Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families
Edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner
(Random House, 336 pp.,$24.95)
To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife
By Caitlin Flanagan
(Little, Brown, 244 pp., $22.95)
Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World
By Linda R. Hirshman
(Viking, 101 pp., $19.95)
Watching the Mommy Wars makes me mighty glad I’m not a Daddy. To be sure, there’s a lyrical part of me that longs to savor the joys of fatherhood; to jam a stroller into the trunk of a taxi in the pounding rain, to trade nanny horror stories with the other fellas in the support group, to lie awake at night worried sick over tuition fees and dental bills, and, most of all, to deck myself out in the official uniform of the Middle-Aged Dad: baseball cap, team jacket, hip-pouch cellphone holster, and thick-soled white sneakers suitable for a lunar landing. I often spot such dedicated MADs wheeling their sticky offspring along the sidewalks of upper Manhattan, bracing themselves as they bend over to pick up the juice cup that Jeremy has dropped for the five- thousandth time. Yes, that could be me stooping and retrieving. Married and childless, I’m missing out on so much. Yet I’m willing to forgo the mature satisfactions of being a father, and how, because it has spared me having to listen to the incessant kvetching and crabbing of the Mommy Wars—the latest endless installment of “I Can’t Believe How She Lets Those Kids Run Wild.”
Since I am not personally invested in either side of the guerrilla struggle, I can listen to complaints from both camps and make thoughtful “ums” without having to commit myself. It makes life so much easier, especially since the Mommy Wars have undergone major escalation this year with the publication of Mommy Wars, To Hell With All That, and Get to Work. If James Thurber were alive to update “The War Between Men and Women,” the hapless men (I picture them as hairless blobs) would be relegated to the sidelines as fierce tribes of Working Moms and Stay-at-Homes go at it on the soccer field, tufts of grass and tufts of hair flying from tornado clouds of swirling limbs.
Armed with virtuous pride and bionic eyes that can spot every moral defect and child-rearing error across a crowded playground, the Working Mother and the Stay-at-Home Mother are convinced that the other is shortchanging herself and the future of her children—letting down the team, not to mention the nation. The Working Mother believes that her counterpart has sentenced herself to house arrest for the sake of the kids in their formative years, subjecting herself to a bovine existence that fences her off from the striving world and lowers her metabolism, her butt broadening to fit the contours of her “mom jeans.” The Stay-at-Home Mom is fooling herself if she believes her darlings will someday appreciate her sacrifice on their behalf: kids never do, they take this sacrifice for granted and may grow up spoiled, overprotected, clingy, and nose-dribbly. Conversely, the Stay-at-Home Mom patronizes and pities the Working Mother for being MIA during those precious, unrecoverable wonder years, abandoning the little ones to the vagaries of nannies, day care, or relatives willing to babysit (or roped into it).
This mutual pact of pity and condescension is crosscut with envy. The Working Mother may envy the Stay-at-Home Mother for not having to work, for being fortunate enough to have married a major earner who foots the bills while she has to put up with a dreary commute to a job that cuts her off from her children. Such a mother labors not because she prefers to, but because she has to—she doesn’t have the cushy option of sitting around watching Dr. Phil or hosting afternoon playdates. Meanwhile, the Stay-at-Home Mom may envy the Working Mom for her freedom and mobility to associate with fellow adults instead of being stuck indoors staring at the crayon artwork posted on the refrigerator door and listening to infantile prattle until she is about to go out of her mind. It is grown-up prattle that she craves! (A British journalist named Helen Kirwan-Taylor caused a ruckus when she confessed in an article in London’s Daily Mail that her children and their activities were tedious beyond compare: “While all my girlfriends were dropping important careers and occupying their afternoons with cake baking, I was begging the nanny to stay on, at least until she had read my two a bedtime story. What kind of mother hates reading bedtime stories? A bad mother, that’s who, and a mother who is bored rigid by her children.”) Whatever choice a woman makes, or has foisted upon her by necessity and circumstance, ambivalence digs in its spikes. Women—to generalize madly— internalize a far thornier thicket of conflicts and tensions than most men do. Their worries, duties, doubts, regrets, and unfulfilled yearnings can jab at them from different directions at varying intensities, their unresolved feelings never quite coming to rest, whereas men tend to load all their grief, worry, and regret into one large duffel bag that weighs them down like Willy Loman’s suitcase, bearing their woe with slumped shoulders and weary sighs— making a stoic show of pretending to accept their fate, while trying to weasel out of it. Men are competitive with other men, but less comparison-oriented. When men take inventory of their lives, we are the only ones standing on the scale; we don’t weigh ourselves against a brother-in-law or against Murray down the street. We tend to practice a laissez-faire policy toward other men and their (mis)deeds, an indifference born out of a deeper apathy. That’s what mystifies so many married men about the Mommy Wars. We don’t understand why so many women are so avid to sit in moral judgment of other women’s difficult choices, why they care so much about what other women do (often women they barely know), and why so many of those women are writers.
Consider Mommy Wars, edited by Leslie Morgan Steiner, an executive at The Washington Post—an anthology of first-person pieces by female combatants who represent a roulette spin of the editor’s Rolodex. Its contributors include newspaper and magazine editors, freelancers, columnists, novelists (Jane Smiley, Susan Cheever), a television producer, and a journalism professor, with nary a scientist, stock trader, clerk, cashier, medical practitioner, Pilates instructor, dolphin trainer, insurance broker, or politician peeping to be heard. It is understandable that in assembling an anthology of original essays, an editor is more apt to tap those who use words for a living and let the other occupations fend for themselves. But this makes it incumbent on those who use words for a living to deliver at the plate. As battlefield dispatches, the essays here are mostly humdrum—undistinguished and often indistinguishable. Those hoping for juicy tales from the metropark jungles will find themselves nibbling on parsley.
The points of view and the personal histories in the book are not uniform, yet the voices blend into a vanilla fudge of chatty banality and flat assertion. Gone are the days when Norman Mailer could compliment feminist authors for writing like “tough faggots” with the electrical-cord lash of their fuck-you prose. The mommy warriors here abound in compassion and solicitude, an empathy and self-empathy that packs their prose in cotton balls. Testimonial after testimonial recounts episodes of turbulence in the author’s life before hang- gliding into a soft landing warmed by the sunset glow of wisdom and perspective.
Almost every chapter is a Lifetime movie in miniature, complete with a snuggly epiphany before the fadeout. Anna Fels: “As we exchanged greetings and bits of news, I struggled to meld my old image of Julia with the face that was before me, and I could see her making the same complex adjustments as she scanned mine. We were the same but not the same. Getting to this moment, with our children nearly grown, had been hard for both of us, and our faces showed it. Promising to call each other, we tried awkwardly and unsuccessfully to embrace amid our bags and umbrellas. But it didn’t matter. We were happy to see each other.” Ann Misiaszek Sarnoff: “I want to show them, particularly my daughter, that you can and should enjoy work (and be successful at it) as a woman and as a mom. I want my kids to know that I’m happy going to work. Because I am.” Anne Marie Feld: “It’s too soon to project how work will fit into the rest of my life. But I won’t miss Pascale’s life, or mine, in the race to get things done. This, I hope, will keep me sane. Better than sane. Happy.” Dying for a sneaky Mary McCarthy uppercut, a caffeinated jolt of Fran Lebowitz, I held out hope for Leslie Lehr’s “I Hate Everybody,” its surly title winging like Cupid’s arrow to my charcoaled heart. Imagine my letdown when Lehr lapsed into standard operating rock-a-bye mode (“When the girls fell asleep on our blanket beneath the umbrella, I watched their little chests rise and fall, as ceaseless as the tide”) and betrayed the misanthropic promise of her title: “Most of all, I want my daughters to be happy. They know I don’t really hate anybody. And they know that I love them most of all.” This refrain of happy- happy-happy begins to sound like the jingle of an ice-cream truck moseying down the street.
Even the tears that are shed often seem like designer tears, dramatic ploys. Molly Jong-Fast, the daughter of novelist Erica Jong and proof that bad writing can run in the family, goes on a crying jag after the birth of her son.
I superciliously blundered into motherhood, sure I’d make my own organic baby food while writing the great American novel. But when Max was born I would just put him in his little bassinet and cry. A month postpartum I wasn’t making baby food or writing or even taking care of my child. I was too busy crying and eating quarts of ice cream…
Sometimes I would cry because I wasn’t going to be able to protect him in this horrible world.
Sometimes I would cry because I was worried he was going to die.
Sometimes I would cry because it was January, it was snowing, and I had stopped taking my Effexor.
Sometimes I would cry because of the decline of Western civilization and the difficulty of finding Kobe beef.
Fortunately, her mother-in-law intervened, hiring Nurse Phyllis to care for Max as Jong-Fast went on salting her ice cream with tears and presumably pursuing her quest for Kobe beef. I do not intend to make light of postpartum depression. It’s Jong-Fast’s pampered naivete and solipsism that boggle, as expressed in her wide-eyed belief that “having a baby would only make me more productive.”
The rival factions in the Mommy Wars aren’t always at saber points, according to contributor Veronica Chambers. The opposition parties are capable of “Kumbaya” moments of sodality, putting aside their differences to join forces and gang up on married and single women who haven’t reproduced, those amateurs. Chambers has been hazed by the Mom Squad.
The one thing my stay-at-home and working-mom friends share in the country of motherhood is a superiority gene ... that convinces them that women who don’t have children are, despite their educations and accomplishments, dumb as doorknobs. I’ve sat through many a heated conversation about the merits of staying home with kids versus continuing to work, sports versus languages, sleep-away camp versus day camp, during which I have been silly enough to offer an opinion only to be shut down more condescendingly and viciously by wise Goddess Mothers than I have ever been shut down by any man. “What do you know?” Goddess Mother number one asks me. “You don’t have children.”
So butt out, Gidget.
Women can’t win when it comes to other women, which is why the key to success for writers enlisted in the Mommy Wars is having the commercial knack of appealing to male editors and readers, creating a breeze that lofts the byliner above the rest of the diaper brigade and makes them look petty and earnest—small-time. Enter Caitlin Flanagan, fresh from her milk bath. The Holly Golightly of the Mommy Wars, Flanagan belongs to no gaggle, no ideological ghetto, no school of flesh-eating fish. Literary journalism’s leading MILF, she is a singular phenomenon, a sorority of one, pole-vaulting out of nowhere into the pages of The Atlantic, from the pages of The Atlantic into the pages of The New Yorker, and from the pages of The New Yorker into the lemon meringue of her first book, To Hell With All That.
Don’t be fooled by the fed-up title. Flanagan isn’t throwing in the monogrammed dish towel after years of slaving for ingrates. “To hell with all that” was her late mother’s emancipation proclamation. One morning, after cooking breakfast for her husband and little Caitlin, Mom climbed up the stepladder to wash the Dutch-motif wallpaper and, sponge in hand, suddenly went into Ibsenite revolt against her state in life. She flung the sponge into the basin, said “To hell with it,” climbed down the ladder, and headed straight for the want ads to hunt for a job.
“But to hell with what exactly?” Flanagan plangently asks. “This was the question that plagued me for many unhappy months after the stepladder resolution. In the first place, I realize now, to hell with the demoralizing nature of make-work cleaning projects. And to hell with wasting her education. Hadn’t she sailed through nursing school on a sea of A’s? ... But most important was this: to hell with her marriage—or at least with its most unpleasant aspect, my father’s cheapness and my mother’s absolute lack of financial power.”
Defying her husband’s Ralph Kramden refusal to let any wife of his work, Flanagan’s mother returned to nursing, leaving Caitlin to fend for herself after school, a latchkey kid before the phrase was fashionable. She puts up a passive-aggressive fight against this sense of abandonment. “On my first day as a latchkey child, I lost the key. A key was hidden under a stone for me, but I used it once and forgot to return it. It vanished immediately. Frustrated, my mother tied a third key on a piece of thick white string and hung it around my neck, a weighty reminder that I’d been dumped by Mom.” Afternoons alone made the house seem haunted. “It did not help that I am a hysteric by nature. When Patty Hearst was kidnapped across town, I became convinced I was next.”
Flanagan’s plight didn’t last forever. Her father’s academic sabbatical took them overseas, forcing her mother to give up her latest job, and when they returned he struck literary gold with a successful historical novel, “a turn of events that energized and occupied them both.” Although Flanagan’s ragamuffin period was brief, it seems to have marked her as deeply as Dickens’s traumatic stretch in the shoe-blacking factory. Three decades later, “my anxiety about being alone in a house borders on the pathological.”
The “all that” that her mother said to hell with, Flanagan clutches like Linus’s security blanket. Far from following her mother’s feisty example, Flanagan has set up fortress in the family nest, fluffing her glossy feathers as the stay-at-home mother of two sons and the spokesmodel for semi-divine domesticity. Her ideas are retrofitted to the 1950s fantasy ideal of the perfect housewife in pearls and pressed apron, a roast in the oven and a martini ready for the breadwinner when his car pulls into the driveway. Flanagan recognizes that the past wasn’t really that idyllic and pristine— indeed, that it is mostly fictitious. Asked by Stephen Colbert, the host of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, to pin down the actual dates of the Golden Age of American marriage, Flanagan replied, “This is the misty, hazy, never-really- happened time period that I’m trying to sell my book on, but let’s just call it the fifties and sixties.” It’s easy to romanticize a Brigadoon past against which contemporary life will always run a shabby, disappointing second.
Numerous rooftop snipers have pointed out that it is also easy for Flanagan to romanticize the joys of traditional housewifery because she has done so damned little of the actual drudge work, her second husband’s position as an executive at Mattel sparing her the indignity of serfdom. “I’m an at-home mother, far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes,” she writes with a mingling of conceit and mild self-criticism. Not only is Flanagan not cursed with dishpan hands, she has never pricked herself with a needle in the act of sewing. “I have been married a total of sixteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man’s clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women’s movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we’d be much better off if I had a few of those skills.” The book is replete with similar negative testimonials and idle boastings, perhaps the most comprehensive being this:
I have never once argued with my husband about which of us was going to change the sheets of the marriage bed, but then, to my certain knowledge, neither one of us ever has changed the sheets. Or scrubbed the bathtubs, or dusted the cobwebs off the top of the living room bookcase, or used the special mop and the special noncorrosive cleanser on the hardwood floors. The maid has. Two years ago our little boys got the stomach flu, one right after the other, and there were so many loads of wash to do, but we did not do them. The nanny did.
And the nanny did more than that. She was a regular Florence Nightingale with the retch bucket.
“Paloma, Patrick is throwing up!” I would tell [the nanny], and she would literally run to his room, clean the sheets, change his pajamas, spread a clean towel on his pillow, feed him ice chips, sing to him. I would stand at the doorway, concerned, making funny faces at Patrick to cheer him up—the way my father did when I was sick and my mother was taking care of me.
I wanted Paloma to be my friend and equal, but I also wanted her to do what I told her. Most of the time she did.
Sounds like the tender bond between Karen and Rosario on Will & Grace, minus the bitchy banter (“Clean it up yourself, Count Drunkula!”)—or maybe I’m thinking of Scarlet and Prissy, minus the smacking around. To her credit, Flanagan wasn’t a cruel overseer; she labored to get Paloma enrolled in Social Security, and lobbied her friends to do likewise for their household servants. But the picture of her making pookie faces as the nanny does the swab work reeks of the cute prerogative that animates her persona, and her politics, such as they are. Flanagan wants you to know that she has it somewhat cushy, but she isn’t going to be defensive about it. Feminists peddling guilt will have to press another doorbell, because she isn’t buying.
In fact, she’s selling, and the brand that she is selling is Caitlin Flanagan, the one contented housewife on Wisteria Lane. Whether she is writing about nannies, clutter, or the wifely duty to keep the husband’s candle lit (“The rare woman—the good wife, and the happy one—is the woman who maintains her husband’s sexual interest and who returns it in full measure”), the true subject of Flanagan’s pieces is herself, and the status of her thought processes, subject to change. Like Naomi Wolf and Elizabeth Wurtzel, she is the self-dramatist of a life-in-progress, each new personal installment supposedly indicative of some larger, evolving social dynamic.
Unlike those two show ponies, Flanagan doesn’t have a woolly-bully brain given to run-on thoughts and run-on sentences. Her essays and mini-memoirs marry a classical structure to a conversational manner that endows them with a knowing, confidential edge. A shrewd trend-spotter and dissector, she maintains a tidy ship of prose without sounding like a stuck-up prune. Sometimes she gets too quippy, as in her otherwise astute analysis of the sour underwash of Allison Pearson’s best-selling novel I Don’t Know How She Does It: “When Kate and her husband reconnect in a London coffee shop after a brief, miserable separation, ‘we both laugh, and for a moment Starbucks is filled with the sound of Us.’ (Funny, I thought that grating, deafening sound was the coffee grinder.)” The same failing appears in her chapter on household clutter: “The Zen of Organizing, which is studded with the inspirational words of boffo organizers from Plutarch to Martha Graham (although nothing at all from Joe Stalin, who by all accounts ran a very tight ship)....” But she is always a lively writer, she delivers good entertainment value on the page (a dying talent in magazine journalism), and she knows when to stop playing patty-cake and administer a judo chop (as when she disparages Christopher Byron’s hatchet job on Martha Stewart: “Byron’s notion that she had a hysterectomy as a form of birth control [is] a notion that only a man could believe and only a jerk could promulgate”).
Although Flanagan is fond of quoting Joan Didion at her gnomic worst (“If, as Joan Didion once wrote, ‘marriage is the classic betrayal,’ a wedding is the Judas kiss, public and terrible”), which only compounds the morbid pretension, her true affinity is for the largely forgotten household names who epitomized wry suburban common sense and wisecracking humor in the Art Linkletter Age of Innocence, when “‘student unrest’ was rarely mentioned, in which the central elements of the national consciousness weren’t up for complete reassessment and rejection, in which most of life’s difficulties could be handled with a combination of good humor and endurance, in which graver matters were quickly dispatched by scheduling an appointment with one’s ‘pastor or clergyman,’“ and before The Ice Storm and American Beauty painted the Formica counters black with existential dolor and bitter regret. Rescued from prelapsarian obscurity are the novelist and playwright Jean Kerr (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies), the newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck (I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression and The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, among others), and the cookbook author Peg Bracken (from whom Flanagan quotes the hilariously dour recipe for Skid Row Stroganoff: “Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink”). They are Flanagan’s honorary soul sisters—wives and mothers and self-made authors who knew how to grumble without dragging a sense of self-pity and victimhood across the patio. The sass and acuity of their writing give the lie to the feminist myth of middle-class suburbia as the manicured graveyard of the walking dead, Flanagan contends.
The success of the women’s movement depended on imposing a certain narrative- -of boredom, of oppression, of despairing uselessness—on an entire generation of women. This narrative has only gained strength as the years have passed, leaving people with a skewed and rather offensive view of those women.... To think about her life in any depth is to realize that even the most “typical” housewife of them all—Erma Bombeck—led a life of infinitely greater complexity, worth, and dignity than any of the modern mythologizers, with their subdued and shrinking heroines [she’s alluding to The Hoursand Far From Heaven], could imagine.
Flanagan has a tendency to see the furry hand of feminism choking the fun and the natural spontaneity out of bourgeois life, but she seldom engages feminist authors directly and concretely, treating feminism as if it were an invisible, pervasive nerve agent with a punitive streak: “Because I have no desire to be burned in effigy by the National Organization for Women, I am impelled to say that....” And so it’s little surprise where her sympathies lie in the Mommy Wars, as revealed by her satirical account of a kindergarten T- ball game where her son Conor is playing:
The working mothers arrived exactly on time, a precision team. They click- clacked to their seats and fished tiny video cameras out of enormous purses. It was as though a significant swath of the professional and financial life of Los Angeles had been temporarily frozen in midaction—meetings abandoned, e-mail messages piling up, cell phones set to vibrate—so that a group of highly paid senior executives could watch some five-year-olds play ball. Impervious to these tensions were the at-home mothers who had arrived early and reserved blocks of seats, and who were chatting expansively with one another. Many of them had toddlers in tow, and they passed down snacks and sippy cups of juice as they talked. Why shouldn’t they make a day of it? Having time to be fully present for their children is exactly why most of them don’t work.
Executive parents produce executive children, and although Flanagan counts herself among the at-home mothers, she too has executive chores, “efficiently completing hot lunch order forms and day camp applications, ordering team T- shirts and birthday party presents by the dozen,” her children’s lives planned months in advance. But unlike the working mothers with their synchronized movements, she has the satisfaction of knowing that she is “fully present” in a way that they can never be in the corporate data stream. Will it make a critical difference for her two sons down the road? Flanagan’s mind says no, no, but her heart says yes, yes, maybe. “No head start in life that will ensure them of some prize that will forever elude the children of working mothers. All they gained, really, was the sweetness of being with the person who loved them most in the world. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love. And perhaps there is something in that alone.”
Perhaps there is, but millions of American mothers do not have the option of enveloping their children in a cotton-candy cloud of unconditional love until they are old enough to soldier off to school with their little backpacks. And there are mothers who do have the option, but choose to remain in the pros not only because of the income and the social prestige, but because, like Flanagan, they have a vocation, a calling—a talent that will torment them if it goes unused. Flanagan is lucky: her vocation allows her to stay home and work on any flat surface where her computer can sit. If she were irresistibly drawn to medicine, law, education, or social work, she might decide that there are things more (or as) important than scuba-deep mother love. It’s easy being a stay-at-home mother when you’re already a stay-at-home writer. Being a writer makes agoraphobia redundant.
Flanagan isn’t some catbird-seat ditz oblivious to sorrow and suffering. Her sportiness has its limits. The last chapter of the book is a piercing account of her battle with cancer and the realizations it drove home: “It took a long time [after her mother’s death] to understand that I was no one’s daughter anymore, and it took me just as long to really understand that I was a mother, not someone playing at homemaking.” It’s a pity she cannot resist using her health crisis to buttress her thesis. “When I was too sick to get out of bed, which was often, my husband took the children to school and to playdates and birthday parties. And when I couldn’t walk from the car to the doctor’s office, he carried me. And if that’s a traditional marriage, I’ll take it.” As if a New Age husband would have dumped his wife at the curb, or rolled her through the lobby in a shopping cart. Like so many cultural conservatives, Flanagan promotes the notion that those with traditional values are the only ones who reliably conduct themselves with honor and decency, while everybody else is busy sacking Rome.
Then again, it is difficult to tell how deeply Flanagan believes this, or how intensely she believes anything. She often seems to be playing at being a provocateur, gunning for a fight, then hiding behind her humor and accusing everyone of overreacting. (From Laurie Abraham’s astute profile of Flanagan in Elle: “When people charge that she’s ‘rolling back the feminist movement,’ Flanagan says, she responds, ‘I’m like, With these funny essays, in The Atlantic? I don’t think so.’“) Her heart really isn’t in the heat of argument or the thick of debate.
For this reason, she removed her most controversial pronouncement (“When a mother works, something is lost”) from the revised version of one of the essays in the book, and let her publisher neuter its original subtitle, telling Stephen Colbert that “the original subtitle was ‘How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation,’ but the publisher said that wouldn’t sell, so we have a softer title....” It isn’t in Flanagan’s or her publisher’s commercial interest to be pegged as an anti-feminist curmudgeon, in the moldy mold of Kate O’Beirne, author of Women Who Make the World Worse. There is more commercial upside and room to roam in being perceived as a funny-gal celebrity author in the cocktail- hour manner of Nora Ephron. Eventually she, too, may be writing about her neck.
But the erratic, embarrassing ass Flanagan made of herself on The Colbert Report indicates that she isn’t comfortable with Ephronesque celebrity either, and that she is unfit to serve as an ambassador for the return of gracious living. Snobby and superior to those declasse couples who need a “date night” to get their ya-yas out, she told Colbert, “The couple that is so starved for sexuality that the husband has to go to the Olive Garden and see a Meg Ryan movie once a week just so he gets a little nooky is a very modern invention. The old wife thought that was just part of the day, there was no Olive Garden, there was just the nooky.” Nooky-on-demand is part of the wife’s duty, like telling the maid where to dust. To Flanagan, submissiveness and subservience are embedded in the natural order of postmodern caveman and cavemate. Unlike her mother, Flanagan proposes a strategic retreat in which wives bow to their husbands’ authority no matter how wayward the man of the house may be. Boiling Flanagan’s sentiments down to their stark logical essence, Colbert said: “Better for women to be dependent on their husbands no matter what the situation is.” After some hemming and hawing, Flanagan conceded that “you’ll not find any refutation from me … more or less, you’re on target there.” Colbert, bidding her and the segment adieu, crooned, “You are a perfect woman,” to which Flanagan replied, “I’ve been told that.” Whenever Flanagan ventures beyond the chalk lines of her own experience and vanity, condescension creeps to the fore, because it is hard for her to sympathize with all those also-rans who haven’t pulled themselves up by their own pantyhose and landed a quality man, as she has. It’s not her fault so many women have let feminism fill their heads with sour grievances and false expectations. More fools they.
Linda R. Hirshman has no patience for such pedicured revisionism and counterrevolutionary back-pedaling. After the victories women have won, why heed a counsel of retreat and defeat? Forward ho! A former visiting professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Brandeis University, and the author of Hard Bargains: The Politics of Sex and A Woman’s Guide to Law School, and number seventy-seven on Bernard Goldberg’s list of “100 People Who Are Screwing Up America” (not to brag, but I outrank her at number sixty-four), Hirshman cracks the whip with the no-nonsense title and message of her new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.
Let me confess a prejudice. I enjoy reading manifestos. I admire their drill- instructor militance and their visionary vigor. They are models of compressed energy—minus source notes, Get to Work squeaks in at under a hundred pages, and as prose they are pure protein. Manifestos always sound so certain of themselves, so urgent and declamatory and summoning to battle. After the subjectivity and the wan introspection of so much of TheMommy Wars and To Hell With All That, it is a pleasant jolt to read a book that is outer-directed (to use David Riesman’s old phrase), scans deep downfield, and drives straight at the defensive line—a book that isn’t out to make nice and smooth over disagreements.
For Hirshman, the feminist movement didn’t fail because it was radical. “It [failed] because feminism was not radical enough. A movement that stands for everything ultimately stands for nothing.” Where Betty Friedan is one of the trouble-brewing witches in To Hell With All That, shrieking at housewives for not recognizing how oppressed they were (“she told the women that they were living lives of quiet desperation; the suburbs were a concentration camp”), she is the guiding godmother behind Get to Work, its resurrected prophet. “For twenty-five years, [Friedan] watched as the backlash generation slowly walked away from the promise of a better life. Women—whether they stay home, or, like most women, just carry the responsibility for home to work and back—are homeward bound. Their men won’t carry enough of the household to enable them to succeed fully in the public world. Glass ceiling? The thickest glass ceiling is at home.”
Embracing one’s inner housewife and admiring one’s reflection in the glass ceiling, as Flanagan would have women do, is straitjacketing one’s potential and submitting to a kinder, gentler purdah:
Bounding home is not good for women and it’s not good for the society. The women aren’t using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands. Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education are lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos. The abandonment of the public world by women at the top means the ruling class is overwhelmingly male. If the rulers are male, they will make mistakes that benefit males. Picture an all-male Supreme Court. We may well go back there. What will that mean for the women of America?
Despite her subtitle, Hirshman’s manifesto is not aimed at the women of the world, but at the upper stratum of intelligent, educated, affluent women who cast aside their college degrees to kiss boo-boos and keep their rugrats entertained. “These educated and privileged women matter. They matter because they are the most likely women to become the rising stars of the new economy— the future senators, deal makers, newspaper editors, research scientists, policy makers, television writers and movie producers, university presidents, and Supreme Court justices.” When such women opt out, they cheat themselves and deprive the future of their full worth. Hirshman is particularly scathing about a Harvard graduate who sketches her life as a stay-at-home mom as a merry-go- round of painting, biking, writing letters to editors and elected officials, playing tag and climbing trees with the kids. “My correspondent’s life does have a certain Tom Sawyerish quality to it,” Hirshman concedes, “but she has no power in the world. Why would the congressmen she writes to listen to someone whose life so resembles that of a toddler’s, Harvard degree or no?”
Hirshman’s remedies to attack and reverse this social, political, and intellectual retardation range from the eminently sensible (change the tax code to stop penalizing working women, since “joint marital filing hurts the lesser earner”) to the mildly provocative (persuading college girls to stop “dabbling” in liberal arts and indulging their creative fancies—”if you’re not Frida Kahlo and you major in art, you’re going to wind up answering the phones at some gallery in Chelsea, hoping a rich male collector comes to rescue you”) to the absurdly mundane (“Never know when you’re out of milk”). But a bundle of remedies will not succeed if there is nothing to bind them together. “The problem is today’s feminist agenda is just that—a bunch of programs unmoored from the values that started them in the first place.” What Hirshman proposes is a “values feminism” that displaces the current fetishizing of “choice,” which she considers a weasel word—a way for women to rationalize their deference to male authority. “The epitome of the choice strategy had to be when Sex and the City’s Charlotte tried to justify to her lawyer friend, Miranda, her decision to quit her job in part in response to pressure from her insufferable first husband. ‘I choose my choice!’ Charlotte intoned repeatedly. ‘I choose my choice!’”
Choosing your choices, feeling your feelings, “it is what it is”: with such tautologies women spin their own cocoons, and cut off their circulation. Feminism should stop coddling these wishy-washies. “If women who believe that you should give up everything but the food in your mouth to stay home are feminists, why is feminism bothering with the fact that women aren’t paid fairly in the workplace? If feminism supports the decision to choose yourself into dependency, where is the muscle for women’s mastery over their own reproductive fates? Only when feminism returns to its roots in the value of a flourishing life for women will it get the traction to make any difference.”
It is possible that the words “feminism” and “feminist” themselves have become so barnacled with right-wing abuse and cheap pop sociology that they are a guaranteed put-off, no matter how infused with justice and equality they might be. Certainly Caitlin Flanagan regards them as discardable leftovers that a modern gal can do without, now that the big wars have been won. She states in the preface to her book that “this is not a book about equal rights or equal opportunities. It is a book about what came after those things had been secured. “ Hirshman would counter that equal rights and equal opportunities cannot be taken for granted; they are under constant attrition and erosion—the hard- fought gains won by those grumpy feminists that Flanagan finds so ogreish could be lost in the courts, voting booths, and legislatures while the Mommy Wars kick up a lot of sideshow sawdust. Perhaps if Flanagan had daughters instead of sons, she would be less sanguine. Those boys and their activities take priority over nearly everything, even minor acts of charity. “I can remember my mother faithfully cutting the wrappers off cans of dog food,” Flanagan writes,
because if she sent in enough of them, the manufacturer would make a contribution to Guide Dogs for the Blind. I myself have compassion fatigue and have limited my “charitable giving” to a few circumscribed causes. At the back of Erma Bombeck’s last book, published after her death from complications following a kidney transplant, is an organ donor card that the reader can fill out, along with information on the Erma Bombeck Organ Donor Awareness Project. I keep meaning to fill that card out; my mother would have done it in an instant, without thinking twice about it. But I’m a busy woman—my children are two-sport athletes at age seven—and I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
She probably never will.
This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.