"If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn't believe that a woman's place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn't ethical at this point in time. If that makes feminism unpopular, so be it; but shying away from persistent inequality by invoking the language of "choice," she observes, is hardly feminism. If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it's important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it's the lesson every man is taught when he's a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work."O'Rourke argues that Hirshman's arguments, unpleasant and extreme as they may be, have an important place in the overall feminist debate. That, of course, is hard to disagree with. More importantly, I think Hirshman's argument (and the critiques of it) are a good illustration of a more general question: how do we achieve collective action without subverting individual freedoms?
It's a knotty issue, but on the whole I disagree with Hirshman. There are three reasons why I think her argument is a poor one.
First, it's not hard to see why this sort of one-size-fits-all approach would be non-inclusive and divisive. Hirshman seems to see this as being of little consequence - as O'Rourke puts it: "If this makes feminism unpopular, so be it". That's a very strange argument for someone interested in effective collective action to be making. Popularity matters. There's little reason to believe, after all, that the overwhelming effect of taking this argument seriously will be to bring more women into the workforce - if Hirshman's view were to become the dominant one, then it could just as easily drive more women who were personally uncomfortable with its consequences out of the 'feminist' movement entirely. And that kind of exclusion will only marginalise the cause of women's rights more.
Second, even if using Hirshman's approach could win greater equality for women in the short run, it's not clear why the system wouldn't revert once we allowed women the right to make their own choices again. Think about it in terms of a strike. Hirshman's argument, in essence, is that women who stay at home are scabs - their continuing to serve the cause of patriarchy undermines the efforts of feminists everywhere. The trouble is that with a strike there's a clear mechanism by which concessions once won can be made permanent. Once the management has been forced to concede to the worker's demands, these demands are set down in legal agreements and workers can go back to work safe in the knowledge that the management cannot revert to its old wage rate. But even if a temporary sacrifice of individual freedom could allow women to obtain more equal treatment, what's to stop the old patterns of discrimination from returning, the moment women who want to stay at home choose to do so? In fact, won't Hirshman's method perpetuate the idea that women who stay at home are easy targets for discrimination? Will the feminist victory, then, not end up becoming simply a victory for women who want to work?
Most importantly, though, Hirshman's argument raises the important question - what exactly are we fighting for? If there is anything her rhetoric reminds me of, it is the classic communist argument for punishing class enemies for the good of the People. If there is one thing history should have taught us, it is that suspending the individual's right to self-determination in the name of some abstract political ideal is a bad idea. The trouble with the 'suffer today, to reap the benefits tomorrow' is that tomorrow never comes, and freedoms, once suspended, are lost forever. The result is the creation of a society where self-expression is stifled - a society not worth living in. Any genuinely progressive society must be built on a recognition of the plurality of its members, their freedom to make their own choices. If there is a point to the movement for gender equality, it is that women should get fair and equal treatment irrespective of who they are or what they choose to do - replacing one social strait-jacket for another is hardly emancipation.
That said, the point that Hirshman makes that is worth exploring, is the question of what a woman's 'choice' to stay at home really consists of. There is certainly the very real danger of labelling as 'choice' what is actually coercion. There is certainly good reason to question the social conditioning that defines gender roles around 'work' and 'staying at home' (as though the latter were really that much easier). And there is no question that we must do out utmost to ensure greater equality for women in the workplace, and encourage greater workforce participation by women. The point is that the right effort must be to enhance choice, not limit it. Attacking women who stay at home is attacking the symptom, not the cause.