Daybook

Choice Feminism: Furthermore

More thoughts on the Homeward Bound article by Linda Hirshman.

As I said last week, I disagree with the statistical premise of this argument, since labor force participation rates both men and women of childbearing age declined in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

I also have a substantial problem with the another major premise of the argument: that what happens within a small, elite group of rich women holds Great Meaning and Important Significance for Us All. A key piece of Hirshman’s evidence is the stay-at-home tendencies of brides who had their wedding photos published in three weeks worth of Sunday New York Times in 1996. These are elite women, it’s why she’s interested in finding out what they’re up to.

Why, oh why do social critics care about the habits of the wealthy and elite? Can they seriously believe that this is somehow sheds light on our broader social condition? (I mean, no one thinks that People magazine chronicles our life and times, do they?)

Hirshman addresses my question:

“We care because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times. This last is called the “regime effect,” and it means that even if women don’t quit their jobs for their families, they think they should and feel guilty about not doing it.” In other words, she says, these elite women are our role models, and by choosing not to have a career, they “tarnish every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler.”

Leaving the inflammatory “what they do is bad for them and society” part for another day, Hirshman is right that young women should have role models in positions of power. But I’m not sure that the lifestyles of a tiny, small select group of women who choose to have their wedding photos in the New York Times are representative of our pool of strong female role models. I’m not sure that women who are rulers today or will be rulers tomorrow, are the sort to even submit their photo to the Style section of the Times. If Hirshman wanted to make her point persuasively, she should have looked at the number of women who are in powerful positions today world-wide, versus ten years ago. I can’t imagine that such an analysis wouldn’t yield impressive signs of progress.

Now, I’m not arguing that there’s not progress still to be made. But, as Hirshman points out, in a slightly different tone than I’m using, it’s 30 years “after feminism”. That seems like a fairly short period of time for what amounts to a major social and cultural change. (Thirty years ago, we had almost no women in positions of power, and you simply can’t say that today.) I’m 31, and in my lifetime, I have seen two female secretaries of state, I have seen the first female astronaut, I have seen female Supreme Court justices, I have seen female senators, I have seen a female candidate for vice president of the United States, and I have seen many other countries who worry about these issues far less, that are capably led by women. I do not believe that my gender places constraints on me, and I bet that many women my age, and younger, feel the same way. (Although I wouldn’t state that as a fact, because I’m not a representative sample, in the same way that 80% of the 41 women whose weddings were announced in the newspaper on three Sundays in 1996 is not.)

Throughout history, there’s always been a soft, aristocratic ruling class, made up of people who don’t seem to do too much. (If anything, I’m sure that today’s elite women are more likely to work than their mothers, which would be the reasonable comparison to make.) But I don’t see why we have to keep talking about the elites at all. It’s hardly shocking that women who don’t need to work, don’t work. They have choices that most of us do not, which makes them an odd group to study on the subject of life choices.

After all, the median household income in this country is $44,389. That means that half of US households earn less than that amount, and that’s with an average of two earners, or two people working. Fewer than 16% of US households earn $100,000 a year or more—which is hardly a reasonable budget for many of the weddings that are announced in the Times each week.

Still more to come.

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