I Choose My Choice!

The fruits of the feminist revolution? Sisterhood, empowerment, and eight hours a day in a cubicle
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Illustration by Polly Becker

As you may have heard, some 50 years after Betty Friedan sprang us from domestic jail, we women … seem to have made a mess of it. What do we want? Not to be men (wrong again, Freud!), at least not businessmen—although slacker men, sans futon and bong, might appeal. In these post-Lisa-Belkin-New-York-Times-Magazine-“Opt-Out” years, we’ve now learned the worst: even female Harvard graduates are fleeing high-powered careers for a kinder, gentler Martha Stewart Living. Not only does the Problem Have a Name, it has its own line of Fiestaware!

And what are our fallen M.B.A. sisters of Crimson doing? Kvells one Harvard-grad-turned-stay-at-home-mom, on the subject of her days:

I dance and sing and play the guitar and listen to NPR. I write letters to my family, my congressional representatives, and to newspaper editors. My kids and I play tag and catch, we paint, we explore, we climb trees and plant gardens together. We bike instead of using the car. We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.

Is the mass media to blame (again!) for pushing women out of the workplace? Not so much. On our zeitgeist-setting TV shows, it’s only the housewives who are desperate. Work is fun! The Manhattan working gals of Sex and the City, whose days revolve chiefly around dishing over cocktails, are essentially ’50s suburban housewives, trophy wives of (in this case) glamorous if emotionally distant New York jobs—skyscraper-housed entities with good addresses and doormen that handsomely fund their lifestyles while requiring that they show up to service them only infrequently, in bustiers and heels. I want a vague job like the one Charlotte has, in the art gallery she never goes to; or the lawyer job Miranda has (charcoal suits and plenty o’ time for lunch with the gals); or Samantha’s PR gig, throwing SoHo loft parties and giving blow jobs to freakishly endowed men (actually, that’s the one job I don’t want); I want to spend my days like “writer” Carrie, lolling in bed in her underwear, smoking and occasionally updating her quasi-bohemian equivalent of a My­Space page.

In real life, female journalists (particularly sex columnists) have frightening stalkers, dour editors who begin phone conversations with “This is not your best,” and paychecks so thin they trigger not just an amusing episode in which some Jimmy Choos must be returned but years of fluorescent-lit subway rides to a part-time job teaching ESL at some community college on Long Island. In an ugly if typical turn, one’s column is suddenly moved from the Manhattan section to the North Jersey “auto buy” section because of the arrival of a younger, hotter writer. In real life, workmen would unceremoniously peel Carrie’s ad off the side of the bus and replace it with an ad touting the peppy new relationship blog of Miley Cyrus.

An assault on the flaccid, pastel-hued Real Simple values of today’s overeducated, underperforming homebound women, Linda Hirshman’s marvelously cranky Get to Work … And Get a Life, Before It’s Too Late drew an Internet hailstorm. (Those stay-at-home mothers—like AARP members, they’ve got time to type.) Short, biting, funny, and deliciously quotable (Hirshman is like an old-guard feminist Huckabee), Get to Work is a great value in terms of making the most of your limited reading hours. (Susan Faludi’s Stiffed ran 672 pages; my galley of Get was a slim 94.)

Hirshman’s thumbnail review of recent feminist history makes for prickly, entertaining reading. “Just over thirty years ago,” she rails, “the feminist movement turned from Betty Friedan, the big-nosed, razor-tongued moralist,” to Gloria Steinem. Not only did the honey-tressed blonde clearly have a smaller nose, as Hirsh­man implies, but “Gloria was nicer than Betty.” The pliant undercover Bunny shepherded in a “useless choice feminism” of soft convictions and “I gotta be me” moral relativism. Hirshman quotes Sex and the City’s hapless Charlotte, who, when given flak for quitting her job to please her smug first husband, can only wail plaintively, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”

Hirshman fires with both barrels (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) at today’s mommies, who are so busy sniffing the Martha Stewart paint chips that they have forgotten Friedan’s exhortation to get out and change the world. In reference to the NPR-listening, tree-climbing Harvard grad quoted above, Hirshman acidly notes:

Assuming she is telling the truth, and she does live in the perfect land of a Walgreens’ ad, is not all this biking and tree climbing a bit too much of the inner child for any normal adult? Although child rearing, unlike housework, is important and can be difficult, it does not take well-developed political skills to rule over creatures smaller than you are, weaker than you are, and completely dependent upon you for survival or thriving. Certainly, it’s not using your reason to do repetitive, physical tasks, whether it’s cleaning or driving the car pool. My correspondent’s life does have a certain Tom Sawyerish quality to it, but she has no power in the world. Why would the congressmen she writes to listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler’s, Harvard degree or no?

Ouch!

Not afraid, in her own big-nosed, razor-tongued way, to alienate everyone (or at least half of everyone), Hirshman considers all stay-at-home mothers fish in her barrel (think fish pedaling tiny aquatic bicycles). No target is too small: Hirshman even tears mercilessly into the sleep-deprived new mothers who’ve made the unfortunate decision to share their rambling thoughts on something called Bloggingbaby.com. (Really, aren’t there any blogs over which the Web should draw its gentle curtain? Apparently not.) But in fact, Hirshman insists, the problem starts well before mother­hood. It begins when young women enter college and violate Hirshman’s No. 1 rule of female emancipation: “Don’t study art.”

Why aren’t the women who are outnumbering men in undergraduate institutions leading the information economy? “Because they’re dabbling,” she snaps. Here’s yet another Problem That Has a Name: Frida Kahlo.

Everybody loves Frida Kahlo. Half Jewish, half Mexican, tragically injured when young, sexually linked to men and women, abused by a famous genius husband. Oh, and a brilliantly talented painter. If I was a feminazi, the first thing I’d ban would be books about Frida Kahlo. Because Frida Kahlo’s life is not a model for women’s lives. And if you’re not Frida Kahlo and you major in art, you’re going to wind up answering the phones at some gallery in Chelsea, hoping a rich male collector comes to rescue you.

As Woody Allen’s own Whore of Mensa would sigh and pencil in the margin, “Yes, very true!” And don’t we all know them, those defiant, dreadlocked young lovelies with their useless degrees in studio art, experimental fiction, modern dance, and gender studies, lactose-intolerant and unemployable: “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”

Of course, Hirshman, with that somewhat unlovely, censorious tone, is being a tad simplistic. She leaves aside the matter of whether women driven to make piles of money are the same ones likely to incite meaningful social change. If the Harvard stay-at-home mom walked away from an attack-dog corporate-lawyer job with Exxon, I, for one, would rather see her playing tag and climbing trees. And although Hirsh­man did work as a lawyer (lawyer, along with doctor and judge, is the kind of high-degree, socially relevant job she approves of), she then became a professor of philosophy and women’s studies. (Call the White House! We have a professor of philosophy on the line!)

Not that being an academic isn’t a hell of a lot of fun; in fact, its very pleasantness contributes to a bias peculiar to members of the thinktankerati. So argues Neil Gilbert, a renowned Berkeley sociologist, in A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life. According to Gilbert, the debate over the value of women’s work has been framed by those with a too-rosy view of employment,

mainly because the vast majority of those who publicly talk, think, and write about questions of gender equality, motherhood, and work in modern society are people who talk, think, and write for a living. And they tend to associate with other people who, like themselves, do not have “real” jobs—professors, journalists, authors, artists, politicos, pundits, foundation program officers, think-tank scholars, and media personalities.

Many of them can set their own hours, choose their own workspace, get paid for thinking about issues that interest them, and, as a bonus, get to feel, by virtue of their career, important in the world. The professor admits that his own job in “university teaching is by and large divorced from the normal discipline of everyday life in the marketplace. It bears only the faintest resemblance to most work in the real world.” In other words, for the “occupational elite” (as Gilbert calls this group), unlike for most people, going to work is not a drag.

Indeed, what does Linda Hirshman know about “work”? (It’s a veritable WWE Smackdown of Academics!) Parries Gilbert:

Linda Hirshman claims that “the family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks—is a necessary part of life, but allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.” Many people would no doubt find unpaid household chores less interesting than Professor Hirshman’s job … But walking up and down the super­market aisle selecting food for a family dinner is a job that has more variety and autonomy than the paid work being done by the supermarket employees who stack the same shelves with the same food day after day, and those who stand in a narrow corner at the checkout counter all day tallying up the costs of purchases, and the workers next to them who pack the purchases into paper or plastic bags. That space in the market is a bit cramped for human flourishing.

To be sure, attacking feminist criticism as being the extended whine of a privileged, educated upper class is as old as … well, as bell hooks’s 1984 critique of Friedan’s Feminine Mystique: “[Friedan] did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife.” It’s a point that keeps having to be made, though. And hooks’s list doesn’t even include the legions of colorless office jobs that most women endure, “real” jobs that trap them from eight to five in a cramped cubicle under hideous lighting. During the course of a Sex and the City workday you’re likely to encounter Mr. Big, but at a “real” job you’re far more likely to be thrown in with the pimply, fright-wigged characters of Dilbert or with Dwight Shrute from The Office, the show whose name is synonymous with tedium, idiocy, and despair.

The eight-to-five routine entails quite a few repetitious, socially invisible physical tasks (think Rob Schneider’s Richmeister on Saturday Night Live: “Makin’ kahpies!”). Research suggests that such drudge work holds no special lure even for (free at last!) females. Citing a survey of 909 employed women on how they had felt during 16 different daily activities, Gilbert notes:

Employed women expressed a higher degree of enjoyment for shopping, preparing food, taking care of their children, and doing housework than for working at their jobs—an activity that was ranked at the next-to-lowest level of enjoyment, just above commuting to work.

Further, in a development that would shock only today’s most radical feminists (where are those last two hiding? Buffalo?):

When it came to interactions with different partners, the women ranked interactions with their children as more enjoyable than those with clients/customers, coworkers, and bosses.

But aren’t women at home subject to the oppression of their chauvinistic, soul-crushing husbands? As if a mere human could compete with clogged freeways and Sisyphean paper pushing (or its more up-to-date equivalent, paperless pushing) and burnt-coffee-laced afternoons counting the acoustic tiles in stale conference rooms, and the hours spent arguing over the wording of a memo that within minutes after its dissemination will be dragged into the now-two-dimensional circular file. Unless he’s an abusive alcoholic or something similar, to be more oppressive than a “real” job, a husband would have to possess tireless text-messaging thumbs: “Where’s my dry cleaning?” “Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” “Where are you shopping right now?” “No! No! I told you—no butter lettuce from Safeway, only Whole Foods!” (Come to think of it, this may be a fairly accurate bit of communication between a privileged mother and a micromanaged nanny.) Even providing a chilled martini at six o’clock and roast beef at seven to the legendary suburban alpha male of yore allowed most of one’s day to be fairly flexible. As for today’s poorer husbands, many of them are likely too tired from their job’s repetitious, socially invisible physical tasks—such as makin’ kahpies!—to continually oppress their wives.

But surely women’s economic independence is worth it? Oy. Wrong again. Here Gilbert launches into an exhaustive and rather depressing analysis of how far we’ve come since the 1970s. It’s a long way, baby … if chiefly in terms of the accessibility of appliances. Seventies luxuries—air conditioners and clothes dryers—are of course the new millennium’s necessities. Although more than half of all households were hanging their clothes on a line or schlepping them to a laundromat in 1971, for instance, by 2001, the majority of even poor households owned dryers. And now we all require goodies like cell phones and 900 channels of cable unheard-of 30 years ago—by 2001, eight out of 10 low-income households owned VCRs/DVD players. No question, getting moms a paycheck has been very good for the U.S. consumer-electronics market, not to mention fast-food vendors, child-care providers, and—despite all those clothes dryers—the dry-cleaning industry.

However, while the economy benefits, for working-class families with young children, so much of a second income is eaten up by child care and taxes and other costs related to holding down a job that, after purchasing the microwave—now necessary to produce hot meals in the 10 minutes left for food preparation—and the de rigueur DVD player, the second wage earner might as well have stayed at home. Gilbert concludes, then, that financial need is not the force behind women’s shift in the past 50 years from work in the home to work in the market­place; rather, it is the desires of those who have made out like bandits in this new order, the tiny minority (3.5 percent in 2003) of women who earn $75,000 or more. Members of this occupational elite have created a host of cultural norms by which their far less privileged sisters—who, again, make up the vast majority of working women—feel they must abide. For Hirsh­man’s doctors, lawyers, judges, and professors, work has been terrific, so it’s no wonder they’ve advocated social change, imposing on society between the 1960s and the mid-1990s “new expectations about modern life, self-fulfillment, and the joys of work outside the home.”

They’ve gotten results: fathers in the U.S. now spend more time with their children and do more of the household tasks than their counterparts did, and Congress and employers both have made market-friendly provisions, such as parental leave, designed to encourage mothers of young children to take up paid employment. The society that has emerged, in which equality between men and women supersedes equality between social classes, may therefore be seen as “the triumph of feminism over socialism.” Never mind the social costs, we now have an army of consumers and a vast labor pool—what could be more market-friendly? Indeed, since the late 1990s, so-called family-friendly policies in Europe have been, as the Oxford sociologist Jane Lewis observes, “explicitly linked to the promotion of women’s employment in order to further the economic growth and competition agenda.” Women have achieved the freedom to join men on a more or less equal footing in the market­place, which strengthens the notion that the only thing ultimately of value is one’s ability to turn a buck. The triumph of feminism, Gilbert reminds us (echoing those socially conservative men of the left, George Orwell and Christopher Lasch), has served the culture of capitalism. As he sums up the whole darn tangle:

The capitalist ethos underrates the economic value and social utility of domestic labor in family life, particularly during the early years of childhood; the prevailing expectations of gender feminists place too high a value on the social and psychological satisfactions of work; and the typical package of family-friendly benefits delivered by the state creates incentives that essentially reinforce the devaluations of motherhood prompted by the capitalist ethos and feminist expectations.

All of which brings us, finally, to Sweden. (And doesn’t a shot of raspberry Absolut sound good at this point?) The debate about mothers and work: it always ends—doesn’t it?—with Sweden. Oh, if America could only be like Sweden—such a humane society, with its free day care for working mothers and its government subsidies of up to $11,900 per child per year. The problem? One hates to be Mrs. Red-State Republican Bringdown, but yes … the taxes. Currently, the top marginal income-tax rate in Sweden is nearly 60 percent (down from its peak in 1979 of 87 percent). Government spending amounts to more than half of Sweden’s GDP. (And it doesn’t all go to children, given Sweden’s low fertility rate.) On the upside, government spending creates jobs: from 1970 to 1990, a whopping 75 percent of Swedish jobs created were in the public sector … providing social welfare services … almost all of which were filled by women. Uh-oh. In short, as Gilbert points out, because of the 40 percent tax rate on her husband’s job, a new mother may be forced to take that second, highly taxed job to supplement the family’s finances; in other words, she leaves her toddlers behind from eight to five (in that convenient universal day care) so she can go take care of other people’s toddlers or empty the bedpans of elderly strangers. (As Alan Wolfe has pointed out, “the Scandinavian welfare states which express so well a sense of obligation to distant strangers, are beginning to make it more difficult to express a sense of obligation to those with whom one shares family ties.”)

I’m pretty sure that changing diapers of all sizes isn’t the kind of women’s work Betty Friedan had in mind, nor Linda Hirshman. The bottom line (and this fact will become more so as humans live longer): there’s a whole lot of caregivin’ goin’ on. We all fantasize about work that uses our creativity, is self-directed, happens during the hours we choose, and occurs in an attractively lit setting with fascinating people—you know, jobs like women have on TV. Oprah’s job! However, since in reality—even in Sweden—so many roads lead to a wet wipe, I myself feel grateful and lucky to be here in California while I type this essay … which I am actually doing in bed, clad in my sweatpants rather than in high heels and a bustier (as, fortunately, I am not a fantasy character on television—not unless they did a Sex and the City “lumberjack” edition). Later, I will feed the cats for my single, working-gal neighbor, who has a real office schedule, complete with commute. Perhaps I’ll also fling Popsicles at my latchkey children in the next room, mesmerized by a Princess video. (How much money have I earned while running Princess videos? I should pay Disney! Well, maybe not.)

Work … family—I’m doing it all. But here’s the secret I share with so many other nanny- and housekeeper-less mothers I see working the same balance: my house is trashed. It is strewn with socks and tutus. My minivan is awash in paper wrappers (I can’t lie—several are evidence of our visits to McDonald’s Playland, otherwise known as “my second office”). My girls went to school today in the T-shirts they slept in. But so what? My children and I spend 70 hours a week of high-to-poor quality time together. We enjoy ourselves. As that NPR-listening, tree-climbing mother said: “We read, we talk, we laugh. Life is good. I never dust.” Perhaps our generation of mothers can at least offer an innovation that the early radical feminists never had. I think of Linda Hirshman approvingly quoting Pat Mainardi’s angry political analysis of the hidden tally of unrewarded “women’s” housework:

Here’s my list of dirty chores: buying groceries, carting them home and putting them away; cooking meals and washing dishes and pots; doing the laundry; digging out the place when things get out of control; washing floors. The list could go on but the sheer necessities are bad enough.

Wait … she washed the floor?! Time to redefine “necessities,” Pat. Say what you will about them, those radical feminists were tidy housekeepers. What I’d say to them over a distance of 30 years is (Ching! There’s the microwave!) … you can have it all—if you run your house like a man.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s new book, Mother on Fire, will be published in August by Crown.
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