Get to Work or Else?

Jul 27, 2006 |Roberto Rivera y Carlo

Most well-educated women have chosen to stay at home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. Now why would some people find that shameful?

In Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, set in a theocratic successor to the United States called the "Republic of Gilead," the principal victims of Gilead's totalitarianism are its women — in particular, their aspirations and desires. They no longer have the freedom to choose between motherhood and political or corporate leadership. That choice has been made for them by elites and ideologues who have determined that this kind of choice is antithetical to the well-being of Gilead.

Since its publication in 1985, Atwood's novel has been made into a movie and even inspired an (often-unlistenable) opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders. But it wasn't until recently that Atwood's vision of women's freedom being sacrificed on the altar of a totalist ideology received serious consideration. Only it's not the real-life Commanders and Serena Joys that are demanding the sacrifices, but those whom Atwood would regard as her natural allies.

In the December 2005 issue of The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis University professor, lamented the fact that "half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy."

What set Hirshman's piece apart from similar analyses of women's choices was her explicit subordination of the personal — love, marriage and family — to the political. Her principal, if not only, concern was assuring that women form an appropriate part of the "ruling class." For Hirshman, the true "glass ceiling" wasn't located at work but at home — it was domesticity that kept these women from truly "flourishing," at least as Hirshman defines it.

Domesticity is why the "elites [who] supply the labor for the decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks" will remain "overwhelmingly male," and "the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males...."

Winter became Summer and Hirshman's essay has become a book — actually, more like a longer essay — entitled, straightforwardly enough, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, in which she more fully articulates the "whys" and "hows" of that subordination.

Hirshman's principal quarrel is with what she calls "choice feminism," which holds that the goal of feminism isn't so much the promotion of certain political and social goals as it is providing woman with the same right of self-determination/definition as men. Bluntly stated, the problem, according to Hirshman, with giving women these kind of choices is that some — actually, too many — women will make the wrong choice.

These "best-educated" women will, much like the "coppertops" in The Matrix, choose in the mistaken belief that they are free and, thus, perpetuate the status quo. What's needed — and what Get To Work sets out to provide — is counsel that helps the "most-privileged" and "best-educated" take the red pill and assure women their rightful place among the flourishing "elites" and "rulers."

This counsel includes avoiding emulating Frida Kahlo (is it me or is everybody picking on Mexicans these days?), i.e., don't major in politically useless stuff like Art or English. Women should be aware of their "bargaining power during courtship." They should consider marrying younger or "much older" men.

And, of course, there's "reproductive blackmail." A "reproductive strike" may be necessary to combat "male reneging" on the domestic front. In any case, by no means should the "best-educated" women have a second child — that is the express lane to dropping out of the work force.

The goal of all these strategies is to keep the "best-educated" women from drawing "the short straw at the dining room table," i.e., being saddled with domestic obligations that prevent them from doing what's really important: assuming their place among the "flourishing" "elites" and "rulers."

Now that kind of deliberate subordination of the personal to the political brings a particularly loaded adjective to mind and, fortunately, I can quote someone else's use of it: Cathy Young, a Boston Globe and Reason columnist, characterized Hirshman's "proposal" as "totalitarian." Feminism, Young wrote, "has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their personal lives, as Hirshman wants." (Lest you think that this is merely rhetorical excess on Young's part, you should know that Young, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, knows totalitarianism when she sees it.)

Just as troubling as Hirshman's disdain for family life and the personal choices of countless women is the narrowness of her focus. Notwithstanding the subtitle of her book, she's really writing about the lives of a tiny percentage of American (never mind that "world" stuff) women. Even if you define "best-educated" to include any school ranked in the top tier of U.S. News & World Report's "National Universities" or "Liberal Arts Colleges," you are still excluding the vast majority of American women.

What's more, even within this already small group, the women who matter most to Hirshman are a relatively tiny minority: by definition, very few of the "best-educated" of any group — men, women, Bajorans, Cardassians — form the "elite" and "rulers." For the rest, work is, well, work. They may love it or hate it; they may find it a source of personal fulfillment or a soul-deadening ordeal; or, like most of us, they may find it to be something in-between. What they won't find it to be is a path to "Master (or Mistress) of the Universe" status.

(Ironically, graduation from a top-tier university is a not pre-requisite to this status: As Greg Easterbrook pointed out in the October 2004 Atlantic Monthly, most members the U.S. Senate and Fortune 500 CEOs, two groups that must be included among any reasonable definition of the "elites" and "rulers," did not attend elite universities. Hirshman's intended audience may not be giving up as much as she thinks they are.)

Then, of course, there's the rest of women for whom work is a means to pay the bills and/or provide for their families. These women, to the extent they figure in Hirshman's mental universe, must be content with her vague assurances that this counsel prompted by the plight of the "best-educated" and "most-privileged" women has something to do with their lives and will redound to their benefit.

If there's a better example of the liberal (and, as I've noted previously in Boundless, I regard myself as one) abandonment of the working class, I'm not aware of it. These women are being asked — actually, told is the correct word — to disregard their desires and aspirations to make the world better for the (extreme apologies to W.E.B. Dubois) "talented" one millionth.

If the vast majority of women play a subordinate role in Hirshman's account, men, apart from a cameo appearance as drawers of the long straw at the dinner table, play none at all. Plainly stated, Hirshman is clueless about why men work. Reading Get to Work, it's reasonable to infer, as Meghan O'Rourke of Slate does in her review of Hirshman's book, that men work as part of some broader social strategy: because they are taught that "your responsibility to society — the way to become an adult — is to work."

Oh, please! Guys work for motives that range from the noble to the basest of the base but these reasons are all personal. They work because they find it fulfilling and stimulating; they work because their parents have repeatedly told them that they're "good to go." They work to take care of their families; they work to earn money to buy themselves toys like 1080p HDTVs and Porsche Boxters. They work to secure their kids' future; and, of course, they work to earn the money it takes to impress women. More than a few of us work to prove that every teacher, guidance counselor, parent and girl who dumped us was wrong when they said that we would never amount to anything. Just about the only reason we don't work is to uphold some social arrangement.

In the real world, women got to work (or not) for reasons that are every bit as personal and varied as men's. Like Atwood's theocrats, Hirshman would replace these personal reasons with one approved idea of where women can flourish. Fortunately, her counsel is likely to appeal as much to the women of the real world as Ruder's music appeals to my ears.

Copyright 2006 Roberto Rivera y Carlo. All rights reserved.

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