Who Killed Feminism? Let’s Blame Mommy

Many years ago, in the course of an otherwise high-minded conversation, a very wise, very distinguished publisher imparted what she billed as an unassailable truth: “Marriages,” she announced, “are made and kept in bed.” To which I would add an equally crucial corollary: Never underestimate the allure of an empty dishwasher. That turns out to be precisely the address at which Linda Hirshman feels feminism is stalled. And it is where, in this provocatively titled and stridently argued little volume, she proposes to restart the revolution.

A former litigator and retired professor of philosophy, Ms. Hirshman has for some time now stood on the barricades launching brilliantly titled bombshells (“Is Your Husband a Worse Problem Than Larry Summers?”). It is her belief that nothing is more hazardous to a woman’s life than her traditional redoubt, the home. You have to wonder how many dust bunnies Ms. Hirshman has tripped over to get this sore; she puts the desperate back in housewife, if ever it went missing. “Certainly it is not using your reason to do repetitive, physical tasks, whether it’s cleaning or driving the car pool,” she seethes.

Quite rightly, she points out that both ends of the political spectrum have united to deliver an entirely reactionary message: From the left comes the news that the office is overrated; from the right comes the news that family is underrated. Either way, it adds up to barefoot in the kitchen. Ms. Hirshman’s solution is “the love that dares not speak its name: love of work.”

We’ve blamed pretty much everyone else for the failure of feminism: Linda Hirshman’s singular contribution to the debate is to blame the stay-at-home mother. She will emerge from these 101 pages as a battered wife. Sidestepping the booby-trapped issue of who can afford to opt out of the workforce and who can’t, Ms. Hirshman zeroes in on a narrow demographic: a crop of high-achieving women whose marriage announcements appeared in The New York Times. If nothing else, after this one you’ll never read the society pages the same way again. They turn out to be not a beginning but an end, the place where feminists lay down their arms. (“I’ve always known that,” yawns my husband.)

Ms. Hirshman is all bared teeth and dripping disdain. Women had no choices. Now they do. What are they doing, staying at home with their Harvard degrees and playing with crayons?

The statistics are indeed sobering. On average, only about half of highly educated women with small children are working full-time. Forty percent of law- and business-school classes are female, while about 16 percent of major law-firm partners and Wall Street corporate officers are female. The implications—for society, for our pocketbooks, for our daughters—are not good. How you square this with the news that girls are seriously outperforming boys in the collegiate classroom is up to you; I shudder to think we might wind up with the most maniacally motivated generation of dishwasher-emptiers in history.

But is the educated woman who steps out of the work force hurting anyone? Is she even hurting herself? Ms. Hirshman believes that she has acted not only harmfully but immorally. It drives her nuts that the very women who could have dominated markets and formulated policy—feminism’s brightest hopes—are today pushing strollers around the Upper West Side. Occasionally it drives me nuts too, though for different reasons. I’m happy to blame the opter-outers for making me look bad; as a working mother in stay-at-home clothes, I’m inadequate on two counts. But my suspicion is that if I’m tempted to assign blame, it’s because I worry that they’re better mothers than I am. They’re probably better wives too. I’m not ready to blame them for the failure of feminism, however.

By contrast, Ms. Hirshman’s indignation bounds ahead. Not only does it drive her nuts that the Times brides aren’t working (and that the ones who are tend to do more than their share of family life), it rankles that young women gravitate away from power and promotions, that they embrace the socially meaningful before the financially lucrative. To counter those self-immolating tendencies, Ms. Hirshman has formulated a strategic plan: Bag the liberal-arts education. Go for the money. Never quit one job until you’ve lined up another. Bargain relentlessly over equal household labor. Resort to reproductive blackmail. (“Have a baby,” concedes Ms. Hirshman, “Just don’t have two.”) Marry either a younger man or a much older one. “Intellectual freedom depends on material things,” noted Virginia Woolf in 1928, but a room of one’s own and £500 a year have never looked so lame.

Having failed all of the above courses—except for household negotiation, at which I earn a divorce-defying A—I am in no position to be impartial here. But Ms. Hirshman does strike me as a little shortsighted in the human-nature department. Indeed, women are not natural domestics. Yet, since time immemorial, for better or worse and not exactly reluctantly, we’ve been natural mothers. It’s one thing to implore women to forsake idealism; it’s quite another to uphold corporate America as our salvation. Ms. Hirshman scoffs at the ambitionless, convinced that we go to our graves regretting the time we failed to put in at our desks. (Here she speaks for a population she presumably did not interview, including Jane Austen and Sojourner Truth.) To which I can only rejoin: How many women today regret having had too many children?

And what about the economy, stupid? These women are opting out because they can: If anything, their taste in husbands was too good. Affluence has never been feminism’s best friend. There’s a curious disconnect between Ms. Hirshman’s frustration and her argument. Several times she invokes the current tax structure, which penalizes married working women. It is indeed an abomination. But it’s not what’s sending the dropout generation home. I promise. Every one of the overeducated, nonworking mothers whose path I crossed today can tell you more about prices at Tod’s than about the tax code.

Scratch a working mother and you’ll find a puddle of guilt. Scratch a nonworking mother—O.K., scratch her a little harder, to make Linda Hirshman happy—and you’ll find the same. Are women happier at home or at work? Doesn’t it say something that we haven’t figured this out yet?

Choice is to Ms. Hirshman a dirty word, a craven, immoral excuse for shooting ourselves in the foot. To her mind, feminism went wrong precisely in not telling us how to live our lives: Smart women, no choices is her mantra.

She commands us to base our professional decisions on what’s best for womankind, a message eerily reminiscent of those zealots who would like to command us to base our reproductive decisions on what’s good for mankind. This isn’t a political or economic program; it’s a life, dismally unscientific in its own right. And where Ms. Hirshman is focused on the tax code, every working mother out there is obsessed with something else: It all goes by so quickly.

The real culprit seems to me to be the maternal instinct. Until we can equalize it, following the money into the heart of corporate America isn’t likely to look so attractive. Don’t expect to love your work, counsels Ms. Hirshman. (Yes, I know, she contradicts herself here. When it comes to your desk, you’re evidently meant to close your eyes and think of feminism.) It’s odd, and in some cases utterly inexplicable, but for the most part, you can expect to love your kids.

Normally, I don’t go in for anecdotal evidence, but if Linda Hirshman can work from the society page, then last night’s dinner counts too. To my left was a federal judge, the mother of three. Across the table was a 49-year-old who has just begun practicing corporate law; she sat for her LSAT’s when her youngest was 9. Our hostess—perhaps not incidentally—was a nonworking mother, a pillar of the arts community. (For the record, three of the husbands were dishwasher-emptiers.) At one point, the conversation turned to a young whippersnapper who gave birth to her second child while in law school. The inconsiderate overachiever! We hate her. “Women are hard on women,” observed Woolf in 1928. She had no idea.

Stacy Schiff’s most recent book is A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Owl). Who Killed Feminism?  Let’s Blame Mommy