The Year of Domesticity
by David Brooks
After a generation of feminist advance, women have more choices. They are freer to pursue a career, stay home or figure out some combination of both. And this is progress, right?
Wrong, says Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis professor, in the December
issue of The American Prospect. Women who choose to stay home, she writes, stifle themselves and harm society. As she puts it, ''The family -- with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks -- is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.''
Hirshman quotes Mark Twain, ''A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read,'' and argues that a woman who chooses to stay home with her kids is just as weak as a woman who can't get out of the house.
Women need to be coached to make better choices, Hirshman advises. First, they need to aim for careers that pay well: ''The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.''
Second, women need to find husbands who will share domestic drudgery equally: ''You can either find a spouse with less social power than you or find one with an ideological commitment to gender equality.''
Finally, she writes, ''Have a baby. Just don't have two.'' Women with two kids find it harder to pursue a demanding career.
Women who stay home worrying about diapers have ''voluntarily become untouchables,'' Hirshman concludes. If these women continue to make bad choices, men will perpetually dominate the highest levels of society. It is time, she says, to re-radicalize feminism.
Hirshman's essay really clears the sinuses. It's a full-bore, unapologetic blast of 1975 time-warp feminism and it deserves one of the 2005 Sidney Awards, which I've created for the best magazine essays of the year, because it is impossible to read this manifesto without taking a few minutes to figure out why she is so wrong.
But of course, she is wrong.
First, she's wrong with her astonishing assertion that high-paying jobs lead to more human flourishing than parenthood. Look back over your life. Which memories do you cherish more, those with your family or those at the office? If Hirshman thinks high-paying careers lead to more human flourishing, I invite her to spend a day as an associate at a big law firm.
Second, she's wrong to assume that work is the realm of power and home is the realm of powerlessness. The domestic sphere may not offer the sort of brutalizing, dominating power Hirshman admires, but it is the realm of unmatched influence. If there is one thing we have learned over the past generation, it is that a child's I.Q., mental habits and destiny are largely shaped in the first few years of life, before school or the out-side world has much influence.
Children, at least, understand parental power. In ''Eminem Is Right,'' a Sidney Award-winning essay in Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt notes a striking change in pop music. ''If yesterday's rock was the music of abandon, today's is the music of abandonment.'' An astonishing number of hits, from artists ranging from Pearl Jam to Everclear to Snoop Dogg, are about kids who feel neglected by their parents. This is a need Hirshman passes over.
Her third mistake is to not even grapple with the fact that men and women are wired differently. The Larry Summers flap produced an outpouring of work on the neurological differences between men and women. I'd especially recommend ''The Inequality Taboo'' by Charles Murray in Commentary and a debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the online magazine Edge.
One of the findings of this research is that men are more interested in things and abstract rules while women are more interested in people. (You can come up with your own Darwinian explanation as to why.)
When you look back over the essays of 2005, you find many that dealt with the big foreign policy issues of the year, but also an amazing number that dealt with domesticity. That's because the deeper you get into economic or social problems -- national competitiveness, poverty, school performance, incarceration -- the more you realize the answers lie with good parenting and good homes.
Hirshman has it exactly backward. Power is in the kitchen. The big problem is not the women who stay there but the men who leave.
New York Times, 1/01/06
David Brooks Feminism Linda Hirshman Mommy Wars Equality Work Family Conflict Brooks Stay at Home Moms