Friday, July 14, 2006

A Manifesto for Women of the World...?

I can definitely see why Linda Hirshman’s book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, is so controversial. Not only are her ideas challenging traditional gender norms (good), but she writes in such a biting and unforgiving manner as to make even the liberal women cringe (not so good). Personally, I had to get past her condescending tone in order to focus on some of the good points of her book, which I will list below:

1) Women should lead a flourishing life. I think we can all agree with that. Hirshman’s idea of a flourishing life is inevitably tied to the workplace, which, when considering the emotional, intellectual, and financial benefits of working, makes sense. (More on which work and which women she excludes from her thesis later.)

2) Women need to stay in the workplace in order to help all women, and to change society. It’s undeniable that with the loss of powerful women to the family life, women as a whole lose an edge in our struggle for equality. Hirshman worries that if “women at the top” abandon their positions, the “ruling class” will be “overwhelmingly male,” with disastrous consequences.

3) “[T]here’s a powerful social system in place directing [women] homeward.” True.

4) Women should be better at educating themselves for jobs, as well as bargaining in the workplace and at home. It is indeed crucial that we women stand up for our worth, and in the first place, know our worth. Being assertive to gain what we want at work and in our family lives will only lead to (Hirshman’s favorite phrase) a “flourishing life.”

And my favorite…
5) “Why should the patriarchal workplace be bulldozed and the patriarchal family left untouched?” Great point. We need to attack all systems of patriarchy, not stop when it comes too close to home (forgive the pun). We need to demand that our partners share half (or more) of the household chores and childcare responsibilities. Whether we need to impose a reproductive strike against men, as Hirshman suggests, is to be debated.

Of course, I can’t leave Hirshman without also discussing the many flaws I see with her argument, and mostly, with its execution:

1) Her condescending and insulting tone. Hirshman’s doesn’t just criticize society and the decisions women make…she criticizes the women themselves. I find it interesting that while Hirshman (at least five times) alludes to an insult hurled at working women – that their lives amount to “a pile of pay stubs” – she has no problem dishing out some nasty comments of her own, in a manner I would call mud-slinging.
A couple examples:
“…their talent and education are lost from the public world to a private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos.”
And, about a stay-at-home who wrote to Hirshman about continuing with political activism despite being at home: “Why would the congressmen she writes to listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler, Harvard degree or no?”
Ouch. And don’t even try to tell me “the truth hurts.” Hirshman said it like that on purpose.

2) Her implied disregard for anyone who deals with children. Hirshman seems to forget a crucial part of her plan: assuming that children need the care of other humans, there must be some people to take care of the kids while she and other privileged women go to work. Either Hirshman doesn’t include these women in her argument, or she just doesn’t see them, period. It seems as though Hirshman is so focused on instructing her darling educated, middle- to upper-class women that she forgets there are lower-class women, especially those who have to care for the working women’s children, or do the working women’s housework. Oops.

And Hirshman’s classist undertones continue…

3) Hirshman, in a scathing explanation as to why Gloria Steinem utterly ruined feminism, states, “Under her [Steinem’s] uncritically accepting eye, feminism expanded to embrace every oppressed group.” I’m sorry, is there a problem with supporting the causes of all oppressed peoples? This kind of tone sounds dangerously close to the early white feminists’ sentiment that black women and men shouldn’t be included in their fight for justice. What would feminism be like, I wonder, if this elitist notion of justice weren’t challenged?

4) Hirshman is only arguing for the educated, middle-class women. And I quote, “Organized feminism should say […] We think the educated middle-class women who were always the core of the feminist movement should seek and keep the interesting, well-paid jobs that middle-class men have.” I believe Hirshman has just left out entire groups of women, mainly the lower class. What’s more, saying that middle-class women “were always the core of the feminist movement” implies both that these women are more entitled than all other women, and that the feminist movement always has been and should remain white and middle-class (both parts being untrue). I get scared when I see statements like that.

So I guess it boils down to this: Hirshman has some great ideas, and she’s certainly passionate. Where she goes wrong is in her abrasive tone and the classist attitude which underlies her entire book. I wouldn’t take such issue if Get to Work didn’t have the subtitle, A Manifesto for Women of the World. In reality, it’s more like a manifesto for women in Hirshman’s world.

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