Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Do Women Really Want to Become Men? Linda Hirshman's Feminism

In the United States, about half of the mothers of infant children choose to stay at home with their children instead working outside the home. Many of us--including many feminists--would say there is nothing wrong with this as long as it is a free choice. But feminist Linda Hirshman says this choice is immoral because these women are depriving themselves of the fully human good life that can only come from pursuing the wealth, power, and status found in the public spheres outside the home. A few years ago, Hirshman argued her case in an article for American Prospect, which provoked an intense debate in the media. Recently, Lauren Hall has posted an article criticizing Hirshman for ignoring the biological nature of women that inclines many of them to prefer caring for children unencumbered with working outside the home.

I'm on Hall's side in this debate. But I should admit a personal bias. Hall--a political scientist teaching at Rochester Institute of Technology--was a doctoral student of mine at Northern Illinois University, where she studied political theory and biopolitics.

Hirshman argues that feminism has failed in adopting "choice feminism"--based on the idea that women are free as long as they have equal opportunity to choose how they want to live. The failure is that while feminism has opened up the public world to women, the private world of family life is still patriarchal in that most of the child care and housework is done by women. On the one hand, women now have unprecedented opportunities for education and professional training and for careers in the work world. On the other hand, many of these well-educated and professionally trained women choose to withdraw from their careers so that they can spend more time with their children at home. Hirshman elaborates her reasoning in her book Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (2006). In the book, she declares: "Bounding home is not good for women and it's not good for the society. The women aren't using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands." Moreover, "child care and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life" (2).

Against the "relativism" of "choice feminism," Hirshman defends a "values feminism" based on moral standards for a good or flourishing life. Appealing to a philosophical moral tradition that begins with Plato and Aristotle, Hirshman declares 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." Looking to such standards, she insists, we can see that when women choose to stay home with their children, they are making bad choices--bad for them and bad for society. To truly flourish, women need professional careers that give them "power, honor, money, exercise of capacities."

In response, Hall observes that many women often have less interest than men do in striving for dominance in arenas of competition outside the family. So what Hirshman is really saying is that women cannot live good lives unless they become just like men. Moreover, Hall sees Hirshman as ignoring the evolved human nature of men and women. "The biological clock that most women hear ticking isn't the clock of patriarchal oppression. It's hormones, it's biology, and, unfortunately for the feminists, for most women, it's destiny. We want to have and hold children because that's how our bodies are set up."

Like Hall, I think the differences in the choices typical on average for men and women are not just cultural constructions of "gender ideology," as Hirshman suggests, but manifestations of natural differences shaped by human evolutionary history. In her book, Hirshman dismisses this objection in only four pages as "the monkey explanation" (74-77). She claims there is no way to scientifically test evolutionary psychology. And she suggests the "natural hausfrau scenario" is implausible, because about half of American mothers work outside the home. "If women are programmed, as conservatives contend, to stay home with their children and keep house, there's an awful lot of unnatural activity going on."

In denying that there is any evidence for evolved, natural differences in male and female psychology, Hirshman ignores the extensive neurophysiological studies of how the "female brain" differs from the "male brain." My recent posts on Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain point to some of this evidence.

To refer to the "natural hausfrau scenario" ignores the complexity of women's natural desires. As is clear in Brizendine's book as well as the writing of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy--particularly, Mother Nature--the Darwinian science of women's nature presents women as complex and ambivalent in making difficult decisions about the trade offs that must be made in trying to satisfy a wide range of sometimes conflicting natural desires.

As I have said in my writing about the twenty natural desires of human nature, women and men differ on average in their propensities. And yet all human beings--women as well as men--must balance one desire against others. Women in general (on average) tend to be more nurturing as manifested in a greater propensity to care for children, and men in general (on average) tend to be more dominant as manifested in a greater propensity to seek high-status positions. And yet women in general also seek wealth, power, and status, and they must make sometimes difficult decisions about how to combine their desires for maternal care and familial bonding with desires for ambitious advancement in the realms of social, economic, and political competition.

In her book, Hirshman writes: "Without regard to class, in 2004, only 38 percent of married mothers with husbands and children under one in the house worked full time--13 percent work part time, another 3 percent are looking for work. Married women with children under five and a husband around worked at a rate of only 62 percent" (10).

"Only"? "Only 62 percent"? Doesn't this show that when women have equal opportunities with men, many women--over half--will want to work outside the home even when they have young children? But doesn't this also show that for many women the struggle to balance child care against career ambition will force difficult trade offs? And about half of the women will decide to stay at home with the children, at least during the early years of infancy.

Hirshman talks about the need for prudence in deciding how best to live a flourishing life. But she seems blind to the need for women's prudence in deciding what is best in one's individual circumstances, where there is no abstract rule to settle the decision for all individuals in all circumstances. Hirshman is confident that she has the one rule applicable to all cases--every woman must always work outside the home to live a flourishing life, and therefore any woman who decides it's best for her and those she loves to stay at home with her infant children should be condemned for making an immoral choice.

A Darwinian science of sexual identity can clarify the differing natural propensities of men and women. But it cannot decide what is best for every individual woman and man in every set of circumstances. That's why I emphasize the need for prudence or practical wisdom as men and women deliberate about how best to satisfy their sometimes conflicting natural desires.

So what's Hirshman's practical advice? She offers four rules. First, women shouldn't spend too much time in a liberal arts education, because they should be going for professional training that will prepare them to win high-paying jobs. Women should give up their idealistic interests in the arts and the humanities. Second, they should take their careers seriously, and that means never quitting a job just because it's not personally satisfying to them. Third, they should negotiate the best deal they can with any prospective husband. A woman's biggest mistake is marrying a man slightly older and richer than she is, because this man will be in a superior bargaining position. It's better to marry a man who is much younger or much older, because it will be easier for her to pressure him into doing lots of household work. Finally, "use reproductive blackmail." If a woman wants to have a baby, she should. But she should never have more than one! Because it's the second baby that begins to take up too much time for the working mother.

Isn't this pretty wimpy advice? If Hirshman's women really are putting their careers first, why not remain unmarried and childless? After all, there are plenty of good role models here--Condolezza Rice and others.

Of course, there are many women who never marry and never have any children who live flourishing lives. But most women would not regard this as a fully good life. Doesn't Hirshman implicitly concede that in her rules? Is this because she knows that for most women the natural desires for marriage and children are so deep that frustrating them creates a sense of an unfulfilled life?

Hirshman has written a blog post criticizing Brizendine's book. I agree with her that Brizendine is often sloppy in her citations of research. But even so, most of Brizendine's general points about the neurophysiology of the female brain are well supported. My posts on Brizendine can be found here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

What, if anything, does Hirshman have to say about the flourishing of children? If women enter the workforce as she seems to think they should, childcare must be turned over to others. Presumably this will largely fall to people employed to care for children. I suppose she would be fine with this arrangement because people so employed would be doing it for "power, honor, money, [or] exercise of capacities" rather than part of a 'repressive patriarchal home life.'

But can a society really flourish when it does not value the rearing of children above employment?
--Travis Smith

Larry Arnhart said...

As you might expect, Hirshman sees no problem in turning children over to daycare workers. She argues that as long as both husband and wife are working at high-paying jobs, they should have enough money to pay for the best professional daycare.

Anonymous said...

Travis --

Why are there only the two options for childcare that you suggest (the mother or a third party childcare worker)? You seem to be assuming that men can't (or won't) at least share in the responsibilities of child-rearing.

-Bill Hoffman

Anonymous said...


I acknowledge that there are more than two options (even more than three), and I believe that men should share in the responsibilities of raising their children. It’s Hirshman who limits the number of options, by denying that a woman can morally choose to stay home to care for children.

In my first comment, I was working under the assumptions I understood Hirshman to be making. (I must admit that I have not read anything by her and am basing these thoughts on Professor Arnhart’s post). I understood Hirshman to be claiming that all adults, male and female, should choose things that lead to flourishing, which she apparently defines as attaining “power, honor, money, exercise of capacities” (see paragraphs 2-3) . This suggested to me that both the man and the woman would be seeking to further their careers in Hirshman’s ideal world. Childcare and housework would be turned over to those paid for such services. Thus, both parents are freed from the onus of these responsibilities, and the tasks become less demeaning (in Hirshman’s eyes, I presume) because those who do them are not being subjugated to them but rather do them as part of their professional lives. Neither parent, then, would be involved on caring for their children.

As I look again at Professor Arnhart’s post, I see I was much too generous to Hirshman. I assumed she wanted women and men to be equal and believed this was possible as adult individuals respected each others’ need to pursue those things she believes lead to a fulfilling life, but later in the post (paragraph 14), it becomes clear that Hirshman thinks men and women must compete and negotiate for dominance.

My initial point was not to begin a debate about who the primary child care giver should be. Instead, I meant raise the question of whether a society who values the furthering of the individual’s career above the rearing of a child can be said to be flourishing? Can such a society even long survive?

-Travis Smith

What Men Really Want said...

As a Mother I was not prepared to hand over the care of my child to another!

I personally believe children who are cared for by someone close to them (Mother, Father, Grandparent...) have a better start in life than those who are put into 'paid' care.

I know many Mothers who prefer to work and others who have no choice in the matter financially.

Whatever an individual family situation I think the saying "Happy family, Happy child" pretty much sums it up!