Monday, June 26, 2006


From Slate, Meghan O'Rourke's take on the Linda Hirshman's argument that women who 'choose' to stay at home rather than work are class enemies - traitors to their sex who weaken the cause of women everywhere.

"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.


n said...

My take on the argument is a little reductive but this is it: what is femisism fighting for? a woman's right to work yes, but surely, it doesn't end at that. It's fighting for women to have an environment in which they are free to choose where they work, whether they work, what they wear, whetehr they have babies. Choice is essential, because without it you're only replacing one enforced system with another.
Which is what she seems to be doing. We are bred to do our responsibility, but end of the day we still have the choice of deciding whether we want to do, or we want to take our own path, knowing the consequences.
Being able to CHOOSE is central.

Neela said...

I don't know, Falstaff. I realize that one partner may have to stay at home to look after young children but I do wish that there were equal numbers of men and women staying at home - then, I would say its a true genderless choice - otherwise its just a regression to the default gendered roles.

And why all this hoo-ha about women's choice? What about mens choices? As long as we say women have a choice and men don't then we are not really treating both sexes equally.

I think this whole choice-as-feminism thing has to be accompanied (or replaced) by a choice-for-everyone thing.


Falstaff said...

n: Agree entirely. Which is precisely why I don't like Hirshman's argument, because she's implying that women shouldn't have that choice - if you choose to stay at home and look after the baby, that makes you, in her view, a traitor to the feminist cause.

Neela: Huh? When did I ever say that it was only about women's choice? I say:

"Any genuinely progressive society must be built on a recognition of the plurality of its members, their freedom to make their own choices."


"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)."

I'm not for a moment suggesting that defending choice is important only for women - it's important for everyone. But surely you're not arguing that since men don't have a choice (and I'm not entirely sure why they don't) we should go with Hirshman and deny women the choice as well.

And yes, absolutely, gender roles need to change - but forcing women to work even though it makes then unhappy is hardly the way to change them. Any realistic attempt to change those roles must emphasise the availability of greater choices for everyone, which is what I was trying to say in the last paragraph

Sony Pony said...

"Most importantly, though, Hirshman's argument raises the important question - what exactly are we fighting for?"

I think that's an important question, and as previous comments stated, we are fighting for choice. My God, I cringe to think that Hirshman is essentially arguing that my mother (and grandmothers) who stayed home to raise us is somehow "pulling back the feminist movement" while I who was priviledged enough to have a career and work, am furthering this "cause" or whatever. *yuck*

I agree very much with Neela's point also. The whole "super-mom" nonsense has to go. It reminds me of what Steinem said when I heard her speak years ago, "We have figured out that women can do what men do, but it looks like it will take another 100 years to see that men can do what women do."

Also lastly, about your first point on popularity-I somewhat disagree with this bit. If there is anything about Hirshman's argument that I agree with is that feminism shouldn't soften up for anyone. (If that's what it's doing that is) While, yes, collective action is what we are striving for, it cannot be achieved by sacrificing what we believe in. Or even changing our language and making sure it is palatable to a wider audience. That is not the point, and shouldn't be. But since we are talking feminism, and there's a bazillion different ways of understanding feminism, it gets interesting when we quarrel over what those messages should be in the first place.

ozymandiaz said...

Yes, renounce your choice for the sake of choice. There was a parable I read recently where King Arthur is asked what every woman desires. The answer is autonomy.
Perhaps it isn't that gender roles need to change but be eliminated. Who knows, soon medical science may provide a way for men to bear the children...

Heh Heh said...

Will the feminist victory, then, not end up becoming simply a victory for women who want to work?

This is a key point. It is striking to see the close parallels that exist between Hirshman's line of thinking and marxism. I do not know what a "feminist victory" means, but i suspect that if and when it happens, an ideology like this will lead to the creation a power-wielding elite of working women who will further their own cause rather than that of women as a whole.

Seen from this perspective, you only have to extend Hirshman's logic a little further to conclude that even women who want working husbands (rather than stay-at-home husbands) are traitors to the cause, because they encourage males to work rather than stay at home.

Neela said...

Heh heh: when you mean an elite corps of power-wielding women you assume that this feminist revolution is not going to end up with the workplace (and therefore the home) being perfectly gender neutral and work/home no longer having gendered undertones (which, I think, is what Hirshman's aim is). If such equality exists, then a women's movement will become redundant (for this debate at least). Half the women will stay at home at the same time as half the men will stay at home or everyone will work in the economic marketplace and one's sex won't be a marker to one's wage-earning status.

Falstaff: I actually didn't disagree with you. I think we should have more choice for all sexes in a progressive society. Which means, as vociferously as we fight for womne's rights to work, we should fight for and socialize men to choose their life. Perhaps, given today's barriers for stay at home dads, even more.


Veena said...

Don't disagree with you, actually very much in agreement when you say that she's attacking the symptom and not the cause, but must say that I am a little thankful to Hirshman for (unintentionally?) kickstarting this whole discussion. I am all for choice, but when I see hordes of 'feminists' leaving the workplace claiming that they are happy raising kids at home, do think we need to pay some attention to social conditioning which causes them to make this particular choice.

Veena said...

Neela: I don't agree. Finally I am getting the boy to get to work so that I can chill and here you go on about choices for men. Just because you have a husband who chooses to work. Not fair :)

Heh Heh said...

While it is what someone like her aims to do, she defeats her very purpose by making individual choice subservient to ideology. The sad truth about all ideas that place the welfare of a collective (or a supposed future goal) over individual choice, is that they *always* get hijacked by a self serving group of individuals. It is human nature.

I cant think of a *single* revolution that has succeeded by ignoring individual choice. That is reason enough for me to believe that an ideology like this will suffer the same fate, rather than becoming redundant as discrimination is removed.

Which is why the analogy with marxism is so striking. While intended to bring about class equality, it just leads to the emergence of new power groups within a class that was formerly underprivileged.

Heh Heh said...

I am overwhelmingly in favor of increased participation by women in the workforce, btw. I just think that the resolution of the issue will come about through economics, and not ideology.

Falstaff said...

sony pony: Mostly agree.

To the popularity argument, you say:

"While, yes, collective action is what we are striving for, it cannot be achieved by sacrificing what we believe in. Or even changing our language and making sure it is palatable to a wider audience."

Three things:

a) If what you believe in as a feminist ends up excluding a large majority of women, I think that's reason to question your beliefs, don't you? It's not about sacrificing your beliefs - it's about revisiting them.

b) I'm not sure why anyone would object to modifying language in order to get what you believe in. That's just practical politics. It's not clear to me why explicitly stating your beliefs is more idealistic than actually making them come true.

c) More importantly though, notice that changing language doesn't mean changing message, or conforming to someone else's beliefs. On the contrary, changing language can mean you're communicating better and helping to win more people over to your way of thinking - people you might be alienating just because you're too much in love with your rhetoric. Hirshman has a good point, in that certainly greater workforce participation with women would go a long way towards improving gender relations - but by putting a negative spin on it, and by making enemies of women who've chosen to stay at home, she's failing to get what's sensible in her arguments across.

Oz: Yes, agree. Though hate the idea of men being able to bear children. How would I explain her lack of grandchildren to my mother then?

heh heh: yes, which was the parallel I was drawing, in fact. Though could we call it communism and not marxism please.

Neela: I think heh heh's point is that you're still going to end up with people who stay at home and look after the children being discriminated against. It may not be a gender issue anymore - but there'll still be social oppression.

On a seperate note, I'm not sure where all this stuff about stay at home DADS comes from. Let's just make it stay at home men. We shouldn't need to have children to justify staying at home.

veena: Yes, agree. You realise of course, that Neela's argument is for people staying at home to take care of the children. You're sure you'd rather the boy was the one working? You know this will mean you will have to change the lightbulbs?

heh heh: I'm not sure Neela's arguing for Hirshman's approach, btw. Oh, and I'm not sure that economics is enough - I'm pretty sure ideology and social action matter, just not ideologies that deny the individual's right to self-determination

Sony Pony said...

Okay, I confess. I didn't actually read O'Rourke's article when I made my earlier comment. But I went back and did, and you are right...Hirshman's argument is far more compelling and intriguing than I gave her credit for.

I am especially intrigued by this idea that we have placed too much value on choice. As O'Rourke says, "our obsession with choice prevents us from asking tough questions about how to achieve further equality."

I haven't read Hirshman, or really know anything about her. But I am not convinced that she is really saying "one size fits all". She's dismantling this idea that because women choose to stay at home, that they are being selfless. Debunking the notion that our choices have no consequences for women overall. That might be the same as "one size fits all", but that's not really her point, is it?

All very interesting.

Neela said...

oh sorry, falstaff, stay at home men. typos.

veena: heck what can I say! I've been trying to find interesting professions like part-time work and grade school math teaching for the husband and even suggest that he take a break and write a novel or something but he just won't listen. these men, I tell you!


Dipanjan said...

Knotty issue indeed. I think on the whole I am close to where Meghan is.

First, Hirshman's rhetoric is at times disturbing, but in the current socio-economic context of USA, I think it's unlikely that her rhetoric will force an American woman to work against her 'choice' or to alienate her further from the feminist causes unless she had already succumbed to the all-powerful feminazi campaign.

Second, isn't the strike analogy a little imprecise? In the relationship between the management and workers, there is a perpetual conflict of interest component. Gendered inequality at workplace is mostly social inertia and residual legacy of less enlightened periods. Once overcome, it is less likely to revert, no?

Most importantly, even though some of Hirshman's rhetoric seems to be in favor of suspending individual choice, I think her main goal, as Meghan points out, is to force women to examine the quotes in her 'choice' - how much of that was her employer's inflexibility about hours/travel/breastfeeding support, her husband's unwillingness to share housework and childcare, resurgent right-wing media's guilt trips with coded Biblical references sprinkled in, lack of day cares and pre-K schools in her neighborhood because other women 'chose' not to work: the collective cost of an individual 'choice'.

This examination is absolutely critical when so early in her life she is 'choosing' full-time child-rearing which she might not enjoy over a career which, over a period of next thirty-off years, could give her immense satisfaction in ways she can not even begin to imagine.

we must do out utmost to ensure greater equality women in the workplace

I think this will only happen when women whose life and career are at stake insist on it and are not forced/conditioned to 'choose' otherwise. It seems to me that's what Hirshman is aiming for, too.

Dipanjan said...

I just think that the resolution of the issue will come about through economics, and not ideology

Economics plays a big role, but I think ideology is important, too. In a working-class American family, economic needs may determine that one income is not enough. But whether the husband takes a second job or the wife starts working part-time is often an ideological decision based on how they feel about a woman working and how comfortable the husband feels taking care of the kids.

The way economics intertwined with the growth of feminism in US is very interesting - starting from the great depression, lack of male workers during second world and the unprecedented prosperity of baby boomers. I think the outgrowth of 'choice feminism' among white Americans is partially explained by the upper and upper-middle class Americans, after a generation of wealth accumulation, becoming more asset-dependent (trust funds,bonds, stocks, real estate) than wage-dependent. So if that ideology influences working- class American women or women in developing countries that are going through the early stages of gender equality, consequences will be sub-optimal.

Sorry for the long rants. Back to lurking. Beautiful blog, Falstaff !

meditativerose said...

I broadly agree with Hirshman's argument.
1. As several commenters have said, I think the 'choice' we're trying to protect isn't truly one. Social definitions of gender roles, and their reinforcement through the actions and beliefs of most men and women – have made the social and financial cost of making one ‘choice’ over the other excessively skewed.
2. The women’s movement has worked successfully to remove structural barriers to women’s equality (right to vote, equal pay for equal work, etc.), but the barriers that remain are supported and fed by definitions of social acceptability. As long as it remains socially acceptable, or even desirable, for women to not work, it will make life in the male dominated workplace and outside it unfriendlier for women who make the much harder choice to do so.
3. There is a very real cost to other women created by those who do not work - fewer women in the workplace means employers have less motivation to provide facilities that would enable women to balance their families and careers, makes the workplace less 'comfortable' for the women who are a part of it, and reinforces negative social stereotypes of women who work (e.g. 'bad' mothers send their kids to day-care).

I think Hirshman's rhetoric is extreme (and her points about marrying down etc. are a little too calculating and unnecessary), but for women who stay at home, the implications of their actions need to be understood.

Also, I think economics is not a sufficient answer to this issue (since that answer is already available) - social costs attached to certain actions need to change.

Szerelem said...

Great post! I was reading this article just this morning and i completely agree with you, and the parallel with communism is very apt. I would personally find it HAVING to work just as stifling as HAVING to stay home,cook and clean.
Killing choice for the greater good - not a good idea.

But i do think some points Hirshman raises are interesting like setting boundries about child rearing and housework before marriage, but then she goes and kills it with her marry only older men or those who make less money theory (seriously?)

Another point i find interesting (and Hirshman strangely doesnt even bring up) is how European feminism demanded special treatment for mothers, especially maternity leave(with pay) and child care, not to mention the generous paternity leave schemes in the Scandinavian countries. Your thoughts?
Btw, love the idea of men bearing children. Sorry for the long rant!

Falstaff said...

Sony Pony: To be honest, I haven't read Hirshman either - just the O'Rourke argument.

I still disagree with Hirshman's argument - assuming that the 'choice' is real I don't see any reason why one set of women should be expected to give up what they choose to make life easier for another set of women. That seems to suggest that working women are the only ones who deserve support or emancipation. Which is why I said it was one size fits all. Even if her point is only that women who stay at home should consider the effect of their actions on the women's movement, I don't see any reason for her to attack women who stay at home to make that point. She's effectively alienating the very people she should be trying to win over to her side.

Neela: Good. And hello! Didn't you ever hear the one about not taking the bit out of the gift horse's mouth. If you really care that much about male emancipation, I'll take a break and write a novel and you can mail half of your husband's salary to me.

dipanjan: I don't think the strike analogy is imprecise at all - human beings will always want to dominate other human beings, and the minute one half of a couple is financially dependent on the other the domination will come back.

As to your third point - notice that Hirshman's argument does nothing to change working conditions for women - on the contrary, it argues that that women have a duty to work despite the negative conditions. What is going to change those conditions then? And won't this sudden exodus of reluctant women into the workforce simply make those working conditions worse, as a sort of selection mechanism? IT would be nice to believe that once women are more actively part of the workforce they will be able to change those conditions, but there's no real reason to believe that. I suspect what will actually happen is that, using Hirshman's argument, women who ask for better conditions will be dubbed class traitors - they will be told that they are undermining the feminist cause by asking for easier working conditions, and we will all be forced to accept worse living conditions forever. If the idea is to change those conditions - why not attack that directly, rather than attacking women who don't work and blaming them for it.

Understand, I'm not questioning Hirshman's motives - I'm questioning her methods.


1. I agree completely - it's what I say in the last paragraph of my post. But explain to me how attacking the victims of social conditioning is the right way to change that conditioning. As Neela said, we need to change gender roles, not force women to conform to roles they don't like.

2. This is the same thing as point 1, really. Again, women who stay at home are a symptom, not a cause - attacking them and alienating them achieves nothing.

3. See my comment to Sony Pony. What you're essentially saying is that once set of women should not get to do what they want so that it's easier for another set of women to do what they want. That makes no sense to me. Why should someone who genuinely wants to stay at home and enjoys spending time with her kids be forced to go out and work so that women in the workforce can have an easier life? And doesn't it strike you as strange that the people we should be targetting to make workplace conditions better for working women are women who don't work?!! Surely the way to fight a stereotype is not to force everyone who's currently escaping it to be included in it.

suppose we reverse the argument. Suppose we say that working women make life for women who stay at home harder, because they reaffirm the stereotype that being just a housewife is not meaningful work. Therefore all working women should consider the effects of their actions on housewives and stay at home. You wouldn't accept that argument, would you? Then why accept Hirshman's?

szerelem: I agree. Certainly there's a need for better working conditions for women (some of the initiatives in Scandinavian countries speak to that need) and for changing stereotypes around gender roles, and setting ex-ante expectations about child-rearing and housework are interesting points. There's a lot we need to do to ensure that women have more meaningful choices. But attacking women who don't have those choices for being weak and class traitors is not the way to do it.

30in2005 said...

You would make a great development work / feminist (or are you one already?!)

Anonymous said...

hey everyone, i love this blog!!!

Sony Pony said...

Two thoughts:
Numero Uno: What Hirshman argues is what Westerm feminists have been arguing for years and years only mostly directed to women from developing countries. "Quit wearing that veil, what's up with FGM, you poor thing you live in such a patriachal society." Hirschman essentially turns that wagging feminist finger on the West. And I must say, that when I think about it this way, it delights me. See Lalami's wonderful essay, "The Missionary Position". Google-able. too lazy to link.

Dos: Hirshman is also pointing out the uncomfortable fact that women who do take time off for their careers, occupy a somewhat more priveledged class. I know many women who wanttt to take time out with their babies, but simply cannot. And it's hard.

Falstaff said...

30in2005: Thanks. I'm not a development worker any more, but I used to be.

sony pony: Agree with point 2 entirely - certainly we need to make working conditions for women easier. As for point 1 - have no objections to Hirshman's argument demonstrating to Western feminists why their finger-wagging at developing country women is misguided. From that perspective, Hirshman's argument may indeed be delightful. Still wrong. But delightful.

meditativerose said...

Falstaff: Maybe I wasn’t perfectly clear - My point is that when there are fewer women who work, the costs/difficulties of doing so increase – so it’s a vicious cycle. More women working would reduce these costs for everyone, thereby encouraging more women to work, etc. In other words getting some % of women to work who would otherwise have decided not to because of the lack of support etc., would increase levels of support, which would reduce the costs they have to bear, and encourage more women to enter the workforce … you get the point.

To your point about attacking the victims of social conditioning – I think attacking them, or I would prefer to say, changing the definition of what is socially desirable, would by definition eliminate the social conditioning that led to the problem in the first place. To put it simply, today men are taught it is good to work, bad to stay at home. Women are taught it is bad to work, good to stay at home. If women are taught it is good to work, bad to stay at home, the impact of social conditioning is reversed. I think this is consistent with what Neela is saying about changing gender roles. Once there is uniformity on what is considered socially desirable across both genders, people will make decisions based on economic motives.

(btw, you’re being inconsistent in that point – if they are ‘victims of social conditioning’, they are in roles they don’t like now. Removing or reversing social conditioning would allow them to do what they do like).

(another ps: regarding the reversed argument – I’m sure you’re being flippant … the entire argument on this issue is based on the premise that it is better for an individual to be economically independent than not)

(yet another ps: you’re treating ‘working women’ and those who don’t as two different species. I’m not – I’m saying women fall into one category or the other trading off the costs they must bear in each case).

Falstaff said...

MR: I am not assuming that women who work are a different species. You're the one who made the specious argument that women who work are making "the harder choice" and are therefore, presumably, superior. My argument is that everyone weighs the options available to them and makes the choice that suits them best. There are negatives to working and there are negatives to being economically dependent and which you choose is a function of how you weight those two costs against each other. Women who work weight the negatives of being economically dependent over the negatives of working. Women who don't work weight the negatives of working over the negatives of being economically dependent. Why are those weightages different? partly because different human beings have different utility functions, partly because the actual circumstances may be different for different people.

What you're saying, essentially, is that other women should be forced to choose an option that they consider sub-optimal. And I don't accept that. You could argue that the fact that they consider that option sub-optimal is because of social conditioning, and I'd agree, but that doesn't change the fact that it is their choice to make, a fact that you find contradictory only because you don't consider the difference between ex-ante and ex-post states. All choices are socially conditioned - so the fact that a choice is socially conditioned doesn't make it any less genuine.

I've already argued above that it's not clear to me why a greater number of women accepting work given current conditions will make life easier for working women more generally. If we're willing to call women traitors for not working, why wouldn't we call them traitors for not working longer hours or demanding special conditions? There will always be a group of women who will be able to claim that their lifestyles would be made easier if other women followed them. The suspension of individual choice for the 'greater good' will always be possible.

But even if we assume that through some means a greater proportion of working women will make the negatives of working lower, is forcing women who don't work to make personally sub-optimal choices they only / best way you can think of doing this? Stereotypes exist, working conditions are unfair, but let's not work to improve those working conditions, let's not try to correct those stereotypes, let's simply force women who don't work to work so that they can see how miserable the rest of us are. Remember Pareto? You don't try to make some people better off by making other people worse off. And if you can't think of any other way to solve the problem now, what makes you think you'll be able to solve it after you've managed to force all these unwilling women to join the workforce?

Notice that no one is saying that we should not be encouraging women to work. There's a difference between saying we should tell women that work is a good thing and show them why they might be underestimating the negatives of not working, and forcing them to work whether or not they want to. I'm fine with the former - to the extent that you can convince women who don't currently work that working is in their individual best interests, I think that's a good thing. But that's not what Hirshman is saying. She's saying women should be made to work even if it's not in their individual best interests, because it's in the best interests of women more generally. That's what I'm disagreeing with. Let's not confuse the two.

Finally, regarding the reversed argument - I am being somewhat flippant, but it's true that the reversed argument has no greater merit than the one Hirshman is putting forward. If we want economic independence for everyone, the logical way to get that is to demand that people who stay at home and look after the children be paid contractual wages. That way everyone gets to do what they like best and is still economically independent. Economic independence at the price of going to work rather than staying at home and looking after children is not better for everyone - only for women who are currently choosing to work. It's convenient, and self-affirming, to assume that that's the 'right' choice, but it's a choice that every individual should be able to make for himself / herself.

meditativerose said...

Uff … I’m saying costs change once more women work (think about how ‘comfortable’ women are in engg colleges vs. DU). The rest of the argument follows (i.e. the new segment of women working will not be worse off, etc.).
Now go sleep, for God’s sake …

Neela said...

Falstaff: First, the reverse argument actually works for men, not women. Stay at home men are in a minority. Therefore men who work are actually traitors to the cause of true choice because they make it difficult for men who want to choose to stay at home.

Second, while I agree with you and heh-heh on economics, rather than ideology, as a tool to reduce gender disparities, I am not sure how it will work. To me, there is no reason to assume that housework and child-rearing will be seen as highly skilled jobs or jobs with a scarce supply pool therefore wages are bound to be quite low. Additionally, they are traditionally considered low-prestige occupations (though everyone makes noises about them being 'valuable"). So might we not hv a situation like teaching or nursing where there is a preference reversal: people say they "value" these jobs but they are unwilling to price them accordingly? And won't this lead to the same phenomenon of female domination in these jobs? In that case, economics will not fully reverse gender imabalances of power, though of course women, if they are paid by a third party and not their partners, will be independent.

Hirshman makes the assumption that money = power. She exhorts young women to find the money. To ensure that there is gender parity throughout society I think we need to find ways to (a) change the money-power equation (b) dilute the association of gender with the money-power equation.


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Dipanjan said...

With only the slate article to go by and having to parse how much of it is Meghan O'Rourke and how much of it is Hirshman, I should not probably comment and second-guess Hirshman further and should read her essay and the book first, but I can not resist myself :-)

I think it's important to precisely characterize her target before we judge the effectiveness of her methods and arguments. Even when the general goals of feminism are identical, the strategies and methods to get there may not be the same in different countries under different socio-economic conditions.

From the frequent references to "drop-out","opt-out", "high-powered" in the article, it seems Hirshman's main focus is American women who are already part of the workforce. This is a realistic. An average American woman is 25 years old before she has the first child. In 1998, 63.3 percent of American women between the ages of 16 and 24 were part of the workforce and it must have gone up since then. If the average age of joining the workforce full-time is somewhere between 18 (high-school) and 22 (college), an average working American woman has about five years of continuous work experience before she has her first child. This experience gives her leverage to effect bottom-up positive changes in the workplace as opposed to top-down legislation/regulation-based enforcements. She will not have this leverage if she would like to re-enter the workforce in future after a child-rearing gap. So "opting-out" becomes an expensive decision, both personally and collectively.

From the article, it seems Hirshman's main thrust is to clearly point out both the personal and the political costs involved. The article refers to the fact that 93 percent of qualified women can not re-enter workforce even though they want to. That is a personal cost of their choice and should appeal to everyone. Including the collective cost, which I think is very real, in the argument is like raising political awareness. It will not appeal to everyone, but for some it may become one of the factors in the decision-making process. I do not think mentioning it necessarily hurts feminism overall if she can tone down her ideological rhetoric.

Going back to the leverage and personal and collective costs of opting-out and how not opting-out breaks vicious cycles, let's take an example. I run a software development group and am in charge of hiring people and managing projects. Let's say there is a woman in my group who has three years of relevant experience and replacing her is expensive.

When she becomes pregnant, I am perfectly willing to be flexible about maternity leaves, her schedules etc. to save the replacement cost if she decides to continue working. If we could make it work, it sets precedence, makes me experienced in handling this situation and grows her career. These positive changes are irreversible, going back to my unease with your strike analogy.

If she quits, however, in the middle of a project, she will lose the leverage when she tries to re-enter the workforce after a few years (personal cost) and , I will become more cautious about hiring the next young woman (collective cost). Also as a result of quitting, her career will not grow fast enough to put her in a decision-making position where we can expect her to be more sympathetic towards hiring and managing women employees than an average male manager. (another collective cost)

So overall what I got from the article was Hirshman urging women to not easily give up on career and consider both personal and collective cost of doing so. The final decision will still be an individual choice. Hirshman is of course trying to influence that decision, but is she doing it in a way that will alienate women, who decide to opt-out, from feminism? That probably depends on her tone and rhetoric.

Neela said...

for anyone who's interested, the original article is in American Prospect, December 2005.

Her's a link. I found it an interesting article.


Falstaff said...

MR: a) You still haven't given me a reason why you're so sure it will reduce costs for working women

b) You still haven't told me why you think this is the only / best way to do this.

If what you're saying is true, then there's no reason to insist that women work to help other women, is there? They should work because it's in their own best interest. And if they don't see that now (though it's interesting how you assume that women who don't work couldn't possibly have done that calculation for themselves and decided it didn't make sense; how do you know they won't be worse off - maybe they've thought about it and decided that even with the changes that are likely to happen, they'll still be worse off - you're just assuming they couldn't have thought about it that way because it's not how you think) then perhaps you can convince them that it is in fact, in their best interest to work. And I've always been fine with that - I said so in my original post.

Hirshman's argument, at least as interpreted by O'Rourke is that women should work even if it's not optimal for them, because it's optimal for women more generally - that, and that alone, is what I'm disagreeing with.

Think about it this way: I like mid-nineteenth century French poetry. Because people who share my tastes are in a minority, bookstores in India don't stock the books I want, instead they stock the Da Vinci Code. This means that the costs of reading mid-nineteenth century French poetry to me are high (both socially and financially). Yet I'm utterly convinced that reading French poetry is infinitely more rewarding than reading the Da Vinci Code. Does this mean I can exhort all Da Vinci Code readers to go out and read more French poetry, even if they don't like it, arguing that once everyone reads French poetry the costs of reading it will be much lower, you'll be able to chat with strangers about Rimbaud, everyone will be better off? Can I use this argument to attack Da Vinci Code readers as being traitors to readers everywhere? Yes, reading French poetry will become less costly if everyone reads it, but that doesn't mean that the people who were originally reading the Da Vinci Code will be better off overall - just that they won't be as worse off as they thought they would be.

What I can do is try and convince people that French poetry is actually more rewarding by ensuring that they have more exposure to it and hoping that at least some of it will choose it over the DVC. What I can do is try and change school syllabuses to include more French poetry so that people have early exposure to it. But there will still be plenty of people who will continue to prefer DVC, even after being exposed to both options, and though I may personally disapprove of these people, I have no right to force them to read French Poetry just because it increases my welfare.

Neela: Absolutely. More men should not work. It would make life much easier for me.

Oh, and I'm not saying that economics is the only or best answer, or that economic bargaining will automatically cause housework to be valued. Only that if we're making the argument for political action to achieve economic independence, we could just as easily make the argument for collective bargaining by housewives to ensure that they get paid decent wages for the work they do. That's political too. That involves class consciousness too. The socialists didn't go out and say - let's make all workers capitalists, they went out and said let's all get together as workers and demand higher wages. Certainly there's no reason to believe that this will happen automatically, or that social action beyond the merely economic is not required - but there's no reason why the form that social action has to take is telling women who are content to stay at home to go out and work for the greater good.

As a general thumb rule, I think it's a good idea to be sceptical of any policy that leaves one section of society unambigously better off, while asking another section to make choices in the short-term that make them worse off in the short term and have welfare effects that are at best ambiguous in the medium to long term.

Oh, and thanks for the cite

dipanjan: Don't worry, lack of actual content has never been an issue on this blog. Even if what we're arguing is not exactly what Hirshman's saying, it's still an idea that's out there that we can profit by discussing - we may just be attributing it wrong.

So the argument is applied more to drop-outs. Fair enough. But that only reinforces the idea that the decision to drop-out is a genuine choice, not something women are being forced into blindly. Certainly, to the extent that women are not thinking through the consequences of dropping out fully, they should be made aware of those consequences - of the loss of bargaining power that you describe. That falls under the category of "showing women why working may be the best choice for them as individuals". And I'm all for that. There will still be, I'm sure, women who, having understood the risks / costs of dropping-out, feel that their homes and children are more important and make a fully informed choice on the matter. And my point is simply that those women should have that choice and should not be attacked for making it or be told that they should go against what's best for them in order to make life easier for other women.

DontLikeWorking said...

This "make more women work" is another male-conspiracy!! they made us their slaves in caveman days; while they spent their time sitting around fires in the name of "hunting"- and now that being at home is actually *easy* (what with washing machines, ready-to-eat, 24 hour television and nannies) they wanna send us to work so they can relax at home instead! Aarghh!

Seriously though,I agree with Medit. Rose's argument. Numbers WILL change social costs. The more women out there, the more employers are forced to change their ideas about women employees and provide better facilities; etc. Also, the more women are out there working, the more society changes the value it attaches to a working woman as against a housewife.

And the part about women "choosing to not work" is vague. I'd say the majority (at least in india) are victims of social conditioning rather than making informed choices. Are we talking about the women who dont go to work *ever*, or the ones who after a successful career for 5-6 years decide to quit to bring up the kids? The latter is making an informed choice, assumedly, (for whatever nannies, no office crèches or just plain bored) while the former is just ignorant of another world. Neither of them are "Traitors" to women's causes. The Working woman tried working, and it didnt work out. And the former is just dumb enough to not know the advantages / or her personal costs are too high.

So now there are two types of costs we need to change:

a) Changing costs for the working-woman-who-quits-for-kids: This woman is already independent, has made an intelligent choice based on her short term personal costs. There's no point educating her further on "collective good"- her short term costs are just too high. And if she HAS made an intelligent choice, the only way she will change her choice is if we reduce her personal costs.

b) Changing costs for the one-who-cannot-work becos her husband, or family or society thinks its bad- this woman presumably didn’t even get to make a choice; or rather had her choice rammed down her throat. And in India, this is still the majority. These societal costs are the ones we really need to focus on changing- so that society starts ramming the “go to work” choice down her throat instead. (again, under the premise that economic independence is a good thing)

Both are Very different. But the premise that both can change if more and more women begin to work / continue to work is very compelling.

In (a), with more women around going through what she is going through, she'd find compatriot souls, other women in her situation who are coping; inspiring her to do so. and possibly larger numbers will help them influence employer policies to change.

In (b), as more women work, the comparison sample set changes profile from homebodies to working women. In every family, as your female cousins, neighbors and school-mates start to work, your family's perception changes as well.

I think in the end it all boils down to numbers; which is a neat enough and simplistic approach no doubt. But it is going to be the fastest/best way to approach the issue. And this is what is happening today.

Heh Heh said...

"Falstaff: First, the reverse argument actually works for men, not women. Stay at home men are in a minority. Therefore men who work are actually traitors to the cause of true choice because they make it difficult for men who want to choose to stay at home."

You are again ignoring individual choice. The fact that in general women ARE discriminated against does not make all women the same. The fact that in general men do not stay at home does not make all of them the same. Which is why a line of reasoning that ignores individual preferences in favor of the 'benefit of the group' can lead you draw conclusions like these that fundamentally do not make sense.

That said, to MR: We are always going to be affected by some kind of social conditioning or the other. The choices we make are within the context of social conditioning. As F said, if other women choose to stay at home and make you more uncomfortable, it is not their problem. What is so special about your choice to work that people who do not want to must be forced to do sp? Why is it that women who work are fundamentally superior to women who choose not to work, and therefore it is the choice of the former that is to be respected and not the latter? This is exactly the kind of divisive thinking that leads to the kind of intra-class power struggle that i mentioned earlier.

not so clueless said...

MR- ur kidding right? As heh-heh said, the argument that non-working women of the world shd change their choices just to make *your* choices easier has no legs to stand on- unless u ascribe a normative preference to the work-stay home decision..and u know that’s untenable rite?
Also, rhetorical qn, but where the Hell do you (and dontlikeworking person) work, where its such an unfriendly male-dominated environment with no facilities fr women? Same re heh-heh: "fact" that women are discriminated against??? Really??? For every 1 example u provide, I can give u 3 where undeserving women find it easier to rise bcoz of a diversity-friendly (or simply horny) manager- doesn’t prove a thing. Such sweeping statements r best avoided. The whole argument of making the workplace genderless rests on equal treatment- +ve discrimination is discrimination nonetheless.

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