and female, have not regretted our choice. Hirshman never tires of telling us that she's a philosopher and that it's a philosopher's job to tell people how to live their lives. That's fine. But philosophies that aren't based on our real lives aren't philosophies - they're ideologies.

I'm part of a blog for stay at home and progressive dads whose members have been discussing Hirshman off and on since the book appeared. I think our POV is a really important part of this debate. For those who are interested, here are the links:

Hirshman's "feminism" as masculinist ideology

20th vs. 21st Century Feminism

Hirshman vs. Parents

9:47 AM  
Blogger emily_d said...

Another person talked about there being different definitions of feminism, and I agree. Much of the post and much of the commentary focuses on the voice of feminism as being working women. i agree that women joining the workforce is an important element of progress of feminism, but that is only half the story.

hirschman made some comment that feminism had failed. and i felt that that was a narrow view. feminism hasn't failed; it's in process. much like po said, society goes back and forth - making progress and lagging back - in the struggle for change. i don't find it useful to shame the process.
i thought that hirschmen's comments were narrow in another way: the balance of feminism is in valuing what has been traditionally feminine as a culture, meaning that men and women would value and be able to experience all aspects of being a whole human being.

to be a whole human being means to be able to have the whole human experience: competence AND connection. whereas women have been shut out from self-actualization, men have been shut out from relationship. That is where feminism is stalled out.

The next thing is to find a way for society to have some flexibility. Flexibility for parental leave from work, for shorter work-weeks that reflect both partners as parents and professionals - would the world end?

I think that what hirschmen might have missed in her presumptuous questioning of stay-at-home moms is some of the deeper reasons behind their choices. women are caught between a rock and a hard place regarding work and family. is it really so different for a woman to be single, successful, and childless or married, mothering, and no life plan beyond birthday cakes? They are both opposite sides of the same coin.

What would it be like if there was more flexibility? If it could be okay to put family as a priority at times and work as a priority at times, for both men and women?

MomsRising and MOTHERS are both some organizations I have found that have thoughtful ideas about how to pursue these issues.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to see intelligent balanced comments here. I'm very glad most women also dislike Hirschmen and her narrow minded guilt tripping rants as much as most men. It puts me at ease to realise most people are balanced and find a healthy middle ground.

10:40 PM  

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