The glass ceiling at home

A piece in the American Prospect turns a serious lens on stay-at-home feminists.

Published November 22, 2005 5:27PM (EST)

A piece in the American Prospect online by Linda Hirshman picks up the line of questioning about educated career women who choose to stay home first asked by all those dubious New York Times stories. Hirshman writes that while all those trend stories may be skewed and based on unreliable studies, she came across similar findings when researching a book about marriage after feminism.

Hirshman "found that among the educated elite, who are the logical heirs of the agenda of empowering women, feminism has largely failed in its goals. There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged. The number of women at universities exceeds the number of men. But, more than a generation after feminism, the number of women in elite jobs doesn't come close.

"Why did this happen? The answer I discovered -- an answer neither feminist leaders nor women themselves want to face -- is that while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home."

In the decades after feminism, she writes, the percentage of working women "rose robustly" before falling off in the mid- to late 1990s. While many women discuss their decision as a "choice" to stay at home, Hirshman rightly wonders why, if it's a sign of empowered equality between the sexes, men don't make the same choice just as often. It's apparent, she writes, that while many women may conceive of staying at home as an option stemming from their liberation, "the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism."

Noting how eager we are to attack the recent Louise Story piece, 2003's Lisa Belkin story, or Maureen Dowd's new book, Hirshman wonders, as I have, what evidence will be good enough to prove to disbelieving feminists that this backward motion is actually taking place?

Asking, "How many anecdotes does it take to make data?" Hirshman points out that as a lifelong feminist and professor of women's studies, she "did not set out to find this." But she cites data she collected while researching her book, from surveying the brides from the New York Times Sunday Styles section to talking to her students at an elite college. She calls on figures from Census Bureau data, as well as Wall Street and law firm records, to back up her claims.

Most incendiary and inspired is Hirshman's larger point, about how this trend, which she is insisting is real, does point to serious questions about feminism's history and about its next chapter. "Conservatives contend that the dropouts prove that feminism 'failed' because it was too radical, because women didn't want what feminism had to offer," she writes. "In fact, if half or more of feminism's heirs ... are not working seriously, it's because feminism wasn't radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn't change men, and, more importantly, it didn't fundamentally change how women related to men."

Everyone should take a look at this piece.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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