A Response to Linda Hirshman on SAHP


Are You In, or Out?
by Judith Warner

Linda Hirshman had a very thought-provoking article in The American Prospect last month on the phenomenon of wealthy, highly educated and once-ambitious women of the post-baby-boom generation leaving work to stay home with their kids.

Hirshman argues that the “failure” of 1970’s feminism wasn’t that it was too radical and ended up alienating younger women, who reacted by embracing the traditional sex roles their elders had rejected, but that it wasn’t radical enough. Over the decades, she says, feminism left the basic gender patterns of the nuclear family untouched, and when it began to pander to the clichés of mainstream society by subsuming all larger goals to the easily palatable idea of preserving women’s “choices” (wherever those choices might lead them), it completely lost its revolutionary potential — and women have been left holding the bag.

That’s a thumbnail simplification of an intellectually complex argument, but I want to get quickly to the point at which I will add my two cents to the debate, which has, since the article’s publication, been kept alive by David Brooks , Judith Stadtman Tucker and others.

Hirshman is ideologically opposed to stay-at-home motherhood. The crux of her argument is as follows:

The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”

My problem with this is that not all women — or men — are the same.

Some women — and men — find “repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks” mind-numbing and stultifying; some don’t. Some thrive on the competitive effervescence of the marketplace; some feel crushed by it. Many, in fact, now feel exhausted and, perhaps, dehumanized by the increasingly crushing, competitive and nonstop demanding marketplace of the turn of the 21st century, where Americans work the longest hours of any people in the industrialized world yet have less and less job security, shrinking benefits and essentially stagnant wages.

Given the nature of work today, I don’t think it’s all that surprising that women who don’t take any particular pleasure in their work or have a particular sense of a professional calling or a particular need to make money should choose to opt out. I think that many men in similar circumstances would love to do the same thing. In fact, the very real phenomenon of men resenting their wives for choosing to stay home has, to date, been consistently underreported.

Work stinks for most people. Given the financial opportunity to Opt Out, a great many men and women alike, particularly those outside the upper middle class, would gladly do so.

The sociologist Philip Slater once put in a very funny way what I’m trying more flat-footedly to say here. This is from his 1970 book “The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point’’:

Many people would object that most women don’t want careers. I suspect that women themselves would agree, but I also wonder if deep inside they don’t feel the kind of puzzled uneasiness that we always experience when obliged to accept a formulation that makes us lose either way … When we say ‘’career’’ it connotes a demanding, rigorous, preordained life pattern, to whose goals everything else is ruthlessly subordinated — everything pleasurable, human, emotional, bodily, frivolous … Thus when a man asks a woman if she wants a career, it is intimidating. He is saying, are you willing to suppress half of your being as I am, neglect your family as I do, exploit personal relationships as I do, renounce all personal spontaneity as I do? Naturally, she shudders a bit and shuffles back to the broom closet. She even feels a little sorry for him, and bewails the unkind fate that has forced him against his will to become such a despicable person …

A more effective (revolutionary, confronting) response would be to admit that a “career,” thus defined, is indeed undesirable — that (now that you mention it) it seems like a pernicious activity for any human being to engage in, and should be eschewed by both men and women.

This quotation basically sums up the attitude that both my husband and I have to work — which, as you might imagine, has led to a certain amount of tension over the years. (Health insurance must be secured, and, by God, it isn’t going to be by me.)

It’s my belief that, with the exception of people with extreme Type A sensibilities, “full human flourishing” requires a certain kind of slowness in life, a certain kind of stillness, a great degree of relaxation, time for reflection and, at the risk of sounding downright nauseating, for meaningful human connection. Those things, however, are now a luxury for most people, given the nature of life and work in our time.

Whether Opting Out is ultimately good for women in the long term (after all, Divorce Happens) or good for their sons and daughters or good for the gender is another matter entirely. Hirshman’s article is primarily focused on the latter concern. My concern here is more purely human.


2 Responses to “A Response to Linda Hirshman on SAHP”

  1. Whitney Says:


    Very interesting article. I’ve never considered myself a feminist, but personally live a few of the feministic ideals: career independent of my husband, could live on my own income, don’t rely on Joe for my success, etc. I have often wondered how it would be to give up my career and be a stay-at-home-mom.

    Honestly, I don’t know if I could do it. I love my work. (But sometimes I do get tired and want a LONG break.) Like Al said about Jody, I might go stir crazy.

    I think my foray into motherhood, should I ever be fortunate enough for that to happen, will be a very interesting string of events.

    I have a very good friend who gave up a excellent law career to stay home with her boys. She loves her boys to pieces, but she misses her work a lot. Sometimes she seems so sad.

    Another friend works all the time and wants to be home.

    I find it very interesting and think it falls more into the no-one-is-satisfied-with-everything-all-the-time. Joe and I would just stay at home and hang out together if we could. Then we’d go crazy and have to go back to work for a while. Then back to just hanging out being lazy. If the work world would only conform to my personal preferences! 🙂

    You’re right when you say it is based on individual differences, it has nothing to do with our political leanings. Being pigeonholed, by both liberals and conservatives, on what we’re supposed to be as women & mothers is the most frustrating thing.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Good stuff – article & comment.


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