Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Feminism and Child Care
I had mostly forgotten the reaction to Linda Hirshman's American Prospect article, Homeward Bound, in which she suggests that feminism is largely a failure, and that intelligent, educated women who stay home to raise children are wasting their potential, if not their lives. Hirshman's thesis to me seems a bit attenuated. Her admittedly judgmental position on the value of caring for a child seems to drive her conclusion - if you were to start by assuming that highly-paid positions in business and industry were beneath human dignity, it would just as naturally follow that women (and men) were wasting their lives by taking positions of power and influence. (She could even support this thesis by referencing the significant number of people who have publicly professed to be leaving their positions of power and influence "to spend more time with" their families.)
I also disagree with any suggestion that it is somehow a failure of feminism, or the fault of feminism, that where a professional takes time away from a traditional career, that person will often have difficulty later getting back on track in that career. The fact that men don't face the same pressure to take time off of work to raise families? Granted, that's true - so if we presuppose that feminism was supposed to erase that inequality, its perpetuation becomes a failure of feminism. But that seems like something of an overstatement of the case. Further, it is my impression that a father who takes time off for the "daddy track" would likely face greater obstacles returning to the workforce than a mother, so perhaps the problem is not so much one of "feminism" but of the fact that attitudes like Hirshman's - that child-rearing tasks are unworthy - are pervasive. Beyond that, it only makes sense that somebody who takes a few years away from a career will not get credit for the time they would otherwise have spent, the connections they would otherwise have made, and the experience they would otherwise have gained, in their jobs.
Where I do agree with Hirshman is that women who believe they would be wasting their lives if they stayed home with their kids should not be expected to feel guilty about either not having children or returning to work after their children are born. It similarly follows that women who attempt to stay home with their kids, but find that they would feel more fulfilled in returning to work (or are left with the impression that they are wasting their lives) should not be expected to feel guilty about returning to work. But by the same token, if a highly intelligent, highly educated, and highly capable professional discovers upon having a child that she loves staying home and caring for her child, people like Hirshman have no business trying to make her feel guilty or to suggest that she is somehow wasting her life. Get that? It's her life.
I also question Hirshman's attitude toward child care tasks as beneath professional women. There's a woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Gretchen Preston, who had a different attitude toward child care, and since the mid-1980's has built a small empire in the high-end child care business. I would venture that she earns more than most of the professionals Hirshman views as working in "worthy" careers - while providing them with the child care they need to continue in those careers. Would Hirshman nonetheless view Preston as having failed to meet her potential?