Undoing Affirmation

Background

Earlier this week, I surfed into the following article, after Today's Papers (see the Blogroll) had directed me to something else at the Washington Post, "Mommy Rage: Unleashing the Wrath of Stay-at-Home Moms."

I found myself nodding in support of Linda R. Hirshman's portrayal of herself as a feminist who deplores the abdication of the world of work by well-educated women, in favor of full-time parenthood. But I also found myself thinking about her "survey," on which her article that sparked the Mommy Rage had been based.

The article can be found here.

She found an astonishing percentage of women with degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, who announced their weddings in the New York Times on three successive Sundays, had withdrawn from the workforce.

Hirshman interviewed them seven years after their marriages, when 90 per cent now had babies/children. Of the 30 women with babies, only five were working full time.Her findings echo an approach, but not a methodology, found in other New York Times articles, such as "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," by Louise Story, which also resembled "The Opt-Out Revolution," by Lisa Belkin, going back to 2003.

Credit should go to Slate's Press critic Jack Shafer (Press Box), for highlighting the problems with this series of stories, particularly the Louise Story story (Sept 20, 2005; with update on Sept 23, 2005; at Slate.com).

Undoing Affirmation

Like Linda R. Hirshman, I'm a feminist, academic, well-educated at elite colleges, and have almost always worked, though not always in academe. But some of that academic background is in counseling/clinical psychology, and some of that work experience is as a statistician/policy analyst. So although as a university teacher I could think of women and men students who fit with her characterizations of economic roles and interests, and could remember brilliant women students who were more interested in their domestic future than in their future in the workplace, my vestigial analytical brain kept ticking away saying "Now, is that actually right?"

Linda R. Hirshman is an emerita professor of philosophy at Brandeis University, who taught women's studies/feminist theory there. As a credentialed "cultural critic," of course she can authoritatively speak about women who are or are not stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) — both sets of women work, as she recognizes. Part of her critique is that society does not value the kinds of work that SAHMs do; i.e., society does not value child-care. Part of the fury with which her critique has been met is that organized, blogging, SAHMs insist on the value of what they do, against (previous) philosophical understanding. Such previous philosophical understanding includes marxist analysis of the value of labor, and feminist understanding of the human potential of women that is deferred and denied. Hirshman pretends to use data of a sociological sort, in her effort to survey a small sample of well-educated women, women who, one might think, would know enough to want to make their contribution in the world of thought, rather than the individual and personal world of child-rearing. What she does is faulty reasoning, however. She is not a trained sociologist, and by misusing sociological statistical methids, creates a straw person. The purpose of such a creation is to represent reality, so that she can draw from her background in philosophies to argue for change.

I thought about her sample, and then I thought about how fortunate I am to be a grandmother, when my women friends and relatives with grown female children do not have the same opportunity. The young women of whom I thought have educations similar to the young women of Hirshman's sample; what they do not have is engagements and weddings announced on the Society pages of the New York Times. The true understanding of Hirschman's sample is, it seems to me, that young women who choose to get married do so because they also choose to have children and are choosing to marry a man who can support children and/or partner with them in raising children. The daughters of friends and relatives who do not make grandmothers of their mothers also do not choose to get married, let alone announce their weddings on the pages of the New York Times. Thus, the statistics of Hirshman's sample are skewed not merely for class, but for her subject, the choices of young women.

One young woman I know whose choice, supported fully by her husband, is to work full time and to have raise children as well, faulted Hirshman for making the personal political. I don't really think that Hirshman is making the personal political, or is very good at making the political personal. I think young women actually have the choice thing down, at least so far as they are able to meet suitable young men.

Incidentally, Hirshman's op-ed piece in the Washington Post also was timed fairly well to promote her book, released June 8, 2006. The book is Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.

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