so Great about Work?
A few months ago The American Prospect published an essay
by Linda Hirshman about women and work that has been angrily denounced all
over the place. Hirshman's piece is an argument in favor of work and
against child care, and she castigates her female peers for sacrificing their
careers to care for their families. The piece grew out of a very clever
bit of research. Thinking that the brides who appear in the Sunday
Style section of the New York Times were a good sample of the
nation's most elite women, Hirshman set out to call three Sundays worth of
brides eight years on to see what they were up to.
What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the "Sunday Styles," circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism's promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that. Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.
I find Hirshman's results quite striking, and while some of her critics have tried to attack the reliability of this and the other research she cites, I think her position is empirically sound: elite American women really do take time off from their careers to raise children, and as a result fewer of them end up as top executives or partners in major law firms. What I find peculiar about Hirshman's piece is the mystified contempt she shows toward women who choose to spend time with their children, and the worshipful attitude toward work that leaves her wondering why everyone doesn't long for a high-powered career.
Not only did the women in Hirshman's sample willingly quit their
jobs to be mommies, some of them seem to have given up on the whole idea
of having a career:
Bravo for them! Hirshman assumes that there is something wrong
with anyone who feels "alienated from work", but I tend to assume the opposite:
I think that almost everyone who becomes a top executive in a major
corporation or a partner in a top law firm has severe character flaws. A
big corporation is a sort of pyramid scheme in which the bosses rake in millions
while most of the employees are lucky to get 1% of the CEO's pay. The
ones who rise to the top are not the smartest or the hardest working but
the ones most devoted to climbing the ladder by any means necessary.
People, it seems, like Linda Hirshman:
Those foolish women! Can you believe they actually put their
ideals above making money and wielding power?
But Hirshman actually has a more complicated approach to work than
simple greed. She thinks work is better than parenting because "The
family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks— is a necessary
part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing
than public spheres like the market or the government."
Full human flourishing — I like that phrase. But is work
in the "market economy" really the best way to achieve it? Now, don't
get my wrong; I have nothing against work. I think most people need
to work, and I know I do. Without an office to go to and tasks that
have to be accomplished, I would flounder. Sometimes I even enjoy my
job, and I know that if I quit I would have to find some other structured
way to spend my time. I have a strong suspicion that most people like
their jobs less than I do (they certainly complain about them a lot), but
even those with the toughest work lives seem to need them. Consider the wreckage
that overtakes so many lottery winners, who find themselves miserable and
bankrupt five years after winning the millions they thought would make them
happy. Everybody knows this, but still millions of people dream about
sudden wealth. The main topic of conversation among the commuters on
my train is retirement. We seem to exist in a love-hate relationship
with our jobs; we think they make us unhappy, but without them they are miserable.
Linda Hirshman must find work much more rewarding than I do. When
women devote themselves to housework, she says, they "sacrifice their access
to money, power, and honor." She quotes Betty Friedan's exalted rhetoric
of empowerment through work:
Which is where Hirshman lost me altogether. The women in her
NY Times had not "sacrificed their access to money;" they were all
still quite wealthy, thanks to their husbands' jobs. So what if they
weren't actually earning it? Given the chance to live comfortable lives
without becoming corporate drones, they took it; what's wrong with that?
As for power, I wield a lot more around my house than I do in the office.
And honor? What does work in the "market economy" have to do
Maybe vacuuming doesn't "challenge any woman's full capacity," but
how many people use their "full capacity" at work? I certainly don't.
My job requires a master's degree, but on the average day in the office
the most difficult thing I do is not eat the donuts from the box in the kitchen.
The whole reason I set up this web site and write these essays is
to keep myself intellectually alive, something that my job absolutely would
not do by itself.
Nor is using our "full capacity" the only thing Hirshman thinks we
get out of work:
Will they? If there is anything that undermines my autonomy
to direct my own life, it's having to be at work 40 hours a week. I
suppose my job does use my capacities for speech and reason, since the main
thing I do is write reports, but I am at loss to say whether I do so in a
"prudent way." And if we are really supposed to be doing more good
than harm in the world— is that self-important idealism?— we should all stay
as far as possible from the market economy. Hirshman seems particularly
interested in lawyers and faults female attorneys for not working hard enough
to become partners in their firms, but how many American lawyers do more
good than harm? How many CEOs? I know the market economy somehow
produces things that people need and want, and that we live longer and more
interesting lives because of our great, market-generated wealth, but from
my experience a market economy is essentially a racket, and the only people
who really thrive in it are the ones with egos big enough to crush all their
Of course, stay-at-home motherhood is not a perfect life, either.
Many stay-at-home moms are not especially happy with their situations.
I haven't seen any research on Ivy League-educated moms like the ones
Hirshman studied, but many middle-class mothers find staying at home lonely,
frustrating, and boring. Most of them return to work in some capacity
after their children are in school. But, as Hirshman says, they are
not likely to go as far in their careers as their husbands.
I sense some of the same troubling mis-connections in our society
that Hirshman sees, especially our widespread alienation from work. I,
too, have noticed that when children come along, women tend to ease
off from their careers, while men throw themselves more intently into
theirs. I don't think this is because men are more wiser or more committed
to using their "full capacity." I think it is because we all need
a sense of identity and purpose and, for whatever reason, most men are less
attracted to the identity of stay-at-home parent than many women. In
our society, most mothers and fathers have had enough experience of work
to understand that it is not a route to happiness. Faced with a future of
meaningless time clocking, many women try staying at home. The family
still has to eat, so the husbands "know they have to succeed in business and
really try." Not, mind you, because they want to exercise their "full
capacity" or "discover and create and shape a future", but because they don't
really have any choice.
Hirshman's answer to the problem of women abandoning their careers
is first, for women to insist that their husband's really do at least half
the housework and child care — she suggests ambitious women marry younger,
poorer men, so as to have the leverage to enforce equality in the home —
and second, for women to have only one child. Hirshman's statistics
show that it is the second child that really drives women out of the workforce,
and if you think getting ahead in business is the most important thing in
life, there is no arguing with her logic.
I have a different take. I think that many mothers lose their
ambition, not because they lack perspective on what they are doing, but because
they have a much deeper understanding of what is important to them. Maybe
nothing points out the stupidity and futility of most work like caring for
a baby does. Maybe mothers don't throw themselves into corporate or
legal careers because they understand better than men that money, power,
and the free market version of "honor" are not the most important things
in life. People who love work as much as Linda Hirshman does are free
to throw themselves into it, but I don't see why the rest of us should.
I think that the only way to make a big difference in our relationships with our jobs would be to fundamentally change both the structure of corporations and our value system. If a corporation were more of a shared enterprise and less of a scam to enrich the stockholders and exploit the workers, people might feel more connected to their work, and if we placed less emphasis on "access to money and power", we might do better at pursuing things that really lead to "full human flourishing." Since that is not likely to happen any time soon, I suggest that we all follow the example of the Sunday Style brides. We should pursue as much "idealism on the career trail" as we can afford and give as little of our lives to our jobs as we can get away with. Work part time, refuse promotion, do what we like instead of what pays best. That way we would be able to devote ourselves more fully to the things that really lead to "full human flourishing": friendship, family, spirituality, beauty, health, the "full use of our faculties," and having fun.
June 23, 2006
One day one of your subject comes out with a column or two detailing
your rise from penury to affluence, and praising as if you were the last
and noblest work of God, but unconsciously telling how exquisitely mean a
man has to be in order to achieve what you have achieved.
I had a life but my job ate it.