As 2005 came to a close, readers may remember, it went with a feminist bang: the publication of Linda Hirshman’s American Prospect piece, “Homeward Bound.” In it, the former Brandeis philosophy and women’s studies professor outlined what she believed to be the fallacies of so-called choice feminism, an ideology whereby women who choose to give up careers to stay home with children consider themselves empowered feminists. That “choice,” Hirshman argued, is no choice at all, since the inequities of the domestic sphere — in which the woman is expected to be the primary caretaker of house, husband and children — never allowed women to fully take advantage of their new equal opportunities in the workplace. As soon as Hirshman’s piece was published, it provoked a firestorm. Broadsheet and Broadsheet readers had quite a bit to say about all this, as did David Brooks in the New York Times.
Now, Hirshman has fleshed out her argument and published a book, “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.” It sounds like heavy stuff, but in fact, it’s a slim, straightforward volume that unsentimentally directs women to, well, get back into the workforce, stay there and excel there. In the book, Hirshman delves into the history of the feminist movement, examining how the language of “choice” that became central to the abortion debate in the 1970s began to leak into the way women conceptualized their work-home balancing acts. She considers the victories of the gay and lesbian rights movement and what feminists can learn from them. She also returns to a particularly sore spot in feminist history, the moment at which feminists began to shy away from “big nosed, razor-tongued moralist” Betty Friedan (to whose memory Hirshman dedicates “Get to Work”) and embraced the beautiful, even-tempered Gloria Steinem, an activist whom Hirshman writes was “too gracious for our own good.”
Those who read and spent time thinking about “Homeward Bound” will recognize the skeleton on which “Get to Work” is hung: Hirshman’s rules for how women should behave in order to achieve that elusive professional parity. Hirshman is, as always, a wildly provocative writer. And in my initial, quick read of the book, I found myself still disagreeing with some of her points (“Don’t study art”), agreeing with others (“Take work seriously,” “Don’t draw the short straw at the dining room table”) and shaking my head in admiring disbelief at her chutzpah in committing some of the others to print (“Use reproductive blackmail”).
Hirshman is so fiercely unapologetic, so determinedly radical, that the book is already receiving a surge of attention. You can read Reason’s Cathy Young’s smartly argued review. Holly Yeager’s piece “Is This Really Feminism?” in last week’s Financial Times deals with the aftershocks of Hirshman (and her evil-twin/photo-negative predecessor on the publicity circuit, Caitlin Flanagan). Hirshman has been blogging for the past two weeks at American Prospect’s Tapped, and she gave an interview to Newsweek in which she affirmed to Peg Tyre that she believes stay-at-home moms can’t lead risk-taking, intellectual lives, adding, “And don’t hit me with those fantastical volunteer jobs. They don’t exist.” Hirshman’s also doing the television and radio rounds, everywhere from “The View” to “Good Morning America” to conservative Michael Medved’s show.
This is a woman who knows how to kick off an argument — perhaps an all-out war — without apology. And my Spidey senses tell me that this is just the beginning.