Everyone's Talking about Linda Hirshman's "Homeward Bound"

Wanna know why I don’t post more? A big reason is that I like reading too much. For instance, I was thinking of writing something about Linda Hirshman’s article “Homeward Bound.” But first I thought I’d see what other bloggers were saying about it… and that turned out to take up all my available blogging time.

I may or may not find time to write a post about Hirshman’s article – although the number one thing I have to say about it, I’ve already said, which is that much of her premise simply ain’t true. (Note, however, that Hirshman herself, in comments, argues that my criticism is unjust.) Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading::

Official Shrub.com Blog
Seriously, though, without proper data a proper discussion cannot take place. The articles Hirshman cites are crap, even if the message they send may have a grain of truth. There is nothing to be gained by validating their improper methodologies, flawed logic, and misuse of data. If you want to discuss the message, then both sides need to approach the issue with data that was gathered and analyzed properly, otherwise it’s fair game to discredit the message by discrediting evidence provided. […]

The point of “choice feminism” is that we must recognize a woman’s right to make her own choices, even if those choices are anti-feminist, bad for her, or just ones we don’t agree with. It is her right as a human being to live her life the way she sees fit.

It is our job, however, as feminists to see where women’s choices are taken away from them and to broaden the path.

So, women just want to be little domestic honey-bunnies? No barriers other those in their own heads and in the minds of their Neanderthal husbands? They just want to spend their time cleaning and see no benefits for their children by staying at home? Please. These women are not representative of elite women and, even if they are, so what? Why do you care?

Half Changed World
I agree that “having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life” is important. I think that Hirshman is right that women often make choices that make sense at the time, but that cut off future options and reduce their bargaining power in the process. But I think that Hirshman is wildly off base in interpreting “autonomy” solely in terms of increased earnings capacity. She’s equally scornful of women who choose “indentured servitude in social-service jobs” as she is of stay-at-home moms, assuming that this makes them less autonomous than the big firm lawyer working 80 hours a week at a job he hates. (Ironically, at the same time that Hirshman is saying that feminism failed by not making women more career-minded, David Gelernter is whining that feminism is the reason his students are excessively career focused.)

My point is there is middle ground between this silly “all choices are feminist” crap and a more nuanced understanding that all choices women make are in response to oppressive forces and have to be understood as essentially surviving choices. It’s helpful advice to suggest that you marry someone beneath you socially to balance out your class privilege with his male privilege, and it’s helpful to advise someone not to change her name when she marries, but I think it’s not productive to judge women who feel, for whatever reasons, that they are only bringing more oppression into their lives than is worth it by making these choices. Like my bitching vs. just doing the housework example–who’s really going to line up to cast judgement on me when I’ve accurately concluded that it’s easier for me to have to do all the housework rather than be labeled a nag and a shrew?

Emphatic note to Linda Hirshman: Feminists can say anything they damn well want (even “Fuck you!” when we are so moved, which is not a random observation here); most elite women DO “choose” the trajectory of their lives, at least as much as the rest of us do, thanks in large part to the triumphs of feminism; and feminism as I understand and experience it is not “in collusion with traditional society.” We are subverting the patriarchy one day at a time by living as we want to, rather than following instructions dictated by men, or by you.

Midlife Mama
Yet (sigh) I fear she’s right that one way to change relationships is for women to increase their earning power. (She also suggests they could be changed if women would “marry down” in age or status, or if they married liberals. She reports this with–seemingly–no irony.)

Bitch, PhD
In fact, I believe that this is the single most irretrievably gendered division-of-labor issue for couples who want to be, or think they are, equals: the person whose job it is to monitor that equality is the person who has the least power. And in most cases, that’s the woman. That’s why “don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources” is absolutely crucial advice: if you’re going to have to monitor your marriage to make sure that it’s an equal partnership, then that is in and of itself part of the labor of the relationship. That “counts,” and having to do that “extra” work will be a lot more palatable, and possible, if you ensure from the outset that all other aspects of your marriage distribute resources equally.

Angry Pregnant Lawyer
So the reason that the number of women in elite jobs is small is because feminism failed. It has nothing to do with outright or even subtle discrimination in the workplace, or with society’s attitudes toward women, work, and families. There’s a nifty trick: I’m sorry, but your quest for equality hasn’t happened yet, so obviously it’s a clunker of an idea. Forget everything you have achieved in the past 30 years–it’s time to pack it up and get a new ideology.

Rebel Dad
The ideal situation for most families should be shared parenting, where a child has ample doses of both parents. The best way to make that happen is through workplace flexibility: alternative schedules, ample part-time work (with benefits), telecommuting options, etc. There is no reason why the workplace in 2005 needs to run like it did in 1981, when the phone company was a monopoly, fax machines were considered something close to black magic and the internet was powered by 213 computers. If you could build businesses around the concepts advocated by Joan Williams at UC-Hastings — proportional pay, benefits and advancement for part-timers — a lot of Hirshman’s concerns would disappear.

Playground Revolution
The Linda Hirshman piece in the American Prospect is getting emailed around, and got a spot on AlterNet. More tendentious lies, as in: the workplace changed enough. Oh, please. I was interviewed for that piece, and totally distrust the author’s assumptions and her willingness to be honest and truthful. I’m so exhausted by ideologues. Her database: three weeks worth of couples who advertised their June weddings in, yes, the Sunday New York Times. She’s trying to find a book contract for this, god help us all. And she’s a scholar too, she should know better about how to use evidence. Enough, enough, enough.

The Republic of Heaven
Once you’ve assigned false consciousness to every woman who says that she chose to scale back (or forgo entirely) her career in order to have a better family life (a positive externality she fails to include in her calculations of the economics of one income versus two), you have taken a pretty hard position to falsify. How can I prove to you that I enjoy the time that I spend with my daughter, and that I receive value from that, which compensates (given my set of preferences) for the lost income? She has already pronounced that my preferences are invalid, so I have no grounds for argument.

Boston Mommy
Apparently there are still people who – instead of looking for ways to make American work places more family friendly, to remove the penalties for stepping off the fast track (for moms AND dads), to encourage companies to invest in and help retain talented employees by allowing parents to balance work and kids through telecommuting and truncated work schedule options – would prefer to attack the moms who didn’t chose to partake of the full-time day care option.

Blogging Baby
When I think of my friends and mama role models, a lot of them are combining work and family. My good friend Liz, who had baby #2 a few weeks ago, was working for CSFB right up until labor. Another buddy from business school just got in touch with me last week, and I found she was already working fulltime only six months after the birth of her first son. Meg Whitman is the CEO of eBay despite having two boys and a husband whose career is similarly demanding. Although my own career has changed gears a bit in the past three years, I’m still pretty much on track with my goals – although I have taken work that pays less in order to balance it with child rearing, my resume is still full of “chief” this and “VP of” that.

Joanne Jacobs
Men don’t have to make the choice, Hirshman writes. I think most men don’t get to make that choice. They’re usually stuck with the breadwinner role, whether they want it or not. These days, women really do have a choice, but not one without consequences.

Litotical Construct
I find it a curious methodology to look at work in order to assess whether women are being discriminated against, not merely treated differently, vis a vis men. In the civil rights cases challenging the practice of excluding blacks from juries, it was a quick but not trivial question how blacks could be burdened when they were relieved of an obligation; it seems the same problem is inescapable when one uses work to measure opportunity. In the courtroom, a judge could simply decide that since the disparate treatment was suffered by the defendant and not the excused veniremen, it would henceforth be true as a matter of law that singling out black jurors is discriminatory. When a social scientist tries to decipher the world, however, no such resolution by fiat is available.

The Useless Tree
Although it may be true that when a highly trained woman lawyer or architect or corporate professional drops out of the work force it may give employers pause in hiring other women (will they leave for family reasons?), that social cost (inequality in the workplace) is certainly offset by the social good of family care. No, instead of casting aspersions on women caregivers, we should think of ways of enabling more men to do the same kind of caregiving.

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17 Responses to Everyone's Talking about Linda Hirshman's "Homeward Bound"

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  6. 6
    AlieraKieron says:

    The one subtext here that noone else has picked up on is the growing hypocrisy vis a vis reproductive rights in the feminist movement. We’re not pro-abortion, we’re pro-choice, and support reproductive freedom.

    But if you USE those rights to have more than one child, you’re anti-feminist.
    WTF??!!?? Am I the only one who sees A) what a bad, bad, bad place this line of thinking can go to, and B) could we HAND the right a bigger box of ammo?

  7. 7
    Josh Jasper says:

    I did like Hirshman’s point about needing to change society to make childcare less of a default woman’s burden. Both child care and housework are still ingrained in men’s minds as ‘women’s work’.

    IMO, Hirshfeld is right that feminism has a lot of work to do in changing culturaal attitudes, and that the libertarian abandonment of feminism (“The town is saved. Our work is done here, amigo”) is a denial of the cultural changes that need to happen for real equality and empowerment.

    I also agree with her arguments about the sort of men women who want this equality should be looking for.

    Aliera – um, just what *are* you talking about? Can you give some sort of example from this blog?

  8. 8
    AlieraKieron says:

    On this blog? No. But BitchPhD (in the comments on her post on this topic) did state that if you’re going to reproduce, the decision which best furthers feminist goals, and is thus the feminist choice, is only having one child.

    And the original article comments:
    “Here’s the last rule: Have a baby. Just don’t have two.”
    While I see her point, functionally speaking, I can see this going to The Bad Place, and I don’t even want to think of the cackles of glee once LaShawn Barber gets her hands on a quote like that.

    Looking back I realize I did an even poorer job than usual of getting that across in my first post… apologies.

  9. 9
    Richard Bellamy says:

    IMO, Hirshfeld is right that feminism has a lot of work to do in changing culturaal attitudes,

    I agree with this. In the past few weeks, I’ve got numerous phone calls from feminist/ liberal groups asking that I contribute to fight the nomination of Judge Alito because he’s going to reverse Roe v. Wade.

    I can’t figure out why so much resources are going to protect one Supreme Court case, and so little to changing the cultural attitudes that lead to the case in the first place.

    I live in New Jersey. We will have abortion rights whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned, because we’re all pro-choice here, even our Republican governors.

    If I live in one of the 83% of counties that don’t have an abortion clinic, I don’t have any abortion rights now, irrespective of Roe v. Wade.

    The number of people who would actually lose access to abortions if Roe v. Wade were overturned is so small, but it’s essentially become the focus of all abortion-related fundraising. The time and money could be much better spent trying to get majorities of people to oppose restrictions on abortion, so that RvW would become unnecessary.

  10. 10
    Rad Geek says:


    I can’t figure out why so much resources are going to protect one Supreme Court case ….

    Because women’s lives are at stake, and this is one of the fronts we have to fight on.


    I live in New Jersey. We will have abortion rights whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned, because we’re all pro-choice here, even our Republican governors.

    I’m happy for you, really, but not all of us are nearly so fortunate. If Roe v. Wade is overturned tomorrow, then abortion will certainly be recriminalized, more or less immediately, in most or all of the states in the Southeast, the interior West, and a substantial swath of the Midwest. You might say, “Look, Mississippi only has one abortion clinic in the whole state today; does it make that much difference to a woman from Tupelo or Biloxi or Sunflower County whether she has to travel to Jackson, or go out of state, to get an abortion?” But the answer is that yes, it does. Not everyone has the privilege of living in a state where reproductive rights are safe, or even near one. And not all the women in the states where abortion would likely be recriminalized have the privilege of being able to take several days off to travel to New York or New Jersey or California in order to get surgery that is already expensive.

    This is setting aside the further question of federal abortion laws. Depending on the legal reasoning given in a hypothetical reversal of Roe, a blanket ban may or may not be a likely outcome; but whether it is or not you can certainly expect the Republican President and Republican Congress rumbling to pass federal procedure bans and federal laws aimed at restricting women from traveling across state lines to get abortions.

    So, yeah. It’s important.


    I can’t figure out why so much resources are going to protect one Supreme Court case, and so little to changing the cultural attitudes that lead to the case in the first place.

    If you don’t think that enough cultural work is being done to change people’s attitudes about abortion then why not do something about it yourself instead of fussing about how people and organizations who are already very busy with other important and closely related work aren’t doing it for you? (For example: write a letter to the editor, volunteer to become a clinic escort, tell an anti-choice family member about how you volunteered to become a clinic escort and explain why, buy books or music or films that advance the pro-choice position, etc. etc. etc.)

  11. 11
    NancyP says:

    Hirschman’s sampling methodology is pathetic. If she wanted to sample “women who married 7 years ago”, she could have used public records random sampling to generate a list not socioeconomically skewed. If she wanted to sample “elite women of childbearing age”, she could have contacted a random subset of women graduates of Ivy League colleges, law schools, and medical schools. Where are the marriage refusers, lesbians, women in long-term hetero relations who don’t plan on having children, etc? Not to mention the women who are too busy with their career trajectories to bother with trying to get the NYT to publish a marriage announcement (or caring if the NYT did so)? Is it so surprising that a subset of “let’s impress the world with how high-society we are” women are going to do the rest of the retro bit and stay home to have the nanny care for the babies and devote her time to doing the charity fundraising bit and being a Lady Who Lunches?

  12. I wrote about this, too. Really long posts. The first one is The Longest Revolution. The second one is just above this one.

  13. 13
    The Countess says:

    I think the problem isn’t so much whether or not mothers are “opting out” of the work force, but that businesses aren’t very family-friendly. Working mothers are always worrying about working, getting the kids in and out of day care, paying for day care, deciding who is going to stay home with sick kids, working late vs. being home at night for the kids, how business travel will affect the family, especially if you are a single or divorced mom, what to do if you are a single or divorced parent with a sick kid – take the kid to work and get the hairy eyeball or stay home and not get paid – and all sorts of other juggling. Businesses pay lip service to family-friendly policies. If businesses would actually make it easier for employees with families to get their jobs done, I think things would improve.

    Now, just to contradict myself, Arlie Hochschild had published a book called, I believe, “The Time Bind”. If I have the name of the book right, it looked into companies that do have family-friendly policies. Turns out moms and dads aren’t taking advantage of those policies because of the praise and sense of achievement they get from their jobs that they don’t get as caregivers. So there are a lot of things at work regarding whether or not mothers are “opting out” of the work force. Whether they do or don’t, the entire issue does not rest on their shoulders.

  14. 14
    Mary Beth says:

    I am a college graduate in my late thirties who HAPPILY stays home with my 3 children. I always knew that is what I wanted to do. I never read anything in this article at all about what is best for the CHILDREN not just the Moms. I feel I am doing very important work raising the next generation and I take great pride in it, more pride than I ever had working full time. The rewards I get are priceless. I have a son with a language delay who could never have gotten the time and attention he needed if I had been at work all day. He is talking great now but staying on top of his therapy took a lot of time, resource researching and maternal observation.
    I will only get the chance to be a good Mom once, I do not want to blow it.

  15. 15
    Emma Peterson says:

    Why does the media have to polarize feminist movement between those women who chose the mommy-track and those mothers who continue to work?

    Lately, the feminist dialogue is framed in terms of children, mothering and sharing child-rearing obligations. For example, see today’s Modern Love column in the New York Times by Terry Martin Hekker.

    I was so incensed by Linda Hirshman’s essay that I spent the better part of today reading the latest feminist blogs for responses.

    “How can a woman expect to balance a career and children?” According to the blogs and columnists I’ve read today, that is the big question. But how about advising women to ask themselves, do I really want to have children? Would I make a good mother?

    In all the responses to Hirshman’s essay, I haven’t seen one critic address the choice to NOT have children. Many responses comment on societal pressures that lead women into thinking they are the better caregivers. What about the societal pressures on women to have children?

    Also, I must disagree with Ms. Hirshman’s academic advice. Many liberal art students go on to pursue careers in advertising, marketing, or sales and are well compensated for their efforts. Many of us in the ‘hard’ sciences may chose research careers that are not as financially rewarding. The idea that your degree determines your career path is so incredibly off-base that I have to wonder what year Ms. Hirshman believes she is living in.

  16. 16
    Lee says:

    Emma, it’s not a year, it’s a State of Mind. Didn’t you know NYC is the center of the universe? Even though many famous and important scientists live there now and have lived there in the past, science types in NYC appear to have their own alternate universe set up, so they don’t usually register on the radar screens of journalists like Hirschman unless they’ve recently won the Nobel Prize or something.

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