Monday, December 19, 2005

Linda Hirshman's feminist script

My Boston Globe column today deals with Linda Hirshman's article in The American Prospect on "the opt-out revolution." Since it's fairly short, I'll give the whole text here.

First, there were the ''mommy wars" -- the much-ballyhooed antagonism between working mothers and stay-at-home mothers. Then, there was the ''opt-out revolution" -- the much-ballyhooed phenomenon of high-powered career women scaling down or giving up careers to raise children. All this is causing intense debate among feminists, who increasingly recognize that gender inequality today has more to do with sex roles in the family than sex discrimination in the workplace. As former Brandeis visiting professor Linda Hirshman puts it in a controversial article in this month's American Prospect magazine: ''The real glass ceiling is at home."

For years, most feminists have stressed respect for women's choices. Now comes Hirshman, saying that ''choice feminism" was a mistake. Feminism, she argues, needs to become more judgmental and tell traditional women that their choices are bad for society (women won't achieve full parity with men when so many voluntarily leave the track that leads to power), and bad for them because the lives they're leading allow too few opportunities for ''full human flourishing." With views like that, no wonder Hirshman made conservative pundit Bernard Goldberg's list of ''100 people who are screwing up America." Actually, I doubt that she's having much effect on America; but her prescription for feminism is screwed up all right.

Hirshman does make some valid points. First, the opt-out trend is real, despite a recent attempt to debunk it by Heather Boushey of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic Policy Research. Boushey notes that the small decline in mothers' labor force participation has been paralleled among women without children, and is due largely to the recession; but her analysis lumps together full-time and part-time jobs. A woman lawyer who leaves a partnership-track job to work part time as counsel to a community organization still counts as employed.

Second, ''choice feminism" does gloss over some real conflicts in the ''mommy wars." Companies will be warier of investing in female employees when there is a high risk of women quitting. Former career women who put their energy into motherhood may set impossible standards of maternal perfection (you're a bad mom if you don't spend two days hand-making a Halloween costume), and may justify their choice by implicitly denigrating working mothers.

But Hirshman's solution is no solution at all.

For one, the feminist movement is not a totalitarian regime. It has no power to mobilize women to follow the party line in their personal lives, as Hirshman wants. (Her script includes choosing a husband whose career is least likely to eclipse yours, and having no more than one child until the government coughs up day care.) And, if feminists start disparaging women's ''incorrect" choices, women will likely tell them to buzz off. Hirshman's tone is insufferably patronizing: women, she laments, think they're making free choices and never realize that their lives are shaped by traditional sex roles and by feminism's failure to revolutionize the family. Are there really many Ivy League-educated women who aren't aware of challenges and alternatives to traditional roles?

Besides, many intelligent people may not share Hirshman's notion that life as a high-priced lawyer or Fortune 500 executive is the best pathway to ''human flourishing." Yes, life with no significant activities outside one's intimate circle is incomplete. But Hirshman's disapproval extends even to part-time workers. And what about women (and, increasingly, men) who don't work for pay but are active in community work? Don't many of them meet Hirshman's standards for good living: making use of one's mind, having autonomy in one's life, doing good in the world?

In her simplistic analysis, Hirshman ignores the social impact of working women who don't follow a rigid model of success -- those who leave corporate jobs to start businesses or who work in social service jobs. She also ignores the flexibility of the modern marketplace. In 1998, Brenda Barnes stepped down as CEO of a PepsiCo division to spend more time with her family; six years later, she went back to work and now heads the Sara Lee corporation.

Should feminism strive for more flexible roles and more sharing of family responsibilities? Of course. But the way to do it is to expand options for both men and women, not to narrow women's options. And, by the way, to deride parenting as a demeaning task unworthy of an intelligent adult is not a good way to encourage men to become more involved fathers.


Acutally, Hirshman's article reminded me of the infamous comment Simone de Beauvoir made in a 1976 interview with Betty Friedan: "No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one." Friedan, despite being an outspoken advocate of careers and independent life for women, emphatically rejected de Beauvoir's dictatorial vision of feminism to embrace freedom of individual choice; Hirshman would have us choose de Beauvoir over Friedan.

To expand on a point I only touched on in my column: I share some of the feminist misgivings about full-time parenthood as a long-term occupation. Even aside from financial dependency, I think that, in the long term, human beings need to have a sense of self and identity independent of personal relationships; without employment, or a strong commitment to unpaid work, there is a danger of getting too enmeshed in emotional intimacy. (By the way, it's worth noting that historically, women's domestic roles were primarily productive, not relational: In agricultural societies, women were always engaged in economically vital work; in the cities, the wives of shopkeepers and artisans were typically partners in the family business.) I think Freud was right that work and love are the two essential elements of human life. Child-rearing certainly involves work, but its most important component is surely love -- and attempts to make it too much like a career run the risk of treating a child more like a "project" than a person in his or her own right.

That said, I think there are many, many ways to maintain a separate identity and to combine work and love besides the full-throttle career that seems to be Hirshman's ideal. (A 1995 Harris/Whirlpool Foundation/Families and Work Institute poll found that, when asked what they would do if they had enough money to not need to work, only 15% of women and 33% of men said they would choose full-time work; 33% of women and 28% of men preferred part-time work, and 20% of women and 17% of men would choose volunteer work.) What I found most shocking about Hirshman's article is her contempt for women who choose the "wrong" ways to work.

While I'm at it, I'd like to put in a good word for Lisa Belkin, author of the 2003 New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Opt-Out Revolution," that ignited the current phase of this debate. In this thread at Alas, a Blog, for instance, Belkin gets it from everybody: Hirshman and her critics. (Hirshman, in this comment, implies that while Heather Boushey's article showing no spike in mothers leaving the workforce does not rebut her argument -- mainly because so many of Boushey's working mothers are only "dabbling" in work -- it does rebut "Opt-Out Queen" Belkin.) But read Belkin's article. She explicitly acknowledges, even stresses, that most of her "opt-out moms" are not full-time, lifelong housewives but women who move in and out of the workforce and maintain at least some ties to their profession. (Indeed, one of Lisa Belkin's examples of "opting out" is Lisa Belkin herself: she has made professional choices that have taken her off the track to top jobs at the New York Times but have allowed her to maintain a challenging and satisfying career as a writer.) She also explicitly acknowledges that she focuses only on elite women who can afford the choice to curtail or even give up paid work, and explains why. And she is certainly no champion of a return to Ozzie and Harriet. This is the conclusion of her essay:

This, I would argue, is why the workplace needs women. Not just because they are 50 percent of the talent pool, but for the very fact that they are more willing to leave than men. That, in turn, makes employers work harder to keep them. It is why the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche has more than doubled the number of employees on flexible work schedules over the past decade and more than quintupled the number of female partners and directors (to 567, from 97) in the same period. It is why I.B.M. employees can request up to 156 weeks of job-protected family time off. It is why Hamot Medical Center in Erie, Pa., hired a husband and wife to fill one neonatology job, with a shared salary and shared health insurance, then let them decide who stays home and who comes to the hospital on any given day. It is why, everywhere you look, workers are doing their work in untraditional ways.

Women started this conversation about life and work -- a conversation that is slowly coming to include men. Sanity, balance and a new definition of success, it seems, just might be contagious. And instead of women being forced to act like men, men are being freed to act like women. Because women are willing to leave, men are more willing to leave, too -- the number of married men who are full-time caregivers to their children has increased 18 percent. Because women are willing to leave, 46 percent of the employees taking parental leave at Ernst & Young last year were men.

Looked at that way, this is not the failure of a revolution, but the start of a new one. It is about a door opened but a crack by women that could usher in a new environment for us all.



There are, to be sure, certain things I would quibble with in Belkin's article. But I think that, overall, her message is a much more positive and relevant one, for women and men alike, than Hirshman's "To the office -- go!"

More: A relevant passage from a post I made over a month ago:

The latest issue of Fortune, which focuses on women business leaders, has an interesting feature on why some women step off very high rungs of the corporate ladder. No, it's not mommies "opting out" and trading briefcases for diapers, and it's not women fleeing the corporate world in frustration at the "glass ceiling" (though I'm sure there are examples of both). Most of the women profiled in the article have traded the boardroom for new business ventures of their own, or work in new fields such as politics or entertainment, or travel and other pursuits. In many of the cases profiled, the change of direction is prompted by a life-changing event such as a near-death experience, which presumably leads to some soul-searching and a reassessment of priorities. Women, the article suggests, have more social freedom and more flexibility than men to make such unorthodox choices. The article concludes:


If there's a single thread that ties together the experiences of these women, it's that taking control of one's own life can feel as bold as wielding power in a corporation. "It's not that they're abandoning it or walking away," [former Genentech executive Myrtle] Potter says. "I see it as women really exercising their full set of options. And I think that's just a gutsy, powerful thing to do."

I think that women do, culturally and socially, have more options in this regard, while men, once they have reached a certain level, have more rigid expectations of success and staying on a set career track. In practice, this means there will be more men in positions of power, and probably also more men locked into unsatisfying lives.


"Autonomy" and the ability to control one's own life is one of the things Linda Hirshman finds lacking in the lives of women who "opt out." But, apparently, for some women -- and, I'm sure, for many men as well -- power in a corporation (or a law firm) and power over one's own life are more mutually exclusive than related.

69 comments:

AprilPNW said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you Cathy for this post on Linda Hirshman's article. Again, thank you! Ms. Hirshman's article was sent to me by a 20-something female co-worker, and she and I have had some lively debate (I am 44, and don't feel as pressured to prove my feminist credentials, for sure).

I was taken aback by what I felt was an elitist tone in her article, as if she was simply shocked, shocked that ANYONE would decline to be crowned one of the elite movers and shakers of this country. Her article begs MANY questions:

1. Who says that the highly stressful, powerful positions these women are leaving are all they are cracked up to be anyway? I always thought that part of the reason that some women do not push themselves as hard as men is because they were too smart to be "owned" by their jobs!

2. Who says that young women from elite backgrounds and ivy league universities have deeper, more thorough self knowledge than those who do not? How many of us are on the same path we chose when we were 16 or 17 (or however old you are when you make your first stab at a career path by applying for college -I can't remember). I'm simply not that suprized that many women get into these corporate positions, and say: "crap, why did I ever want to be a big shot executive - this sucks!" Further, how much do you want to bet that lots of these women are pushed towards this career path by their overbearing parents...and by choosing something else, they make the first TRUE choice of their lives?

3. Is anybody looking at how men are "dropping out" of the elite path set out for them? Certainly, they are not opting to stay home raising kids in large numbers, but how many choose a simpler, less stressful career path over time?

4. Finally - has Ms. Hirshman ever sat down and contemplated how very LONG our lives are getting? For the sake of example, say a woman's "career" lifespan goes from age 25 to 65 - a full 40 years. It's a national crisis if a woman takes 10 years out of 40 to raise kids? That still leaves 30 years to be a mover and shaker!!!

Overall, I thought her tone a bit hysterical and overwrought, and I'm so very glad to see some challenges to this article.

Darleen said...

Wow. I'm going to have to digest Hirshman's article at length, but the thinly disguised disgust at women who don't embrace Her Truth is loud and clear.

Hirshman is all about Power&Money and never (at the risk of sounding like Mrs. Lovejoy) about the children. She views "family" with great suspicion, even describing it as "gendered family." Exactly what does a "genderless family" look like??

An anecdote, if I may, about priorities. Almost 20 years ago, when my father was 56 y/o - a highly successful, hard driving advertising executive, he had a major abdominal aneurysm. He should have died -- instead he spent 6 1/2 months in the hospital...lost his job, became unemployable (no insurance company would touch him).

So he ended up working from home, built his own business, took clients and FINALLY fired the last of 'em this year to embrace full retirement.

In many ways, he believes that his brush with death was the best thing that ever happened to him. He has enjoyed family more, played more and even started saying "I love you" to family members other than just my mom. Yet, to Hirshman, he would be a "failure" as he never opted-back-in to the "mover & shaker" corporate world.

Funny, wander through a cemetary sometime and see if "beloved Law Partner" is etched on the headstones.

jw said...

In my mind, Hirshman is an elitist nutbar.

Cathy: I think your observation about women in the past being involved in the family business is more important than most realize.

The word "wife" at its root means "seller." This from the English tradition of the women selling what their farmer grew, husband is still, rarely, used in its traditional meaning of farmer.

The modern suburban stay-at-home mother is a blip in the face of time and not a very healthy blip.

I might also add that there are more stay-at-home dads than most people think: Almost all are part time employed in the work at home format. I think more women, choosing to stay at home, would be a lot happier if they copied their brother's lifestyle format.

We should also consider bringing the percentage of stay at home fathers up to about 33%. Based on personality, this should improve the sum quality of our child rearing. We would have more healthy children.

mythago said...

Hirshman's touched a nerve because she sets out some rather unpleasant truths. Instead of railing at her for being mean to mommies, why doesn't anyone look at why our workplace culture treats workers with family obligations as liabilities?

That said, I think there are many, many ways to maintain a separate identity and to combine work and love besides the full-throttle career that seems to be Hirshman's ideal.

Shouldn't men, who are increasingly disenchanted with their work-enforced separation from their families, start the trend?

Anonymous said...

"why doesn't anyone look at why our workplace culture treats workers with family obligations as liabilities?"

Because the answer is blindingly obvious: Employers want workers who will cheerfully devote *all* of their time and energy to the job. Any factor that has a chance of leading a worker to say, "Sorry, I can't work late tonight" is a liability to the company. This applies equally to family, volunteer work, illness, hobbies, whatever.

It is telling that Hirshman's solution to this problem is not to critique the corporate attitude, but rather to wholeheartedly embrace it.

Is she shilling for corporate America? Maybe we should look into payments that she might be getting for this, a la Doug Bandow/Armstrong Williams. It would explain a lot.

mythago said...

Because the answer is blindingly obvious

Indeed it is. If we treat that answer as a law of nature, then we can't exactly fuss when women who want success in the career world follow the rules.

I don't think Hirshman is so much a corporate shill as a realist. Somewhat less angrily than the older feminists Cathy quoted, she notes that the only effect of the "home matters too!" and "who cares about material success?" arguments is to shame women out of the same successes men are supposed to accept without a thought to "balance" or "sequencing".

If this whole work-in-moderation thing is so fantastic, why are only women supposed to do it? When I see great numbers of men cutting back their hours, 'sequencing' with their wives, and staying home with their kids, I will join Cathy in fussing about people who think the corporate track is the be-all and end-all. In the meantime, following Cathy's argument that discrimination is largely gone, I am forced to conclude that men stick to career-first because they find it more satisfying and rewarding than a primary role of childrearing and homemaking. Why should I assume they're wrong?

colagirl said...

Or because men may feel as if it is their job, unpleasant as it may be, to support the family and they don't have the option of staying home. Or because their wives feel that staying home is *their* prerogative and that they are entitled to support from their husband.

A couple years ago, I recall reading a book on "starter marriages"--marriages that end w/in five years with no children. I think it was by someone named Pamela Paul. The book itself was largely forgettable, but Paul had done a large number of interviews with members of starter marriage couples. I remember being very struck by some comments from the women in the study, including, "I thought being a wife meant you could choose to work or not work, and your husband would support you;" "I needed a man who would get out and hustle," "when I pushed him to work he would get jobs at Burger King or Arby's." One woman who was an extremely wealthy trust fund baby talked about shouting at her husband, "You've *got* to get a job! We couldn't have kids even if we *wanted* to!" and being met by complete incomprehension on his part--he saw no reason to work because his wife had all that money coming, whereas she had real problems with a husband who was not working even though they did not financially need him to. Conversely, at least one of the males in the book complained that his wife refused to get a job and contribute to the running of the house, simply staying home and lying in bed all day.

I may be a little biased on this issue due to my family history. My mother quit her job when I was eight, because it was stressful and she couldn't handle it. At the time, our family had just bought a new house and we had been counting on my mom's income in figuring the payments. Mom did not get a new job, but instead stayed home watching us kids, mostly by sleeping on the couch all day and cooking dinner twice a week (Dad cooked or we had takeout the remaining five days.) Mom also used that time to work sporadically on her writing and painting (none of which she ever published), so Dad uncomplainingly hired a babysitter to watch us after school a couple days a week. Despite that, my dad never said a single word, just continued to support us all on his income even though we had some extremely tight years financially. Then, when Mom divorced him ten years later to be with someone else, she got half his life savings and his retirement account, and did not have to pay child support even though she left us kids with Dad. It looked an awful lot to me like Mom got the better end of that deal. I wouldn't mind finding me a husband who would let me do that.

aprilpnw said...

I'd really like to know what Ms. Hirshman would think of a woman like me: independent, not much interest in marriage, and utterly without maternal instince and no interest in having kids. PLUS - devoid of any desire to climb to the top of some corporate pinnacle - even if I had the background and education to do so. It always seemed to me that having a job that sucked the life out of you was just as bad as having a marriage and/or family commitments that sucked the life out of you. Where's the "liberation" in being owned by your job, instead of a man?

About two days after I read Ms. Hirshman's article, FORTUNE came out with a cover story called "Get a Life" - about the fact that corporations are now hearing from many more men about the toll some jobs are taking on them. I think there are many men out there with a greater interest in more balance, for whatever reason - I don't think the subject is "trendy" enough.

Anonymous said...

mythago wrote, "If this whole work-in-moderation thing is so fantastic, why are only women supposed to do it?"

They aren't. I, myself, cut back on my hours (at the cost of a career change and pay cut) because the corporate treadmill, with all of its rewards, just didn't mean shit to me.

I now work pretty much 40 hours per week, I know perfectly well that I have little chance of ever being promoted, and I'm thrilled with my situation because it allows me the freedom to pursue my real interests (mountaineering, rock climbing, etc.)

Pardon me while I point at you and laugh: you are embracing the worst elements of male culture, while this man has rejected it.

Robert said...

Mythago, I totally agree. (Sound of earth rumbling.)

That's basically why I started my own business - so I could work from home on my own terms and could prioritize my family ahead of work when necessary without losing my economic base.

The nature of economic productivity is fairly complex, but up until about 20 years ago, if you asked a really perceptive economist who the best-paid people were, they would tell you "the people who surround themselves physically with smart people". In the Olden Times, that meant going to work in an office.

These days, the office isn't necessary. I can work in absolute isolation, but still be partnering and working with other high-skill individuals. We get the benefit of the old corporate agglomeration, leveraging our work mutually, but we don't have to put up with the BS.

It's the wave of the future, I think.

Synova said...

Firstly, there's already a strong voice against women who chose to stay at home, no matter how the rhetoric is claiming to support women's choices equally. If more than a few someones start outright saying "your choice hurts other people" the backlash will be spectacular.

The various comments about the "wife" being an economic producer on the farm or in the shop are important. I grew up on a farm where the children's labor was also *real* in a way that housekeeping simply isn't. It makes a huge difference. It's hard to explain, exactly. It's *not* that the work is more interesting than housework or less isolated. It's that it *matters*.

Also, families are more "nuclear" than way back when a variety options for child care made it more likely that a wife would be producing wealth for the family. Relegating an able bodied young adult woman to nothing but watching toddlers is wasteful.

Lastly, having men in my life who I love dearly... I think it's about time for mens liberation from the reflexes so many of them have toward work. It's taken me years of constantly saying "they aren't going to tell you to go home if you're willing to stay" to get through to my dh. He's managed to get over the insistance of being owned by his job, but it hasn't come easy.

And yes, people willing to give "what it takes" are the ones who are going to be at the top of that corporate ladder. That's their choice. There's no reason that I have to have the same values.

Revenant said...

why doesn't anyone look at why our workplace culture treats workers with family obligations as liabilities?

Because employers want employees whose primary obligation is to the company they work for -- not to a spouse or children. There's nothing that can be done to change that fact -- people more non-work-related obligations will always be (on average) inferior workers to people with fewer such obligations. Similarly, people who work will generally be inferior homemakers to those people who do not.

I think you're missing the point, though. Hirshman isn't just saying that the world forces women to choose between work and family -- she's saying that women who choose the latter are inferior to those who choose the former. That is what makes her an elitist snob. There's nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mother instead of a business executive. In the end all that matters is whether you and those you love are happy.

If this whole work-in-moderation thing is so fantastic, why are only women supposed to do it?

It isn't that only women want to do it -- there are plenty of men who would like to stay at home with the kids, working part-time, while their wive slaved away at some full-time office job. But, for reasons of basic human biology, they're significantly outnumbered by the women who feel that way. For a typical couple, happiness is best-maximized if the wife is the one who handles the bulk of the child-rearing; having the wife focus on her career while the husband raised the kids would make both people unhappier.

Anonymous said...

So, rather than just take Cathy's word for it, I read the Hirshman article. I have to say it is a fine example of what happens when you view everything through the lens of your ideology. If you were to take 5 different ideologs, have them each examine the same phenomena, each would come to radically different and twisted explanations of it. All 5 would miss the simplest explanation (which is the first thing a scientist or engineer would look for).

Did it ever occur to Hirshman that staying at home can be more fun? That if you take the high-power work track, you can't have any hobbies, and that isn't fun? That each of these women probably grew up with a stay at home mom, like mine, who wasn't just slavishly scrubbing the house to please her man. My mom had responsibilities, but they weren't so overwhelming that she didn't have time for hobbies (unlike my dad). She did fun, creative things. She read books. She went to the park. She gardened. Dad, however, came home and drank several scotchs to decompress.

Don't get me wrong. I like working. I don't want 80 hours a week, but 40 is fine with me. My partner, however, would quit in a heartbeat if we could keep the same income... and we are two women! There aren't gender roles in our household! One of us doesn't do the "men's" work, while the other does the "women's" work. It's all just work, and we each do what we're better at and have more tolerance for. (I know several heterosexual couples who are the same way.) My partner wants to quit, not because of my or society's expectations, but because she thinks work sucks.

Z

miltie said...

One of the problems with Hirshman's article is that she completely ignores any evolutionary explanation for society's traditional gender roles. Instead she seems to explain those roles as being imposed on them conspiratorially by men.

Sociobiological or evolutionary reasons for our traditional gender roles are ever mentioned in the article.

Ultimately, the problem with feminism a la Hirshman and Dworkin is that it ignores our biological impulses and natural instincts which are a product of evolution.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with Hirshman's article is that she completely ignores any evolutionary explanation for society's traditional gender roles.

I'm not sure that is really much of a problem. There is some biology behind women and child-rearing. But the rest of what we consider to be traditional gender roles (ie housework, decorating, etc) have no basis in evolutionary biology at all.

Z

miltie said...

"There is some biology behind women and child-rearing."

That's a gross understatement. Actually there's a lot of biology.

See:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0345408934/104-7019717-2179133


"But the rest of what we consider to be traditional gender roles (ie housework, decorating, etc) have no basis in evolutionary biology at all."

That's pretty bogus as well. Read As Nature Made Him.

Revenant said...

But the rest of what we consider to be traditional gender roles (ie housework, decorating, etc) have no basis in evolutionary biology at all.

What makes you so sure of that? Simple observation indicates that women are much more interested in such things as home decoration than men are, and I'm not aware of any conclusive body of scientific evidence demonstrating that that phenomenon is purely cultural. Indeed, is there any culture in which the local equivalent of Martha Stewart is overwhelmingly watched by men?

From an evolutionary standpoint it is easy to see how a predisposition towards making a comfortable and pleasant home would be selected for in women more strongly than in men. Historically, women, as child-bearers, needed to attract a live-in partner more than men did.

Cathy Young said...

Don't have time for a long response right now (I actually have to finish a column before I fly home tomorrow morning), but a couple of quick things.

mythago: could it be that one reason more men aren't making this choice is because of pressures from women? Women who want the option of working in a satisfying but non-lucrative job, or even of not working for pay at all, will tend to select mates who can provide them with the income to afford that option. And women who pursue high-powered careers, by and large, still tend not to "marry down." Peggy Orenstein discusses this quite candidly in Flux.

Re the issue of innate gender differences: my own position is that we really don't know how large a role biology plays in the differences in male and female attitudes toward workplace success and child-rearing. Most psychological and mental sex differences (even leaving aside the extent to which they're shaped by culture) allow for a great deal of overlap; typically, about 1/3 of each sex will fit the pattern more typical of the other sex. I'm not convinced by evolutionary psychology as a catchall explanation for what makes everyone tick, either. For one thing, do we really understand enough about how natural selection shapes men and women differently (leaving aside obvious sex-specific physical traits), considering that men and women inherit their genes from parents of both sexes?

For more on my view of sex differences, see this Reason article excerpted from my bookm Ceasefire. In terms of the present debate, I don't think it matters that much whether the greater female preference for a more balanced or a more family-oriented life is more influenced by nature or culture. (Actually, Lisa Belkin makes an interesting point in her unfairly maligned article: the mere fact that women have to take a break from work for pregnancy and childbirth may make them more likely to reevaluate their priorities and the importance they place on their careers. Illness often does the same for men.) As I said in my column, I think our goal should be to expand the options for both men and women. Rev, I'm not sure that the sexual division of labor makes for the happiest families; I recall seeing some studies showing that at least for two-earner couples, the greater the drift toward traditional roles after the birth of a child, the more stress and conflict the couple tends to experience. But I can't supply any citations right now. I think both men and women, generally, would be better off with more flexible family roles, and fewer cultural prescriptions of what's appropriate for a man/woman to do. But obviously, this kind of evolution cannot happen by the fiat of Feminism Central.

Revenant said...

considering that men and women inherit their genes from parents of both sexes?

That's not entirely true.

The Y-chromosome is always inherited from the father, and most of the genes therein can't recombine with genes from the X-chromosome. In general terms, a man's genetic "maleness" has very little input from the mother at all. In women, only one of the X-chromosomes is active, while in men both chromosomes are active. This raises the possibility that a given X chromosome could lead to different behavior in a woman than it would in a man, due to the small degree of interaction between the chromosomes in men. So it is possible for distinctly "male" and "female" traits to be selected for in the genes, due to the mechanics of how gender is determined.

The above is my understanding as an amateur evolution geek, anyway. I could be mistaken about the details.

I recall seeing some studies showing that at least for two-earner couples, the greater the drift toward traditional roles after the birth of a child, the more stress and conflict the couple tends to experience

Well, there are several reasons why the conversion from two-earner to one-earner-one-homemaker could cause unhappiness. The two big ones, I think, are (a) women with a more "male" attitude towards work and child-rearing are, for obvious reasons, overrepresented in two-earner couples, and (b)people tend to live at the limit of their means (so a two-earner couple in which one partner stops working usually experiences a significant reduction in the material quality of their lifestyle, their financial security, et al).

I think both men and women, generally, would be better off with more flexible family roles, and fewer cultural prescriptions of what's appropriate for a man/woman to do

More flexibility is almost always good, no matter what the subject. But personally, I think one of the big discoveries of the coming decades will be the ability to determine, at a biological level, what makes us as individuals happy. Happiness is, after all, just a chemical state.

drumgurl said...

"typically, about 1/3 of each sex will fit the pattern more typical of the other sex."

I have read that too, but can't remember where. Assuming this is true, I'd like to point out that 33% is definitely statistically significant. While it may be true that the majority of women are "feminine", I think a significant number of women are not. I have personally tried very hard to be feminine, but always failed.

Is it really such a good idea to eliminate individualism? Humans would certainly be easier to understand if we could put them all into neat little categories. Fortunately, most humans have minds of their own.

Revenant said...

Is it really such a good idea to eliminate individualism? Humans would certainly be easier to understand if we could put them all into neat little categories.

There's nothing in the idea of biologically-predetermined personality traits that is hostile to individualism. When all is said and done you're still doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, for your own reasons. What's the difference between a person who raises children because they're predisposed towards enjoying it and a person who raises children because they chose to do so for other reasons? Nothing, it seems to me -- except that the former is probably happier with his or her lot in life.

Self-awareness is a friend of individuality, not an enemy. In the long run, being able to point to a gene and say "this gene makes people want to raise kids" would simply make it easier for people to identify what kind of life choices would make them happier people. Just as a person might one day know they're at risk for cancer or heart disease and adjust their lifestyle accordingly, a person might know that they're at risk for unhappiness in the rat race (or as a homemaker) and plan their lifestyle accordingly.

mythago said...

could it be that one reason more men aren't making this choice is because of pressures from women?

Of course--just as many women are making their choices because of pressures from men. Men aren't any more interested in 'marrying up' than women are in 'marrying down'.

The evolutionary arguments are, as they've been throughout history, a way of trying to justify social attitudes by pretending we are born to our choices, and to whitewash the enormous social and economic pressures that shape our 'choices'.

anonymous, I salute you for finding a work-life balance. I'd note, though, that you seem to have made that choice by yourself. You don't have rock-climbing buddies whining at you to spend more time with them and less at your job, presumably, and you aren't relying on somebody else to buy your gear.

jw said...

The 1:2 rule came first from mass observations of the Myers-Briggs. it was then checked against a great many other factors. I think there's a book on the topic ...

It is not a hard & fast "this is always true" rule. More a "this is the way to bet" rule.

Certainly when looking at men who become lone fathers due to maternal abandonment the 1 to 2 rule sticks out like a sore thumb. A third of men in this category will become as "motherly" as the best mother and do so in months. Its a hoot watching a new lone father and trying to guess where he'll come down on the gender-slide. BTW: Maternal abandonment is by far and away the most common reason for lone fathers. Too many people fail to realize this.

We're all a product of our culture as much as anything else. Biology determines some things, like strengths. Culture determines what we do with those strengths.

Our culture pushes women into thinking they must be the primary care giver to children (and pushes men away from thinking that). This often results in the wrong person being the primary caregiver.

We fix some of our child problems by seeing people as what they are. We should (being reasonable people) expect to see half to two-thirds of children raised in a stay-at-home parent home where that stay-at-home parent works part time. In those stay-at-homes we expect to see one third being fathers. That is not what we see. Therefore, we have a cultural problem which harms children. Simple. Fix the problem.

Paul said...

As a male.I have been a feminist for years and I believe that women should have the right to pursue whatever vocation that they desire including the domestic one.

Anonymous said...

That's a gross understatement. Actually there's a lot of biology.
See:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/customer-reviews/0345408934/104-7019717-2179133


Ok. I saw it, and to quote:

"Professor Hrdy is an emeritus professor of anthropology at UC Davis who puts the behavior of mothers and infants into an evolutionary context, using a comparative approach and drawing from sociobiology," (not real biology) "anthropology," (this is cultural anthropology, again, not biology)" and psychology." (definitely not biology)

The other book you mentioned is a single case study, which can't be used to make generalizations about all of humanity.

Point me to a candidate gene on either the X or Y chromosone, and I will happily take assertions like this seriously. Until then, this and similiar evolutionary psychology cr*p is more speculation than hard science.

Z

miltie said...

"Professor Hrdy is an emeritus professor of anthropology at UC Davis who puts the behavior of mothers and infants into an evolutionary context, using a comparative approach and drawing from sociobiology," (not real biology) "anthropology," (this is cultural anthropology, again, not biology)" and psychology." (definitely not biology)

Why do you say the anthropology she is referring to is cultural not biological? No where does it say that the anthropology she is referring to is cultural. Anthropology is the scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans. All or none of these things could have a biological origin. Saying anthropology is not biological does not really make any sense. You are talking about two totally different things.

"The other book you mentioned is a single case study, which can't be used to make generalizations about all of humanity."

Wrong again. That was one case study amongst many that have thoroughly debunked John Money's notion of gender roles being culturally determined. John Money was big in the 70's and later it was determined that he was fudging his findings and now his theories on gender roles (which was siding strongly with nurture) are no longer taken seriously. The book deals with one of his subjects. That's true. But that was not Money's lone subject. Similar problems took place with Money's other subjects as well.


"Until then, this and similiar evolutionary psychology cr*p is more speculation than hard science."

Well I think you'd be on the losing side of that debate. When it comes to the nature nurture debate the pendulum has been swinging way towards nature for years now. Outside of Gould (deceased), Lewontin and Money (who has toned down his theory now that he has been exposed) you won't find many defenders of the strong nurture assumption.

Obviously the nature nurture debate is not an either/or type argument. Actually they are probably both intertwined.

I'm not going to give you a detailed explanation as to why sociobiology is not "crap" as you put it. If you want proof there's plenty of it out there on the web if you're really interested. However, one thing I have noticed is that the intellectual critics of sociobiology tend nowadays to be outside of the field of biology. This explains why their arguments tend to be weak. They're speaking out of their element.

miltie said...

"Point me to a candidate gene on either the X or Y chromosone, and I will happily take assertions like this seriously. Until then, this and similiar evolutionary psychology cr*p is more speculation than hard science."

Let's carry your logic to its ridiculous conclusion. Point me to a gay gene then. You can't find one. Does that mean you won't take the assertion that homosexuality is biological and not cultural seriously?

Helaine said...

A great post about one of the most ridiculous articles to come down the pike in a long time.

When I first read Hirshman's piece, I was convinced it had to be some kind of weird joke. I couldn't imagine anyone would seriously write about the need for women to marry down, not have more than one child, refuse to change diapers, etc. Then I checked my calendar and realized we are a long ways a away from April 1.

There is lots to say about this piece and, Cathy, you said much of it better than I could. But I would make the further point that anyone who wants to understand why married women with children are more likely to vote Republican, might want to take a look at this piece. The contempt for women's lives and choices just reeks.

Last, thank you for your defense of Lisa Belkin's piece in the NYT. I don't know why so many people want to deny the obvious fact that many women with children are either leaving the workforce or significantly scaling back. Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I do believe I struck a nerve.

So, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I, like a lot of my colleagues in mathematics and the hard sciences, do not hold soft science in as much esteem as hard science. That isn't to say it can't be useful, especially for hypothesis generation, but its results should always be viewed with a LOT more skepticism. Correlation is NOT the same thing as causation. With medicine, chemistry, biology, and genetics you can actually establish causation. You can't do that with sociobiology, psychology, etc. And yes, so far, everything I've read coming out of evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology, while creative and entertaining, has been long on speculation and short on credible evidence.

Let's also make sure we get our definitions straight. From a scientific standpoint, evolutionary means genetically based. To actually prove that something is evolutionary, you either need real genetic evidence or trait-based physical evidence.

Biologically based is not the same thing. I can break my normally healthy leg, and that is definitely biologically based, but not genetic.

As for homosexuality, if I claimed with certainty that it was 'evolutionary', I would deserve to be pounced on like you were. We don't know that. There may be a genetic component to it, but that is speculative and unproven. There is proof that there are physical differences between the brains of straight and heterosexual men, but we have no clue why. One interesting theory is a unusual hormonal exposure in utero. But that, again, is speculative.

Z

AprilPNW said...

Since we have some scientists on board, I'd like to throw this out:

Doesn't it seem odd that Darwin, and what he represents, is championed in the context of the evolution vs. intelligent design debate (can't let the religious right wing get the upper hand there!)....

Yet when anyone tries to apply Darwinian concepts to explain gender behavior, family structure, or any other social phenomenon...suddenly Darwin is not so popular and not such a hero?

miltie said...

"So, in the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I, like a lot of my colleagues in mathematics and the hard sciences, do not hold soft science in as much esteem as hard science. That isn't to say it can't be useful, especially for hypothesis generation, but its results should always be viewed with a LOT more skepticism."

Fair enough.



"But the rest of what we consider to be traditional gender roles (ie housework, decorating, etc) have no basis in evolutionary biology at all."


Where's the skepticism in this statement of yours? And what can you tell me other than "sociobiology is speculative" that supports this assertion of yours that gender roles have no basis in evolutionary psychology whatsoever? I guess I'm wondering if you're going to answer the question already asked of you. What makes you so sure?

If you know sociobiology has nothing to do with then do tell what does?

rick said...

aprilpnw-
Yet when anyone tries to apply Darwinian concepts to explain gender behavior, family structure, or any other social phenomenon...suddenly Darwin is not so popular and not such a hero?

Maybe its because the concepts should only be applied to what they were originally intended to apply to, and also what they explain (evolution)? It would be silly to apply quantum physics to, say, economics.

Anonymous said...

Fine.

What I should have said was:

"But the rest of what we consider to be traditional gender roles (ie housework, decorating, etc) have no established basis in evolutionary biology. In fact, at this point in time, it is extremely difficult to prove a genetic basis to complex, particularly adult, behavior because of the impact of environmental and cultural influences over time. Claims to the contrary strain credibility."

Z

miltie said...

"Maybe its because the concepts should only be applied to what they were originally intended to apply to, and also what they explain (evolution)? "

Who says Darwin's evolution was never intended to apply to behavior?

Darwins's "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" deals heavily with evolution and its effect on human behavior.

AprilPNW said...

"Maybe its because the concepts should only be applied to what they were originally intended to apply to, and also what they explain (evolution)? "

So, a theory that holds that a woman who has just given birth suddenly birth becomes strongly invested in the survival of her gene pool, and is suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to protect and nurture said helpless infant...

THAT's not related to Darwinian concepts?

Anonymous said...

aprilpnw,

That is a poor example. 'Infant bonding' can be explained physiologically. When in contact with their babies(specific sensory stimulus), women who bond with the infant get a surge of certain hormones(specific physiologic response). As difficult a study as that would be to arrange, we could certainly look for genetic differences between women who do and don't have that hormonal response.

But when you try to apply natural selection to things like why many women like to buy shoes... it just isn't good science.

Z

aprilpnw said...

"That is a poor example."

LOL..and my ability to BARELY pass a science class is reavealed to all...

miltie said...

"That is a poor example. 'Infant bonding' can be explained physiologically. When in contact with their babies(specific sensory stimulus), women who bond with the infant get a surge of certain hormones(specific physiologic response)."

Yes, and it can be explained in evolutionary terms. As it is in the work done by Professor Hrdy that i referred you to. Whose work you mischaracterized by suggesting that it didn't explain maternal behavior in evolutionary terms. Her book gives a sociobiological explanation for maternal behavior. You'd realize that if you just took a peak into it.

Anonymous said...

(sigh) That was the 'some biological basis' I was referring to earlier, and the only biological data I know of that truly addresses an aspect parenting behavior.

I'm curious, did Dr. Hrdy's book mention that men have a similar hormonal response to contact with their infants? That the more contact they have with the infants, the stronger the response?

So basically,

a) A genetic basis to this is testable, but it hasn't been done yet, so it isn't established.

b) Rather than make the case for traditional gender roles, this data indicates that fathers, given time with the infant, are as capable of intensely bonding with the infant as the mother.

Z

Anonymous said...

"(sigh) That was the 'some biological basis' I was referring to earlier, and the only biological data I know of that truly addresses an aspect parenting behavior. "

Whoah. I'm actually surprised.

For somebody who is as convinced as you are that evolutionary psychology is crap I would have thought that you'd be aware of the plethora of work done in this area. Hrdy's book is just the tip of the iceberg.

miltie said...

"With medicine, chemistry, biology, and genetics you can actually establish causation. You can't do that with sociobiology, psychology, etc. "

Actually sociobiological hypotheses get tested all the time. Although a common knock on sociobiology is that it is just ad-hoc reasoning there are plenty of journals that test adaptationist hypotheses. The American Naturalist is one of many journals that publish the results of testing of sociobiological hypotheses. I strongly suggest reading John Alcock's chapter in Triumph of Sociobiology titled How to Test Sociobiological Hypotheses.

mythago said...

I couldn't imagine anyone would seriously write about the need for women to marry down, not have more than one child, refuse to change diapers, etc.

Why not? The idea that men should put their careers first, "marry down", and leave childcare to their wives is so taken for granted that nobody even bothers to write articles about it.

jw said...

mythago said "The idea that men should put their careers first, "marry down", and leave childcare to their wives is so taken for granted that nobody even bothers to write articles about it."

A great many articles exist. Many men question the assumptions of our culture. A great many men are now the primary caregiver to children: Many many more are equal caregivers.

This has been a major change in our culture and one not noticed outside the men's movements, which is strange and sad.

Cathy Young said...

mythago:

could it be that one reason more men aren't making this choice is because of pressures from women?

Of course--just as many women are making their choices because of pressures from men. Men aren't any more interested in 'marrying up' than women are in 'marrying down'.


I agree (and I've noted in an earlier thread on this blog, I believe) that the pressures can come from men too.

However, I think that by and large today, there is a far greater social stigma against men pressuring women into traditional roles (or refusing to perform any of the tasks traditionally associated with male roles) than vice versa. Outside the most Neanderthal social circles, a man who announced at a party, "I told my wife upfront that once my kid is born, there's no way I'm ever touching a dirty diaper!" would be widely viewed as a male chauvinist pig. A woman who said, "I told my husband upfront that once I have the baby, there's no way I'm going back to work" would not, I think, incur the same condemnation.

That doesn't mean there are no social pressures on women, of course. If the child of a two-paycheck couple is not getting enough parental attention, people are still a LOT more likely to blame the mother than the father and to ask why the mother has to spend so much time at work. At the same time, I do think that there is a fairly widespread attitude that the mother should have the choice to work full-time or part-time, or not to work at all, and that the father should be supportive of her choice.

Not to sound like a broken record, but again, read Peggy Orenstein's Flux. You'll see a lot of evidence of young women, still in college, talking about wanting the option of scaling down work after having children. Male pressure does not seem to play a role in these decisions. One woman in Orenstein's book consciously breaks up with her boyfriend because he's unlikely to ever make enough money to support a family, and while this woman is very ambitious professionally, she feels that she might some day want to take time out of her career to care for children and wants a husband whose income would afford her that option.

Incidentally, I don't think that "marrying down" is necessarily bad advice. It all depends on how the advice is formulated. It's one thing to say, "Don't reject a man you like because he's not making as much money as you are." It's another thing to say, "Reject a man you like if it looks like his career may eclipse yours should you two marry." You can get a lot further by encouraging people to expand their options than to narrow them.

You also say:

The idea that men should put their careers first, "marry down", and leave childcare to their wives is so taken for granted that nobody even bothers to write articles about it.

I don't think that's an accurate description of prevailing attitudes in most of American society today. I'm not saying that those roles don't exist, but they are hardly "taken for granted."

Cal said...

I thought Hirshman's article was dead on. Belkin, on the other hand, is an embarrassment.

Forty years of intensive study have proved nothing more than minor differences either way, and clearly parental income and education influences outcome far more than whether or not the mother stays home--or welfare moms would be churning out CEOs and scientists.

There is, on the other hand, considerable evidence that a mother's failure to provide for herself causes her children considerable damage, whether she inflicts it by opting for welfare, by not being there to take up the slack if the father is put out of work, or by the financial stress suffered after a divorce.

So this is more than just a choice. This is a social policy matter.

Both you and the commenters seem that Hirshman is advocating some sort of totalitarian enforcement of women's choices. I thought Hirshman was saying that we should not praise women for staying home. I agree. At best, it's a luxury. Most of the time, it's an indulgence a woman can't afford.

We should also consider the various social mechanisms in place that support women in this poor choice. Why not remove them? This doesn't prevent women from staying home, but it would make it clear that there's no state financial protection for the choice.

For example, Social Security payments could go to the individual, with no additional funds going to wives based solely on their husband's contributions.

Another possibility is to eliminate any expectation of financial support after a divorce, by eliminating any income transfer (child support) and perhaps mandating joint physical custody. Each parent could be held responsible for providing for the children on their own (with shared expenses for medical care and education, perhaps).

Still another possibility is to expect a woman who isn't married to be responsible for her child. If a woman goes on welfare, the state assumes that a man has let her down, and hunts that man down for reimbursement of her welfare. The mother is never expected to pay back her bill to society. Why not? The mother has all the choices: she chose to have the child without financial support, and came to the state with her hand out. Instead, the state pretends that she has a right to stay home and live off of a man's work--whether he consented or not.

So there's plenty of room between where we are now and a totalitarian response that demands women--or indeed, anyone--work for a living. Once outside the highest income stratosphere, mothers who leave the workforce--or who never enter it--increase the likelihood that their children will suffer financially. The state should not be supporting her in that choice.

mythago said...

I'm not saying that those roles don't exist, but they are hardly "taken for granted."

On what basis? We don't see the NYT publishing article after article about men 'opting out'. We don't see GQ, or Esquire, or other men's magazines printing agonized articles about having it all or about how to convince their wives to share the load of caring for the family.

It's true that a man who says "I'm never touching a diaper!" would be reviled. One who says "I wish I had that nurturing instinct my wife has" will get sympathy--look at this very blog, with people attributing decorator preferences to evolution, fercryinoutloud.

Yes, men are expected to be more supportive of their wives' choices, but oddly, nobody is turning around and saying "So, Bob, why don't YOU stay home with the toddler?"

Cathy Young said...

Maybe not "opting out," but there have been a lot of "new father" stories. If you look at virtually any mainstream media story about fatherhood, it's written with the assumption that fathers ought to play an equal role in child-rearing and housework.

Cal: you make some interesting points, though I think it's worth noting (as I pointed out in my column and my blogpost) that Hirshman's scorn extends not only to women who don't have any paid employment at all, but also to those who don't pursue sufficiently upscale careers.

However, Cal's post certainly raises a curious question. There is indeed a way to discourage women from quitting the workforce, by ending various social and governmental supports for non-employed spouses. Would feminists who support Hirshman's agument endorse such measures?

Anonymous said...

Miltie,

I took some time out from this argument and came to the conclusion that I was dismissing an entire field of study without being that clear about what I object to. So here we go:

To start, I am a research statistician. I have worked on several studies over the years, some pure biology, most in the medical field. My first degree was in psychology (the counseling variety), and going into research was a career switch. I have done some work analyzing behavioral data, and some work with genetics.

Part of my job is preventing clinicians from over-reaching. This is my biggest research pet peeve, and drives me completely batty. By this I mean, you can certainly craft hypotheses and test them in both the hard and soft sciences. However, once that is done, what the results actually mean, what conclusions you can draw from them, tends to be VERY narrow in scope (Particularly in the soft sciences, where it can be impossible to conduct randomized, controlled clinical trials or laboratory experiments). Whether it is willful ignorance or blinding overenthusiasm, an awful lot of clinicians make these creative sweeping generalizations about their data that can NOT be justified by the results. In short, while the research methodology may be decent, the conclusions are crap. Sadly, it is those conclusions that tend to get reported, cited, and end up in books for popular consumption.

The softer and newer the scientific discipline, the more frequently this occurs. Often, as a discipline ages, more scientific rigor gets injected into it, and the flow of crap lessens. That may well happen with your pet fields, particularly if they start doing more multi-disciplinary work with the hard sciences.

By the way, and this goes for everyone, if you haven't taken some coursework in statistics, you should. In fact, the more you know about stats, the better you are able to critically evaluate research. Without that knowledge, you end up relying on the media and the researchers to explain to you what their results mean, and that can be a very bad thing.

Z

Cal said...

"that Hirshman's scorn extends not only to women who don't have any paid employment at all, but also to those who don't pursue sufficiently upscale careers."

No, she was scornful about women who chose "meaningful" careers as opposed to lucrative careers. As indeed she should be. How many of those women would choose the same career if they weren't married to someone who was doing all the heavy lifting necessary to give her the lifestyle she wants?

Women are making those choices after (or in expectation of) finding a man to fund them--and the man, of course, gets no choice. If a woman chose to work in a nonprofit organization to "do good" after marrying a stockbroker, it's hard to believe she would be particularly supportive if the stockbroker suddenly decided he wanted to teach kindergarten. Society, by and large, would see his choice as problematic and never question her decision to work for less.

The problem with the "choice" nonsense is that it allows women to skate from the responsibilities of life, while demanding all the rights that men have. They can opt effortlessly in and out of responsibility for their children and themselves with society's approval.

"There is indeed a way to discourage women from quitting the workforce, by ending various social and governmental supports for non-employed spouses. "

Further to this point: Society does not--and will not--protect women from the outcome of their lousy choices. The benefits they get were designed when they were protected, and had fewer rights to go along with that protection. It is positively irresponsible to give them any support for leaving the workforce.

mythago said...

If you look at virtually any mainstream media story about fatherhood, it's written with the assumption that fathers ought to play an equal role in child-rearing and housework.

No, it's written with the assumption that fathers should do something more than show up on weekends--it's certainly not written with the idea that Dad is going to be just as involved in meal planning, shopping for back-to-school clothes, or fixing family meals as Mom is. "More involved" doesn't mean "equal".

There is indeed a way to discourage women from quitting the workforce

Families do not generally make choices about staying home vs. working on a rational, analytical basis. The people who would respond to marketplace and tax incentives are not the ones who would be listening to you anyway.

anniesmom03 said...

Cathy
I think you do great work on this subject, and I a so glad to see someone defending the Belkin piece. I have much to say about the subject, and little time (as a professional scientist and mother of a two year old), but I hope to join in on other threads in the future.

I was talking with a friend and colleague the other day about the opting-out phenomenon, though we were specifically talking about women in science. Of course, in science it is not called "opting-out", but rather "dropping-out", and this is a shame, because it connotes failure, whereas "opting-out" indicates choice. Incidentally, we were discussing the very valid reasons for which women we know have opted out of science. Most have gone onto less demanding but perhaps more fulfilling careers, so it is not what Hirshman is talking about, but they still get looked down upon by their former colleagues, especially female colleagues, for "dropping out".

Hirshman and others like her certainly make a few good points, but they seem intent on conveying the idea that women are not making choices but having choice thrust upon them. Certainly we don't have limitless options (few people do), and I personally wish we had more (the part-time option, for example) but it is intellectually dishonest, and morally suspect, to claim that highly educated affluent women in western democracies are forced into bad situations without having much say in the matter.

I'm glad I found your blog. I've enjoyed your columns in the Globe, though I don't always agree with you, but on this and some other issues (evolution, for example), your calm rationality is a breath of fresh air. I look forward to reading more in the future.

Cal said...

" they seem intent on conveying the idea that women are not making choices but having choice thrust upon them. "

Not really. Hirshman points out that they are feeble choices and it doesn't matter whether the women are making the choice or it is thrust upon them:

"Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: 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'"

But I believe you, and all the others, who say you are proud of your choice to bail out of financial responsibility for your family and yourself, to live off someone else, to eventually dabble in "more fulfilling careers", having secured yourself a wallet (that is, a husband) who will ensure that your noble choices won't require any material sacrifice. I just don't think it's anything to celebrate.

Mythago:

"Families do not generally make choices about staying home vs. working on a rational, analytical basis. "

There's decades of research to demonstrate otherwise.

anniesmom03 said...

Wow, Cal, thanks for the personal attack.

I'll not use this space to attack back or defend myself, other than wondering where in my post I implied that I have "bail[ed] out of financial responsibility for my family and myself". I'll piont out that you don't know what my salary is, whether I have a husband, whether he has a job, what his salary is, what our monthly expenses are, whether we maintain separate financial accounts or merge my salary with any salary he (or she, for that matter) may make, and what child care arrangements we have. While my own personal situation is not highly relevant to this issue (though I argue that it is also not irrelevant, however I have not chosen to reveal much information), you might have asked me about it before launching into an attack.

You've made a few interesting points on this thread, but you seem to assume that most women are spoging off either the taxpayers, or their unwilling husbands, or both. This is certainly going on, and it is important to point out (as many posters here have done) that things will never be fair unless men and women have the same range of choices with respect to career and family. But I don't honestly know too many people who fit this profile, especially among the subjects that Belkin and Hirshman write about.

It may be silly to spend any energy at all worrying about what people in the six figure income range do with their choices-this will hardly affect most people. If the average family manages to live on under $60K, what does it matter to you whether a professional woman chooses a "meaningful" career, that adds only $80K to the joint household income, as opposed to a "lucrative" career, which adds $120K? I completely agree that both partners should have the same choices, and that lifestyle should be scaled to fit the income provided by those choices. And if not, well, fortunately most of us get the marriage we deserve.

Aprilpnw said...

"It may be silly to spend any energy at all worrying about what people in the six figure income range do with their choices-this will hardly affect most people."

I tend to agree, though Ms. Hirshman believes women from "The Elite" sector have a "Regime Effect" on those on the lower rungs; though she does not explain what that is, and I've been too uninterested to look this up.

anniesmom03 said...

aprilpnw,
If I had to guess, I would say that the trickle "regime effect" of womenin the elite sector probabl has to to with changing policy and attitudes. In that sense, of course it is important that women occupy positions of power and influence, and of course they do. My point, and I'm guessing yours as well, is about individual women. Even with many women opting out and feeling OK about it, there are still women who will stay in the high-level professions. How many? Well I don't know. How many are needed? Again I don't know.

But here's an anecdote that I actually find somewhat hopeful in nature. I was recently at an international conference that was for principle investigators (meaning funded research scientists who run labs) in my subfield. It is a small group, probably about 160 people world-wide. There were 136 in attendence at the conference. I've been working in this field for close to 10 years now, and I have never even though about gender issues or how many women are in the field. Several of the most productive ahd highest impact labs are headed by women, and women are a substantial presence at conferences. However, at one point during this meeting, for the first time in a decade, I became aware that most of the people in the room were men. I went to the participant list and counted men and women, and I found that of the 136 at the meeting, only 27 were women.

Why is this hopeful? Because I have never experienced any sense of underrepresentation of women, or felt that I was in a male dominated field, even though the numbers say otherwise. From this I conclude that a critical mass of women has been reached in my field, and that is just under 20%. Sure, if we could get to 50-50, that would be great, but this experience (yeas, caveat, its an anecdote) suggests that 50-50 is not necessary for women to have significant influence in a professional realm.

Revenant said...

Point me to a candidate gene on either the X or Y chromosone, and I will happily take assertions like this seriously. Until then, this and similiar evolutionary psychology cr*p is more speculation than hard science

That's sort of a strange attitude to have.

For a long time, psychologists believed that the differences between men and women were solely due to social conditioning, with biology playing no significant role. This was a faith-based belief with no basis in science or observed reality. That it replaced the equally faith-based and unscientific belief that ALL differences were inherent doesn't make it forgivable.

Today we know that some of the mental differences between men and women are inherent -- that they are the result of biology, and therefore the result of evolution. The questions are what gets influenced by biology, and how, and to what extent.

Now, you may wish to adopt an attitude that all differences between men and women should be presumed social until proven to be biological, go right ahead. But that's not the rational, scientific way to look at it. The scientific perspecitive is that we don't know, yet. Are women more concerned with child-rearing than men are in every culture on Earth due to coincidental social pressures, or because the gender that has to invest 9 months in a pregnancy has more at stake than the gender that has to invest 15 minutes, or because of something else? We don't really know yet. But dismissing theories like the latter as "crap" just because we haven't found a specific gene yet is silly. We haven't found a specific gene for many of the things we know to be hereditary, yet.

Anonymous said...

It's not that strange an attitude. Most complex behavior is demonstrably learned. For instance, no one would seriously argue that my typing behavior was a genetically inhereted. At best, you could argue that I managed to inheret functioning fingers and a functional brain, and these weren't destroyed by my (or my mother's) interaction with the environment.

Even a cat has to learn from its mother how to properly kill and eat a mouse. It has the instinctive urge to stalk and chase, but has no clue that the mouse is anything but a toy, if not taught otherwise. But then again, playful kitten stalking and chasing are not complex behaviors. True intentioned hunting, capturing, and then breaking a mouse's neck the right way in just the right spot is.

Even if something has a genetic component, that gene can either be turned on or off by complex interactions with the environment. But these guys aren't even looking at genes, and that is a large chunk of my point. They are doing observational studies of behavior and then speculating like crazy when they write their conclusions. But, people love this kind of stuff because they want to believe that the cultural norms they grew up with are the 'natural way' to be. Without better evidence, I don't buy it.

You want an alternative explanation for why women have a greater share of child-rearing responsibility in most cultures, it is because that is the most efficient approach. In primitive cultures, people have to breed like bunnies for most of their offspring to survive. Men can't be pregnant or nurse, and for women, those limit the ability to be away from children for long periods. Women always worked. They just had their kids with them in the fields, the forests, the shops, wherever.

But there are reasons that men get all the bonding with baby hormones, too. They have just as much of a genetic interest in the survival of their offspring, and until recently, women, frequently, used die in childbirth.

Z

Revenant said...

It's not that strange an attitude. Most complex behavior is demonstrably learned.

If by "learned" you mean "in no way the result of biological predispositions" then your claim is quite false -- there are, in fact, almost no behaviors we have strong reason to believe are entirely learned. We lack the technology (and understanding of neurobiology) to definitely conclude how much of a given behavior is the result of learning.

Literally speaking, of course all behavior is the result of biology -- specifically, the physical and electrochemical status of our brains. "Learning" is the act of influencing that state. But since the brain itself and the means by which it acquires learning are the end results of evolution, even "learned" behavior is ultimately the result of human evolution too. Even if women "learn" to be mothers and men "learn" to be providers, it may still be the case that our brains are predisposed to make it easier for men and women to learn their stereotypical roles. Indeed, given that women have been raising the kids for, oh, a thousand generations or longer, it would be outright shocking if female brains were NOT so predisposed.

Even a cat has to learn from its mother how to properly kill and eat a mouse.

I know from personal experience that cats can and do catch and kill mice even if they aren't taught, actually. But here's a question for you -- why can't cats teach rabbits to kill mice? The answer, probably, is that cat brains are prewired to be ready for that learning and rabbits aren't. Similarly, human brains are probably prewired for things like language and child-rearing. They are "learned" behaviors, but the predisposition is already there.

It is commonly believed that the human brain is infinitely flexible in its capacity for learning. That's a nice belief, and as a libertarian I'd like to think it is true, but it is (a) entirely unproven and (b) based on our knowledge of evolution, incredibly unlikely. Every animal in the world exhibits stereotypical complex behavior, even if reared apart from anything it might learn from. Furthermore, in all mammals the male and the female exhibit different behavior. All of this is hereditary -- it must be, since it turns up even when the creatures aren't given the chance to "learn" it.

Now, humans, too, exhibit stereotypical behaviors and stereotypical gender differences throughout the world -- but, for some reason, we like to kid ourselves and say that in OUR case it is the result of things like culture or learning. Color me skeptical.

They are doing observational studies of behavior and then speculating like crazy when they write their conclusions.

You just described pretty much the entire history of sociology, gender studies, and psychology.

Look, we know for a fact that everything we think is the result of our brains. We know that our brain, like all of our biology, is the result of evolutionary forces. So either the way we think is influenced by evolution, or the human brain is somehow the one organism immune to evolutionary forces.

You want an alternative explanation for why women have a greater share of child-rearing responsibility in most cultures, it is because that is the most efficient approach.

What you're missing is that if X is more efficient than Y, X gets selected for unless it is IMPOSSIBLE for X to be selected for. And we know for a fact that it is possible for mammalian genetics to predispose one or the other gender towards child-rearing, because we see that behavior in other mammals.

So here are the facts:

(1): It is possible for genetics to predispose one gender of an animal species towards child-rearing.
(2): It is, objectively, more efficient for women to be the primary caregivers for children.
(3): Therefore, there is a selective force favoring women whose female children are predisposed towards child-rearing.
(4): The theory of evolution predicts that traits that are selected for will become more common in the population.
(5): Throughout human society, women are usually the primary caregivers for children.

So, how to explain (5)? Well, evolution offers a simple and entirely consistent explanation. We could add additional complications, such as "it is both evolved AND learned", or concoct spurious theories such as "evolution doesn't apply in this case for unspecified reasons, the behavior is entirely learned". But why not stick with the simple explanation offered by the proven theory -- that when a selected-for behavior exhibits itself throughout a species, that behavior is likely the result of evolution?

In summary, we would expect human genetics to predispose women towards being the primary caregivers for children. If you want to claim that they AREN'T so predisposed, you must offer either an explanation as to why evolution suspended itself in this case, or an argument as to why selection is impossible.

[Men] have just as much of a genetic interest in the survival of their offspring

But men can potentially have orders of magnitude more offspring than women can. For most of human history, the most successful men typically had children with multiple women and the least-successful men had no children at all. The male stake in any given child was, therefore, much lower. When it comes to kids, males have reason to favor quantity over quality; for women, the reverse is true.

Anonymous said...

there are, in fact, almost no behaviors we have strong reason to believe are entirely learned.

In fact? Reading, writing, typing, etc aren't entirely learned?

You just described pretty much the entire history of sociology, gender studies, and psychology.

I recall mentioning my distaste for the soft sciences. I hold a fair level of contempt for gender studies in particular. Sociology, frankly, churns out a fair share of crap, too. With psychology, advances in neurology and the introduction of behavioral psychology improved things considerably.

Revenant, we agree that having multiple kids and nursing them limits a woman's ability to spend time away from them. So, of course in situations where multiple kids are necessary for some to survive, those women are stuck doing the lion's share of caring for the kids. What I think we are arguing is whether women are genetically predisposed to WANT to take care of children, and men aren't. I just don't see any evidence of that, both from biological studies that look at hormone levels in men in response to caring for their children and from what I've observed of involved fathers in the real world. It also doesn't make any sense from a survival of the fittest model. In more primitive cultures and in the bad old days, if fathers abandoned their women and offspring, the kids were much more likely to die, from starvation and other hazards. So, frankly, the most successful men were those that were most able to help take care of the family. The men with the multiple wives had to be rich in resources to pull it off. Quality AND quantity are important for survival for both men AND women.

Z

Revenant said...

In fact? Reading, writing, typing, etc aren't entirely learned?

The best evidence available to us is that our ability to process grammar -- and possibly grammar itself -- is genetically coded into our brains from birth. There is also a significant body of evidence that the set of phonemes that make up human language are coded for as well, with any given language using a subset of the "master list". So, no, it doesn't appear that anything language-related is entirely learned.

With psychology, advances in neurology and the introduction of behavioral psychology improved things considerably

I hope you meant "cognitive psychology". Behaviorial psychology was pseudoscientific nonsense and has been justly rejected by most modern researchers in the mind sciences.

What I think we are arguing is whether women are genetically predisposed to WANT to take care of children, and men aren't.

As I noted earlier, given that (a) the theory of evolution predicts that women would evolve to be predisposed to be primary caregivers and (b) women are, in fact, the primary caregivers, you need to explain why we should assume that genetics aren't playing a significant role here. If women aren't predisposed to take care of children more than men are, WHY aren't they? What is your explanation for evolution failing to work in a situation where it clearly should?

In more primitive cultures and in the bad old days, if fathers abandoned their women and offspring, the kids were much more likely to die, from starvation and other hazards.

What you're missing is that since each individual child represents a greater investment from the woman than it does from the man, there is less at stake, with any given child, for the man than for the woman. If a man impregnates a woman and then abandons the child completely, he loses nothing besides a few milliliters of semen. A pregnant woman who abandons her child loses one of her relatively few shots at motherhood, and has risked all of the health problems of pregnancy and childbirth for nothing. So a man can abandon a woman and know that the child will STILL probably be raised, just because the woman has so much at stake. The optimal strategy is for the man to impregnate lots of women and only work to help with the rearing of the most-promising offspring.

Think of child-rearing as a business partnership in which profits are shared equally, but in which one partner has invested $100 in starting capital while the other has invested $100,000. Which partner do you think is going to work harder to see that the business is profitable?

The men with the multiple wives had to be rich in resources to pull it off.

You need to be rich to support multiple women. You do not need to be rich to impregnate multiple women. Also keep in mind that women of childbearing age typically outnumber the men in primitive societies; the demographics don't even out until the later age groups, after childbirth has had a chance to kill off more of the women.

Quality AND quantity are important for survival for both men AND women.

Important, yes. Equally important, absolutely not.

Anonymous said...

Why does the media have to polarize feminist movement between those women who chose the mommy-track and those mothers who continue to work?

Lately, the feminist dialogue is framed in terms of children, mothering and sharing child-rearing obligations. For example, see today's Modern Love column in the New York Times by Terry Martin Hekker.

I was so incensed by Linda Hirshman's essay that I spent the better part of today reading the latest feminist blogs for responses.

"How can a woman expect to balance a career and children?" According to the blogs and columnists I've read today, that is big question. But how about advising women to ask themselves, do I really want to have children? Would I make a good mother?

In all the responses to Hirshman's essay, I haven't seen one critic address the choice to NOT have children. Many responses comment on societal pressures that lead women into thinking they are the better caregivers. What about the societal pressures on women to have children?

Also, I must disagree with Ms. Hirshman's academic advice. Many liberal art students go on to pursue careers in advertising, marketing, or sales and are well compensated for their efforts. Many of us in the 'hard' sciences may chose research careers that are not as financially rewarding. The idea that your degree determines your career path is so incredibly off-base that I have to wonder what year Ms. Hirshman believes she is living in.

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