By Neil GilbertYale University Press
By Linda R. HirshmanPenguin
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?
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!)