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Anti-Unpaid-Work Polemicist Riles Full-Time Moms

Friday, September 8, 2006

Linda Hirshman has offended plenty of stay-at-home mothers with her polemic in praise of paid work and against house chores. But many also credit her for pressing a subject neglected by "workplace feminism."

Subhead: 
Linda Hirshman has offended plenty of stay-at-home mothers with her polemic in praise of paid work and against house chores. But many also credit her for pressing a subject neglected by "workplace feminism."



Linda Hirshman

(WOMENSENEWS)--Let the dust accumulate! Don't empty the dishwasher! Stop driving the carpool and get to work!

In her slim, red-jacketed book, "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, former trial lawyer and mother, argues that "the real glass ceiling is at home."

It's not the workplace holding women back, she says, it's the family, with "its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks."

Hirshman's admonitions have offended many stay-at-home mothers, and, yet, some of the most sustained engagement with her work has come from such women.

Mothers and More, the Elmhurst, Ill., national organization for women taking time off from paid work to care for children, held an Internet dialog with Hirshman during five days in June right after the publication of her book.

"Our perspective is that we know it is not a good choice," said Debra Levy, who spearheaded the conversation with Hirshman for Mothers and More, about women leaving the workplace. "Economically it is not a good choice."

"Yet the majority of us believe strongly in the value of caring for others--even if we were to wind up like Terry Hekker, we'd do it all again," wrote Levy in an introduction to Hirshman for the Internet discussion.

Hekker, who defended her decision to be a stay-at-home mother in her 1980 book "Ever Since Adam and Eve," ended up eligible for food stamps after her 40-year marriage ended in divorce.

Hekker, herself, would do it all over again, too, though this time around a bit differently.

"I would certainly stay home with my children until they are all of school age," Hekker told Women's eNews. "But we live in a society where there is no job security anymore, so just on that level, women have to be prepared to support themselves. And with the divorce rate at 50 percent, you have got to keep in your field for security."

Hekker was elected the deputy mayor of Nyack, N.Y., in 1994, and earned a paycheck for six years in that position. She is now working on a new book, "Disregard First Book."

Reasons to Stay Attached to Work

"I think there are really good reasons for women to stay attached to the work force," Judith Stadtman Tucker, the founder of Mother's Movement Online, a Web resource for progressive mothers, told Women's eNews. Staying attached through part-time work options or through freelance opportunities offers protection, she says. Women don't incur a huge cost penalty once they have children and don't lose that much experience.

Since the publication of books such as Ann Crittenden's 2002 "The Price of Motherhood," about how mothers are financially penalized, women are more aware of the risks involved in quitting work to become full-time mothers.

Mothers working last year, for instance--including women from all socio-economic backgrounds--earned approximately 50 percent of their male-parental counterparts overall, estimates Theresa Funiciello, executive director of TR Rose Associates, a New York-based public policy organization. Funicello bases her estimate on statistics taken from the 2005 American Community Survey provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And according to a 2005 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington-based nonprofit, women older than 65 are at a much greater risk of poverty than men.

"Our membership is becoming better educated," Levy told Women's eNews about Mothers and More. "You would do the (caregiving) all over again, but instead you would maintain your CPA certification while doing it."

"Get to Work" is an extension of Hirshman's article, "Homeward Bound," which appeared in the December 2005 issue of The American Prospect, the Washington-based progressive magazine.

For that article Hirshman surveyed 30 women who announced their weddings in the New York Times in January 1996. In her admittedly anecdotal study, she found 85 percent had either bowed out of paid work completely or were working part-time.

Hirshman also interviewed writers such as Judith Stadtman Tucker and Miriam Peskowitz, author of the 2005 "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?" which asks why mothers are constantly pitted against each other.

Stadtman Tucker quickly responded to "Homeward Bound" with an article on the online mothers group's Web site headlined "Everybody Hates Linda" last December. In it she called Hirshman to task for blaming women for the lingering barriers that hinder their success in the workplace and "the mindset that professional achievement is the one true path to full human flourishing."

Raising a Neglected Subject

But Stadtman Tucker did credit Hirshman for raising a topic worthy of discussion and said she agreed that the cultural assumption that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking had been largely untouched by "workplace feminism."

Besides working, Hirshman instructs women not to study art in college, to take work seriously, find the money professionally, to have just one child, not two, and to "bargain relentlessly for a just household."

Hirshman devised her one-child recommendation after her interview with Stadtman Tucker. In the original piece for The American Prospect, Hirshman wrote: "Stadtman Tucker reports that women who opt-out for child-care reasons act only after the second child arrives."

Many members of Mothers and More and Stadtman Tucker's online group advocate collective and policy-oriented solutions such as paid maternity and parental leave, paid sick leave, and part-time parity.

But the idea of restructuring the workplace or government is anathema to Hirshman, who finds such attempts futile.

"I believe my prescriptions are a sign of limited hope," Hirshman wrote in the Mothers and More dialogue.

A former union-side labor lawyer, Hirshman wrote that she had been disillusioned with the possibilities of fighting for collective action. When she realized just how "deeply conservative and individualistic" U.S. society had become since 1973, she turned to the proposals she offers in her book.

'A Different Paradigm'

"We need a different paradigm," Hirshman told Women's eNews, saying that public solutions are unlikely. "I am proposing things that could actually happen tomorrow."

Levy says Hirshman, who had a child care provider working at home to help care for her own children, fails to address the emotional needs of mothers.

"Many of us felt we had no other route than to leave the workplace," said Levy, a former legal assistant, who said she felt ambivalent about a part-time work option and full-time day care.

In the April issue of the Congressional Quarterly Researcher, a Washington-based public policy magazine, Hirshman and Peskowitz took "Yes" and "No" positions, respectively, to the question "Are women giving up by opting out?"

"It's not a politically retrograde choice to leave a workplace that squeezes you too tight," Peskowitz wrote. "To refuse to work all day for pay and work all evening at home . . . No, this is called a boycott."

But Hirshman continues to encourage women to adhere to a set of rules that they can personally control.

During her online dialogue with Mothers and More this summer a new dictate occurred to Hirshman after a few women commented that they found it hard to work with men who didn't face caregiving demands at home.

"I'm thinking of a new rule for a future book on women at work," Hirshman mused. "Don't work for a man with a stay-at-home wife."

Jeanine Plant is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Linda Hirshman:
http://www.gettoworkmanifesto.com/

Mother's Movement Online:
http://www.mothersmovement.org/

Mothers and More:
http://www.mothersandmore.org/

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