Linda Hirshman

(WOMENSENEWS)–Can it be a coincidence that Karen Hughes departs the White House for “family” reasons just as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Take Our Daughters to Work Day?

Hughes’ son and husband want to go back to Texas, Hughes announced last week, and she puts her family first. Even before the second-most powerful job in the country, counselor to the president. Even though she was the one who always had his ear and was the one who spoke with his voice.

Hughes was largely responsible for the moving simplicity of President Bush’s address to Congress after Sept. 11. Most recently, it was Hughes who wrote Bush’s memorable statement on Middle East violence: “When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying.”

We have heard Hughes’s voice more than we know, and usually to our benefit. And now she’s giving it all up for a soccer game in Austin.

The feminist bashers jumped all over it, braying about how women can’t have it all–in fact, can’t even have most of it. They even dragged out Candice Carpenter, the born-again Stepford wife who used to run

Now Carpenter isn’t a very good example of the naturalness of women’s sacrifice, because she was summarily pushed out when iVillage’s stock went from $130 to something around $7. So she was on the downward slope when she lucked into the bed of the male chief executive officer of Random House, Inc. At least Hughes seems to be leaving for the soccer league and not because she lost a critical battle to Karl Rove or one of the president’s other advisors.

But Hughes’ decision should force us to reconsider taking our daughters to work, as so many parents did last Thursday on Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Why take them if they’re only going to quit? Why take them if another Karen Hughes will only leave another president to his own devices of self-expression during a foreign policy crisis? Why take them if another Candice Carpenter will only look to catch a wealthy husband when her fantasy Internet stock finally crashes?

Media commentators from right to left have made a heroine out of Hughes. Am I the only person in America who’s figured out it doesn’t have to be like this?

Where exactly is Jerry Hughes, Karen’s much older husband, described in the media as a “semi-retired lawyer and seminary student?” Is there some compelling national demand for semi-retired lawyers and seminarians rather than talented presidential advisors that I’ve missed in my concentration on the Middle East crisis, Al Qaeda and the possibility of nuclear terrorism? Couldn’t Jerry do the soccer bit for a couple of years while Mrs. Hughes serves her country? Maybe Hughes never thought to ask him.

Immediately after marrying Jerry in 1984, Hughes quit her job as a journalist, taking a big pay cut to go to work as the Texas press coordinator for the Reagan-Bush campaign. A Washington Post profile quotes her as saying, “I had gotten married and I had a new stepdaughter. I remember when I was doing the wedding invitations I got called and sent to a hurricane. I was driving toward the coast and everybody else was driving the other way. I remember thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?'” After 1984 she consulted around, doing political PR and helping candidates in the Dallas area. None of the largely positive coverage of her current decision mentions that from the beginning of her marriage to Jerry Hughes, the children, starting with his daughter from a prior marriage, were 25-year-old Karen’s obligation and it was her booming career that had to be derailed.

No amount of taking daughters to work teaches the daughters the lesson that a successful career also requires making a just arrangement in the private world. What would have happened if Hughes had struck a different bargain with her 45-year-old divorced suitor in 1984? Before she took that long trip down the aisle, Hughes might have said, “I am an enormously talented wordsmith. My talent means a lot to my sense of self. Maybe someday I’ll even get a chance to act heroically in the service of a good country. If we are going to share responsibility for your child from a prior marriage, we are going to have to share it in the true sense of the word. Sometimes the burden will fall on me, sometimes on you. When we calculate the burden, my using my skills and having a heroic moment is going to have to weigh in the equation.”

If parents all over the United States teach their daughters about justice in the private world of the family, maybe Hughes–and the other women working the second shift and quitting their jobs–wouldn’t have to quit. Take our daughters to work? Turns out the lessons our daughters need come from a very different place.

Linda Hirshman is Allen-Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University.

For more information:

Take Our Daughters to Work Day:
“Bush aide Karen Hughes to leave White House”:

Transitions Institute, Inc.
“About Candice Carpenter”: