Daybook

Choice Feminism: Final Installment

Hirshman suggests three rules for women to follow, to avoid betraying their gender.

Rule #1: Prepare Yourself to Qualify for Good Work. “It is shocking to think that girls cut off their options for public life of work as early as college. But they do,” she writes. How? By pursuing liberal arts degrees. She argues that women should only pursue degrees that are likely to produce well-paying jobs. The implication is that they don’t, that many of us study art history, and solve our career problems by getting married.

This is all very strange, because by all accounts, in the past two decades or so, women have made tremendous progress in college, now comfortably outnumbering men. Every year since 1981, women earned at least half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, today, women earn 57% of all Bachelor’s degrees.(So no, it’s not quite soon enough to see the results in the ruling classes, but the seeds have definitely been sown.)

Moreover, given that that the fastest growing industry in the United States is the health care field, women seem to be making smart choices. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned a majority of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in health professions and related sciences. Women are not the majority in such “and what the hell do you do with the degree” fields as social sciences and history, but they’re making gains in business. So it seems that women don’t need a scolding on this score.

Rule#2: Treat Work Seriously

The rich women that Hirshman interviewed didn’t take work seriously. Stop the presses.

People who need the money take work seriously. People who need the money, don’t change jobs without thinking hard about it. People who need the money don’t take jobs because they’re trying to make a difference in society, they take a job because they’re trying to survive. Their jobs are repetitious, socially invisible and physical—same as the women who labored at home, per one kind of feminist analysis that Hirshman cites.

So when Hirshman says we shouldn’t change jobs or work in a field that’s in anyway altruistic, she’s talking to women who have a certain level of affluence. But I’m still confused, because I thought that the point of all this was to have agency, to set ourselves apart from the animals by "our mind’s power to have an idea, a vision and shape the future to it." What kind of autonomy, what kind of a life, is it if you’re only pursuing the holy dollar? Isn’t a sign of progress that these women are pursuing happiness?

Rule #3 Don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.

This is so over-the-top that I found myself wondering whether this whole article was an elaborate hoax, and that Hirshman was really only kidding about all of it.

She suggests that women should marry down (so you can fob the housework off on him, or a liberal (so there’s no pesky biblical scripture to deal with). She suggests that women should learn to live in dirty houses. (Should we also walk around in dirty smelly clothes?)

Oh, and only have one baby, and not two. (Because women who have two babies move to the suburbs while women who have one baby can keep their job and stay in the city and order in Chinese.)

This last directive is too silly to even address (because most people live in the suburbs already, among other things), so let’s take a look at the admonishment to marry down and live in a dirty hovel. Basically, this amounts to a return to the Dark Ages. Think about it: she’s suggesting a marriage based on economic reasons, something closer to arranged marriage than to the love matches we attempt to make, she’s suggesting that we eschew modern standards of sanitation. It’s hard to understand how this would advance the cause of women even an iota. It’s hard to understand what she’s even arguing for.

So we’ve finally reached the end of my initial reactions to this article. And now that we’re here, I have to say that Hirshman is raising an important subject. There’s no doubt that women bear a substantial and disproportionate burden of housework and childcare, that such work is not equally valued or compensated with other work, that having children hurts a woman’s career and earning prospects, that women still earn less than men for the same amount of work, and women are financially more vulnerable than men.

These are facts that require a national conversation, an honest appraisal of the issues. We need to move on from obsessing over what elite women do and don’t do, and talk about what’s happening with most women. We need to move on from arguing over whether feminism was a success or not, whether it’s alive or dead, and talk about what needs to happen next. Of course, feminism was a success. Women’s opportunities have grown by leaps and bounds over a very short period of time –three decades changed centuries worth of social order. The question is how to continue those advances. I wonder when, and whether, we’ll see serious national debate on that.

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