Taking the Political Personally

by Henry on June 19, 2006

Linda Hirshman wrote what seemed to me to be quite a dreadful op-ed for the Washington Post over the weekend, defending her claim that stay-at-home mothers are betraying the feminist movement, and (I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here) suggesting that her critics were dominated by a congeries of vomit-eulogizing housewives and Christian fundamentalists. And, which I suspect was the main point of the exercise, touting her new book (Hirshman’s professed surprise at the controversy that she’d created didn’t ring true at all to me – I read her original article as a quite deliberate exercise in bomb-throwing). I don’t want to start a discussion over the merits of Hirshman’s arguments; I’m quite sure that this would degenerate into the usual bloodbath . What I’d like to do instead is something that I tried a while back on Israel/Palestine issues without much success – to have a meta-debate about why it is that this is such an emotive topic both for women who have decided to stay at home to raise kids and women who’ve gone to work instead (I note that the element of choice here is mostly only present for middle class and upper middle class women, but that’s another debate). So to be clear – what I’m interested in is why the bombthrowers like Hirshman (and Caitlin Flanagan on the other side of the debate) have become the dominant voices. I’m not interested in back-and-forths about the merits of the two sides of the argument (we’ve had that in response to quite innocuous previous posts such as this one and it hasn’t been very helpful) – rather in argument about why this is such a loaded and painful subject matter in the first place, for women who have made either choice. I’ll keep an eye on the comments section and – be warned – will vigorously delete comments which seem to be wandering off-topic in an unhelpful direction, which seem interested in laying the blame on one side of the debate etc etc. People may sincerely hold such views, and may even be right under the gaze of Eternity, but for the purposes of this argument, I’d like to take these claims as being stipulated. One place to start is this FT article (likely subject to rapid linkrot) from the week before last, which concludes:

The real problem, it seems to me, is the notion that we can’t all be right if we are making different choices. My mother taught me never to say anything un-pleasant about the food other people chose to put on their plates. It might not look good to me but that doesn’t matter – it’s not my plate.

Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates? Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life? Have at it.

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{ 95 comments }

1

Don McArthur 06.19.06 at 4:44 pm

Hmmm…’House of Cards’ ideological structures, that risk total collapse if one element is disrupted? Eg. Resist ‘profiling’ in anti-terrorism efforts (airport screening) because it is a risk to affirmative-action’s underpinnings.

2

otto 06.19.06 at 4:46 pm

“I’ll keep an eye on the comments section and – be warned – will vigorously delete comments which seem to be wandering off-topic in an unhelpful direction, which seem interested in laying the blame on one side of the debate etc etc.”

Henry: Maybe one day would be appropriate to have a debate about your preference for meta-debate over, well, debate? I for one would like you to delete fewer comments, barring the purely ad hominem insults, even if the debate is ‘hot’ or ‘the usual bloodbath’. I’ve learnt a lot from some blogging ‘bloodbaths’. I’d certainly like you to close comments completely less often. Now to read that WP piece…

3

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 4:57 pm

I’d say that the reason for the tension is fairly obvious — Hirshman’s argument, which I think is a strong one, is that women who make the personal decision to opt out of paid work are injuring women who don’t, and are injuring the cause of working toward increased equality between the sexes. Now, it’s perfectly possible that she’s wrong, but that’s the argument that she’s making, and it isn’t one that it’s possible to make kindly, or politely, because the fundamental point of the argument is that many women have chosen to live their lives in a bad way. Wrong or right, that’s going to make people angry.

To make a completely inappropriate analogy that is wildly overstated and has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of Hirshman’s argument: arguments about abortion, at least those involving pro-life hardliners who believe that a fertilized egg is morally equivalent to a baby, are inevitably going to be nasty, because one party to the argument thinks the other side is condoning murder. People don’t like murderers; people also don’t like being called murderers when they think they aren’t. There’s no way to talk about it without hurt feelings.

4

carnegie 06.19.06 at 4:59 pm

why it is that this is such an emotive topic both for women who have decided to stay at home to raise kids and women who’ve gone to work instead?

The arms-length tongs you’re using in that sentence might give you a clue. This is a debate framed squarely as a women’s issue (by women too, of course). It has not broken open to a debate about parenthood in general. Therefore, the ‘choice’ to be made becomes a huge part of a woman’s identity. With such a life-altering and life-defining ‘choice’ hanging over a gal for so long (long before children are seriously contemplated… it’s there), there’s plenty of time to grab a position and get nicely entrenched. This is identity we’re talking about – identity negatively defined and yet vital to defend.

5

Marc 06.19.06 at 5:01 pm

In this particular case, I think it is very clear why there is such passion attached to the issue at hand. Stay-at-home mothers feel that there is real value attached to the hours that they spend with their children. Mothers who have their children in day care feel that the kids do just fine in that environment, and that they are not sacrificing the well being of their kids for their careers. (The fact that there is little economic choice for many couples is true, but I gather from the ground rules that we’re not supposed to go there). At the crudest level, it’s a debate about the value for children about parent care (usually from the mother) as opposed to day care for preschool children. I think it depends on what people actually want to do and are good at, but I suppose for some folks it gets more generalized.

There is also an undercurrent of resentment – some of the threads at the Tapped page had rather elaborate arguments along the following lines:

Stay-at-home moms permit their husbands to work longer hours and to be more productive, which puts “working” mothers at a disadvantage; ergo no mother should stay at home with their kids to put everyone on an even footing.
(I’d observe that you could extend this to require everyone to have children, or no one to have children, or to require everyone to work exactly the same number of hours, etc. I don’t agree with it, but I did see it argued as above..)

6

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 5:09 pm

There is also an undercurrent of resentment

Not to argue the merits of Hirshman’s position, but I wouldn’t characterize that as an undercurrent of resentment. It’s a fact claim that the decision of some women to opt out of the workforce has real negative effects on the career possibilities of other women who don’t opt out.

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 5:15 pm

To have or not to have children is a very difficult decision. This can be true not only because individual women can feel personally torn in different directions, but also becuase many people on both sides of the question feel perfectly free to exert pressure on their preferred side of the argument. Women who have made their decision on the issue aren’t thrilled to be called a traitor to some personal value that they hold dear because of it.

Lizardbreath brings up an interesting point with abortion. In the past I have thought about abortion in the context of working only in the context of the “I can’t afford to have a baby right now” explanation. But it strikes me as surprising that a vocal portion of a movement which so strongly advocates the idea that no one should interfere with a women’s right to choose an abortion would simultaneously express such strong objection to a woman choosing to raise her own children.

8

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 5:20 pm

Nice, SH. Way to maintain the spirit of the discussion.

But again, in both arguments, the question is whether the actions under discussion injure other people. To the extent that they do, this:

Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates? Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life?

is misplaced. It’s not about taking other people’s choices as value-judgments, it’s about believing that one is actually injured by those choices.

9

alex 06.19.06 at 5:35 pm

Why the polarization of debate? Sheer intellectual laziness, that’s why.

Let’s take, for example, Macs vs. PCs. One might select a certain computer based on one’s own needs, and then justify that decision using carefully-reasoned arguments–or simply state: “I picked this one becuase it’s what I wanted.”

Or one could go into flame-war mode, and assault the opposite position. No serious thought required, and certainly no examination of one’s own position and motivations. (Perhaps it’s a fear of self-examination of one’s own motives that prompts such vehement denunciations.)

This tactic–the best defense being a good offense–is everywhere. Harley-Davidson motorcycles versus everything else. Feathered kayak paddles versus non-feathered paddles. Ultralight backpackers versus traditional ones.

10

alkali 06.19.06 at 5:36 pm

So to be clear – what I’m interested in is why the bombthrowers like Hirshman (and Caitlin Flanagan on the other side of the debate) have become the dominant voices.

My intuition is that for whatever reason, the scope of the debate has narrowed because it seems increasingly unlikely that — at least in the US — there will be any kind of significant change in the legal landscape that affects these issues. (By way of example, other than tinkering at the margins of the tax code, it is unlikely that there will be any movement toward universal provision of child care services. Not that that’s good or bad, but I think it’s pretty clear that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.) Because any kind of substantive policy change is off the table, all of the discussion is focused on choices made by individual women within that context.

11

Biscuit 06.19.06 at 5:37 pm

While I am certainly capable of not caring what someone else eats (but then there’s foie gras, and factory farmed pigs, and hot pockets, which are just gross), I hold no illusions that I am capable of not caring how other mothers I know raise their kids. We care what others in our tribes do. The more important the issue, the more we care. How can this not be self-evident?

Whether we work or stay at home, mothers invest enormous amounts of time, energy, and love in their children. So how could there NOT be such emotion over this debate? There is no established norm of behavior even within the same social circle (i.e., lots of women of my class, ethnicity, education level stay home, lots don’t, and everyone feels pretty anxious about it — I assume it is similar in other social circles, although not, obviously, all of them — insert the ‘not everyone has choice’ caveat here). No norm over such an important aspect of human life? In what universe could humans, being what they are, not fight over such a thing? We like norms. They make our lives easier. We also like choices, and if we are to have them, we won’t have norms, and so we will fight.

I prefer virulent argument to the alternative, which is no choice at all.

12

Noah Snyder 06.19.06 at 5:37 pm

I have to agree with lizardbreath on this one. Your post seems to miss the whole point of the argument: that society and culture influences each of us individually. If you genuinely think that many evils of society are promoted by being a stay-at-home mom then that’s not an issue of caring too much about what’s on someone else’s plate. That’s an issue of caring about your society, and about the society that your children will grow up in.

A good analogy might be people who feel strongly about public schools. There are good reasons to oppose all rich educated parents taking their kids out of the public school system. Now, obviously, there are good counterarguments. But this is another issue that isn’t just “taking other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own.” Some value-judgements in society affect all of society.

13

djw 06.19.06 at 5:38 pm

Women don’t really appreciate being told they’ve a)betrayed feminism, or b) betrayed their children. I can’t say I blame them…

14

inna 06.19.06 at 5:41 pm

Lizardbreath, what negative effects do you know of that stay-at-home mothers have on the prospects of women in the workplace? I’ve heard that there IS damage asserted before, but I have never seen any evidence to this effect. (Not to say that there isn’t any, of course, I’m just wondering what kind of evidence there is.)

I think that the debate is actually a little more complicated than this. At the moment there is a lot of pressure on parents to raise their children the “right” way, and to give them enough “opportunities.” Often, there is pressure to spend more time with the kids/sign them up for more activities/make sure they go to the “right” schools, and so on. In this way, there is pressure on mothers to stay home, so that they can give children the “right” opportunities.

At the same time, there is the argument that women who stay at home are opting out of the opportunities the feminist movement won for them, coupled often with the assertions that they are damaging the chances of women who ARE in the workplace.

Now, I’ve seen about the same amount of evidence for both of these sides (read: very little, and most of that apparently misinterpreted). However, for people who have so much pressure in both directions it is often difficult to justify their positions. Thus women feel guilty whichever way they decide and therefore argue vehemently for whichever direction they chose.

15

Aidan Maconachy 06.19.06 at 5:45 pm

I read a Toronto Star poll result recently that I found rather instructive.

In response to the question “is the man the head of the household?” Americans returned a resounding 52% YES, whereas Canadians returned only a tentative 18% YES.

I personally feel that this drive to place women back in the proverbial kitchen, is driven to a large degree by the prevalence of evangelical Christian thinking in some communities. Shouldn’t we be becoming more innovative and resourceful when it comes to child rearing rather than falling back on quaint conjugal models?

Although I can’t back this up with empirical evidence, I have always felt that children do best when around a variety of care providers. This doesn’t have to be a day care setting. It could involve extended family, or any other arrangement that works for the people involved.

The mom-at-the-stove model is terribly dated, and even amusing in this day and age. Might work in a Christian commune somewhere in Utah, but not as well in eclectic urban environs.

It’s the gender specific thing that bothers me. Please say we aren’t headed back there.

16

ECW 06.19.06 at 5:46 pm

A lot of the heat arises because the debate really goes to fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a human being and how our “personal” choices really express those deep values. Marc’s post demonstrates this — he assumes the entire debate is ultimately about MOTHERS staying home or not staying home, instead of about PARENTS. Hirshmann has made it very clear that the problem is largely one of parental and gender role assumptions — in the original piece she asserts, correctly, I think, that women just should not marry and breed with men who aren’t willing to sacrafice their own careers just as much as women are expected to when it comes to the issues of daily life (parenting, house cleaning, etc.) [I’m paraphrasing]. For many, many people, that claim is going to be utterly and completely objectionable, as it essentially calls them the problem. Moreover, if she’s right, or her argument is compelling, it requires people to live very differently.

There isn’t any way to respond to her argument without recognizing that, in fact, she is claiming “other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life.” And she should — there is no way you can critique something you see as a problem of social and collective actions, lived at the level of personal choices, without it being a judgement. The fact that she is (to me, at least), making a compelling argument makes resentement even more likely, since accepting her argument means changing your life. As is the case with feminism more generally.

For a similar discussion, see the comment thread on BitchPhd’s site discussing naming issues, a topic that is similarly laden with unavoidable “value judgments.”

17

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 5:52 pm

Lizardbreath, what negative effects do you know of that stay-at-home mothers have on the prospects of women in the workplace? I’ve heard that there IS damage asserted before, but I have never seen any evidence to this effect. (Not to say that there isn’t any, of course, I’m just wondering what kind of evidence there is.)

I don’t mean to ignore this, but I think we’ve been specifically asked not to have this discussion here. I don’t have any non-anecdotal evidence to offer, in any case.

18

rollo 06.19.06 at 6:13 pm

” Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates?”
“…it’s about believing that one is actually injured by those choices..”

“One”.
It’s tacit in there that we’re looking at two sets of relatively identical consumers.
As though women raising children were indulging themselves in yet another style choice, an activity they enjoy, or get fulfilled by – or think they will.
As opposed to generating the human race.
The framework around the debate doesn’t quite get all the way out to the merits of the economic system the working women participate in and the stay-at-home moms don’t. But that’s what’s driving the emotions on both sides, that’s what’s being championed by one and rejected by the other. And both positions imply a lack of importance in the vital interests of the other.
But it isn’t about one person’s choices being impugned by her counterpart so much as it’s about the future. It’s about how we live – and more vitally, how our children are going to live.
That this discussion is (so far) framed and carried purely in the context of consumerist decision-making says a lot about how late in the day it is.

19

Brett Bellmore 06.19.06 at 6:13 pm

Redacted

20

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 6:16 pm

“It’s not about taking other people’s choices as value-judgments, it’s about believing that one is actually injured by those choices.”

That is just glossing over one side of the value-judgments. Hirshman has decided that her value-judgments are more important than those of her opponents. That is normal in an argument, practically everyone does it. But instead of admitting that, she couches valuing things other than career advancement as ‘damage’ to her. She defines everything that does not prioritize what she values as generally damaging. This has happened (with more frequency in the past) on the other side of the argument too. This creates a situation where the argument almost has to get ugly. (See for example hard-core fundamentalist Christians and homosexuality. If you define homosexuality as not only bad in itself but also ‘undermining our morality’ you can’t talk about it under the rubric of choice because you have defined the choice as damaging to everyone else.)

21

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 6:19 pm

And by the way, just to avoid a likely problem in interpretation, I personally don’t define homosexuality as bad in itself nor do I think it hurts our morality.

22

Al 06.19.06 at 6:19 pm

Mmmm….. vigorous deletion. Sock it to me HARD, baby.

23

Xero 06.19.06 at 6:21 pm

I believe, if I understood the post, the problem here is view of one’s self worth relative their surroundings rather than against some absolute measurement of worth. Because of this we make our own choices look better, relatively, by degrading the choices of others. I don’t think this is true of all cultures but is certainly true of a large portion of the population of industrialize countries.

24

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 6:28 pm

But you are assuming the falsity of her argument. (Again, my assumption is that we are not arguing the merits of her argument.) It is sometimes going to be true that one person’s personal choices invidiously affect others. Imagine saying “I just don’t choose to associate with or hire blacks. It’s a personal choice.” Someone who objects to that choice isn’t merely making a value judgment, they are objecting to the fact that the choice actively injures other people.

Now, you can say that this analogy doesn’t apply, but you can only do so by making the assumption that Hirshman is wrong about the substance of her argument. If she has a substantive point, then you can’t talk about it under the rubric of ‘choice’.

(The same, of course, is true about hard core-fundamentalist Christians and homosexuality. They’re wrong because it simply isn’t true that homosexuality injures the morality of society as a whole. It’s not the structure of the argument that’s wrong, it’s the premises.)

25

I can row a boat, canoe, canoe? 06.19.06 at 6:28 pm

Feathered kayak paddles versus non-feathered paddles (8 above).

Now I have to worry about kayakers dropping stuff on me? I’m sure glad that cows don’t fly!

26

Henry 06.19.06 at 6:32 pm

Sebastian – I’m not going to redact that post, but the last part of it is exactly what I’ve asked people not to engage in in this discussion. Lizardbreath – fair enough – but I’ll ask you to consider whether the choices of women to work might have similarly negative implications for women who might prefer to stay at home (I suspect that there are interaction effects on both sides).

27

LogicGuru 06.19.06 at 6:39 pm

redacted

28

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 6:41 pm

Sure, that’s possible (for example, the fact that women are generally employable these days has had devastating effects on alimony. A SAHM without job skills is probably worse off after divorce now than she would have been 30 years ago, and that’s partially due to the voluntary entrance of other women into the workforce.) We’re not here talking about who’s right, we’re talking about why the conversation gets ugly — it gets ugly because it’s important stuff, that genuinely affects people’s well-being.

29

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 6:44 pm

Ooo, I didn’t see logicguru’s comment 28 before my last. I agree pretty much unreservedly with everything but the last paragraph — it’s precisely what I would like to have been saying, but didn’t quite manage to get onto the page. The last paragraph I can’t sign onto in quite the same manner.

30

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 6:45 pm

Oh. Well, never mind.

31

Henry 06.19.06 at 6:45 pm

Let me make it clear again – I am systematically redacting comments that try to move from general analyses to specifically laying the blame on one or the other side. These comments may be reasonable in themselves – they may even be right – but they’re not going to be part of this conversation.

32

harry b 06.19.06 at 6:51 pm

Aren’t there two things going on here? 1) as lizardbreath et al point out stay-at-homes are being accused of damaging the ability of other women to get ahead in the workplace and 2) stay-at-homes, even when they say that its all a matter of choice, are implictly taking the moral high ground because they typically do not say “I’m doing it because its fun” but “I’m doing it because it is better for my kids” (and, by implication, you doing it would be better for yours). So one side is calling the other a sell-out, the other side is calling the first side bad parents.
If Hirshman is right that a) career women really do experience a negative externality and that b) careeer prospects are more important to a woman’s flourishing than staying home with her kids (and I think she thinks that) and also that c) kids are just as well off in daycare as with their mums, then she’s right that stay-at-homes are doing harm. (not commenting here on whether she is right, just expressing the conditional). So, its a pretty personal matter.

A point that is rarely made is that stay-at-homes might experience a negative externality from the activity of the career women — the experience is different if many other people are doing it, so that there is a critical mass for the formation of a social network of mutual support, than if one is doing it in an isolated fashion. (This might not be a meta-enough point — the meta-point is that this point is rarely made in the debate).

33

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 7:10 pm

“I’m not interested in back-and-forths about the merits of the two sides of the argument (we’ve had that in response to quite innocuous previous posts such as this one and it hasn’t been very helpful) – rather in argument about why this is such a loaded and painful subject matter in the first place, for women who have made either choice.”

I’m surprised you felt the need to warn me because I thought I was being directly on point in the question you ask. It is so loaded and painful because both sides are defining their values in such a way that choosing other side ‘hurts’ them. Feminism doesn’t have to work that way–it could say “we want everyone to be able to do what fulfills us most”. People who want to stay at home and be mothers (whatever you would call them) don’t have to work that way either–they could say “we want to be able to do what fulfills us most but feel free to do something else if you want”. Lots of people even feel that way. But there are vocal people on both sides who want to be able to employ guilt in their arguments. So they say (depending on what side they are on) “you are hurting the cause of women” or “you are hurting the children”.

“If she has a substantive point, then you can’t talk about it under the rubric of ‘choice’.”

Of course not, because in order to conceed that she has a substantive point you have to accept her position that career advancement and the like are what all women everywhere need to put as a higher priority than not-working-outside-the-home motherhood. The problem is that this isn’t a clash of evidence, it is a clash of value-system. Both sides of this particular debate pull this particular move and both sides are tend to have some sympathy for “freedom of women” and “health of children”, so everyone’s feelings are going to get hurt.

34

Aidan Maconachy 06.19.06 at 7:23 pm

Good points harry.

I also think that this return-to-the-hearth movement is somewhat faddish and self-conscious. In the 40’s for example stay-at-homes were part of an established domestic culture. They networked, went to bake sales, baby showers etc.

These days, most of the returnees are likely to be former executives, teachers etc with extensive experience of the big world. They aren’t simple “moms”, even though they may aspire to embrace that role. There are likely to be difficulties in adapting to the in-house lifestyle; very possibly feelings of exclusion and resentment. This is far, far from a simple exercise in role reversal.

It actually angers me to think that women are being encouraged by some to view this choice as morally superior, or an essential choice for the raising of healthy children. This simply is not true.

I grew up in N. Ireland and was acquainted with quite a few dysfunctional fellows at boarding school who had huge issues with mom (or “mum” as she is known in Ulster). It is extremely naive to assume that conjugal families and stay-at-home mothers are some sort of panacea for current challenges.

However I’m not suggesting a woman should be stigmatized for this choice. Any woman who voluntarily chooses this route should be congratulated because this is vital work that has long been undervalued.

My problem arises with evangelical, small “c” types, some of whom are virtually mandating this as an essential component of the Christian life. I think this type of thinking is regressive and dangerous, because it will stymie the move toward gender neutrality in the raising of children.

35

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 7:25 pm

Both sides “are tend”? Sheesh I shouldn’t try to edit only part of a sentence. :)

36

y 06.19.06 at 7:38 pm

Isn’t all of this rather missing the point? To my mind, the salient issue here is the divide-and-conquer strategy of the forces of reaction. Once again, they’ve managed to get us to accept their basic assumptions, so that we snipe at each other rather than fighting to change the organization of society.

Here are some questions I find more interesting: why is it that almost all career choices, even for the apparently privileged in our society, seem to have soul-crushing downsides? Why do decent careers more and more seem to require more time than a reasonable person would want to give, to the exclusion of all other activities? Why does everyone now seem to have to fight desperately, not to get to the top of the heap, but just to stay afloat? Why is society organized so that caring for children seems to extract an almost impossible cost, either in time or in money, from nearly every family? Why can’t a society as affluent as ours even move in the direction of making a fulfilling life possible for everyone?

37

Barbar 06.19.06 at 7:53 pm

You’ve made bad life decisions. Anyone dedicated to the cause of good would have to be disappointed in you. And everyone else should definitely not make the same choices you did.

What, is someone getting upset?

38

pdf23ds 06.19.06 at 7:58 pm

“Here are some questions I find more interesting: why is it that almost all career choices, even for the apparently privileged in our society, seem to have soul-crushing downsides?”

It’s a bit off topic, but it’s not what Henry asked us not to talk about, so I’ll respond.

It’s a separate issue. It’s perfectly legitimate to work towards equality in one area, even when the game punishes all the players. The effort to make the game better in the absolute can come from other people at other times, or at the same time. And even if work culture in the US more resembled that of France, the issue raised by Hirshman would still be an issue—less of an issue, but still an issue—and would probably still be just as divisive. So I really think it’s not relevant.

39

pdf23ds 06.19.06 at 8:00 pm

Ack. Why does the preview make two hypens into an en dash, and three hyphens into an em dash, while the server code turns two hyphens into an em dash?

40

alex 06.19.06 at 8:03 pm

Henry writes,

…what I’m interested in is why the bombthrowers like Hirshman (and Caitlin Flanagan on the other side of the debate) have become the dominant voices.

Well, isn’t this the case with political discussions on virtually any issue in the United States? The dominant voices in the Iraq war debate, for example, are the “stay the course” and “pull out immediately” types. The dominant voices in the abortion debate – by which I mean the voices one hears most often – are the South Dakota “ban it in every circustance” types and NARAL.

As to why the comment section on Crooked Timber is particularly acrimonious when the subject touched Israel/Palestine, or working vs. staying at home, I’d suggest its because the readership of Crooked Timber is more divided on this than on other issues. Lets face it: you guys are left of center, and so is the majority of your readership. Consequently, if you are going to be discussing the Iraq war, you will find more-or-less of a consensus among your readers. By contrast, there is no consensus in those who are left of center on Israel/Palestine, and on Hirshman.

41

LogicGuru 06.19.06 at 8:12 pm

OK let me go meta…

What’s happening is that there’s a bogus official debate sitting on top of the real debate. The real debate generates the heat but we’re puzzled because we don’t recognize the real debate and wonder how the official debate could generate such heat.

The bogus debate is about whether staying at home with the kids can be as fulfilling, satisfying or good for women as working outside the home. Stay-at-home Moms argue that it is and that they’re doing just fine; feminists, following Friedan’s horror stories about trapped housewives, argue that housewifing is miserable and humiliating. If this is the debate it’s hard to see why Mommy Wars are raging–can’t we all just get along? Just recognize that people have different tastes–some like working, others like housewifing–and affirm everyone’s right to choose the way of life that best suits them?

The real debate begins with the premise that work, in the sense of labor force participation, is not a choice but an obligation so that absent a damn good excuse any able bodied adult that can work must work. And it assumes, contrary to Friedan’s horror stories, that many people regard staying at home as desirable and most regard the option of staying at home as a benefit. I’m convinced that as a matter of empirical fact–admittedly on the basis of anecdotal evidence–that this is so. In spite of the official feminist position on these matters, the popular perception has always been that women are better off than men because they don’t have to work, because they aren’t burdened with an inflexible breadwinner obligation.

This is where the heat comes from. SAHMs have their backs to the wall now that it’s acceptable for women to work–they have to prove that they’re not just slackers. It is just not acceptable to say “I choose not to work because that suits me.” They have to prove that what they’re doing is real work, that they compensate for the loss of family income when they drop out of the labor force by their contribution to domestic concerns and that that more than makes up for their not bringing in income. Feminists are upset not because they believe that SAHMs are trapped, humiliated or unfulfilled but because their dropping out supports the popular perception that women are better off than men because they can choose whether or not to work, aren’t burdened by the breadwinner obligation and now have it all. For most women dropping out is not a viable option. Feminists are pressed to make the case that they (we) are not asking for the benefits that men have–a fair crack at good jobs–without the responsibilities, in particular the obligation to work steadily: we’ll take the bad with the good–we only want fairness here. But the visibility of women who drop out undermine that case.

There might be some light generated if we got underneath the official debate and considered the real one that generates the heat.

42

JanieM 06.19.06 at 8:14 pm

Funny, I was just talking to my 19-year-old daughter about problems we’ve both had with people (even in minor social contexts) who react as though our making a different choice from theirs is, well, I don’t really know what — a judgment on their choices? A life-threatending insult?

The other thing coming into play, making a really unholy stew psychologically, is political/social activism. No matter the “side” — one of the assumptions of political activists is that they know what a *better* world would be like, and they would like to make it that way, and they could surely succeed in that endeavor if only the rest of us lamebrains would help them. Now in fact this might be true, as far as it goes. The unfortunate problem is, we don’t all/always agree with them. In my own case, I rebelled against “my” side (or really against the whole divisive process) during a gay rights referendum in my state 11 years ago, when I realized that both sides were writing exactly the same letters to their supporters: “Send us money right away or those bad hateful people are going to hurt you.” (I got literature from both sides because I was the gay parent of 2 homeschooled kids….talk about being in the minority of 2 minorities…)

So — far from blaming the increasingly divisive partisanship and rhetoric on one side or the other, one of my most major political awakenings was to the mirror-imaging of the 2 sides on some kind of meta-level.

I think there are at least 2 big things interacting:

1: Personal/psychological insecurity of some sort, a line of unconscious reasoning that goes like this: 1) if you don’t make the same choice I do, then 2) maybe I chose badly, and 3) that’s too scary to contemplate, so 4) I have try to convince you that you’re wrong, so that once I’ve educated you, you will make the same choice I did, so that I know I’m right and don’t have to be scared any more, but 5) if you refuse to do that, you’re a bad person. (A long time ago I wondered if this phenomenon was particularly prevalent in the U.S., which when I was young was so much more diverse than many other countries, meaning that people lived amongst the visible evidence of so many choices different from their own…..??)

2: On a broader scale that nevertheless still incorporates the personal/psychological: political/social activists are true believers and they know how the world should be, and they know how to make it be that way, and they also know that if only we would all help them, they could accomplish their goals. Particularly, I have grown very tired over the years of the attitude among my feminist friends, which amounts to “If you don’t see the things as we do, you simply need more educating so that you can wise up.” But as I said above, both “sides” — actually, as far as I can tell, anyone who defines herself/himself as being on a “side” in the first place, has this disease.

This is very off the top of my head, too long for a comment but too short for the topic, and obviously from a person untrained in political science or philosophy. But it comes from the heart, and years of pondering………

43

Functional 06.19.06 at 8:17 pm

Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates? Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life?

It’s not just here. People always tend to resent anybody who lives their life differently in a way that suggests that they have made a moral judgment against the alternative. Look at the attitudes that: (a) meat-eaters have towards a vegan who shows up at their party and explains why she refuses to eat meat; (b) alcoholics have towards devout Mormons and Muslims; or (c) public school teachers have towards homeschoolers; or (d) SUV-drivers have towards hybrid-drivers. Heck, if you tell people that you don’t have a television because you prefer to spend time reading, 98% of them will get all weird and resentful.

Anytime you let it be known, by word or deed, that you think a particular way of life has moral implications, people who disagree with you will tend to be resentful at the implication of moral inferiority.

44

LizardBreath 06.19.06 at 8:26 pm

logicguru-

I liked your comment better the last time you posted it, but I agree with this version as well (and I think it ought to pass review).

SH-

It is so loaded and painful because both sides are defining their values in such a way that choosing other side ‘hurts’ them. Feminism doesn’t have to work that way—it could say “we want everyone to be able to do what fulfills us most”.

No, if Hirshman’s facts are right, it’s not about an arbitrary definition of values. If I want to make partner at the law firm I work at (debateable, considering the time I waste online, but take it as a premise), and the partners who will decide whether I do or not look at all women with the expectation that they will quit work sometime in their mid-thirties, and so are reasonably reluctant to invest in a woman’s career, than women who opt out have literally injured me. If these facts are true, they have made it more difficult for me to do what fulfills me most. That’s not an artifact of defining values, that’s a concrete injury.

Similarly, a woman who stays at home, loses her earning potential, and then is left after a divorce without income support is injured by my decision to work, because that allows the courts to frame her decision not to as a free choice for which she should bear all of the risks. The effects that one person’s decisions about how to live their life has on those around them aren’t imaginary — they have real consequences.

45

Noah Snyder 06.19.06 at 8:30 pm

Perhaps what’s causing some of the confusion here is that this is an argument on which there aren’t 2 sides, but 3. Namely, that being a SAHM in our patriarcal society is bad, that being a working mom is bad, and that this is a personal issue that isn’t political. In your post, Henry, you put yourself rather firmly on one side of the debate, but don’t allow people to argue for either of the other two sides. For this discussion to get anywhere it’s important to realize that you are taking a side. By forcing people to argue with your assumptions, obviously they’re going to come to your conclusions.

46

arcseed 06.19.06 at 8:33 pm

Hm. I’m inclined to blame cognitive dissonance– whichever choice you make, you hit the ‘soul-crushing downside’, and it doesn’t achieve the ideal of personal self-fulfilment you’d imagined it to bring when you’d made the choice. Which inspires vehement rationalization, and an attempt to tear down the ideal of the other side.

47

bob mcmanus 06.19.06 at 8:38 pm

The Mommy Wars A post by Jane Galt I felt worth saving on practical reasons, externalities, for the argument, rather than theoretical reasons. An example:

“There are also political and cultural externalities: the more women stay home, the more political support there will be for things that benefit you. For example, the tax code: how you tax married income depends greatly on whether you assume that both spouses work, or that one spouse is splitting his income over two people. Or subsidized day care: it is not in the political interest of a housewife to see her husband’s earnings taxed in order to provide day care for someone else’s child. In general, working women will support the professionalization of auxiliary services, like the PTA, while housewives would probably prefer to donate time. Divorce laws used to assume that a husband should support his wife forever; now they assume that she can, and should, get a job. All sorts of ways that having a big coalition matters.” …JG

Jane discusses many more externalities. Now I don’t know if Henry will consider this off-topic, and if so the rest of you won’t see it, but the fact that he assumes the personal is not political, and that they are value-judgements and not choices with real consequences is interesting.

48

rle 06.19.06 at 8:48 pm

I would add to the discussion the fact that each side’s decisions materially impact the other in a concrete socio-economic sense.

As long as there is a large percentage of women who stay at home, demands for affordable childcare and flexible work environments run into a brick wall. It becomes about asking employers to “accommodate” a personal “choice” rather than accede to the realities of the modern family. So families end up scotch taping together less-than ideal options that often cost a considerable amount of money.

As long as there are a large number of two-income families, women who stay at home are going to be relatively poorer than they would be if one-income families were the norm.

Women’s interests are not aligned here, and it’s more fundamental than about feelings or a sense of self worth.

49

Daniel Nexon 06.19.06 at 8:52 pm

I’m with 36. The strategic effect of these argument is to divide and conquer the movement (such as it is in 2006). As I argued a few days ago, many families face a raft of difficult decisions about how to handle child-rearing in this country, decisions made difficult by the structure of employment. Many jobs remain structured on the assumption that their occupants are the only wage earners and make demands incompatible with family life. Those with more flexible hours seldom provide adequate pay to allow men and women to outsource child rearing to almost invariably poorly paid professionals. So Hirshman, along with her evil twin [C.F.], forces self-identified feminists who have made different choices into the box of implicitly or explicitly criticizing one another’s decisions.

Yeah, yeah. I’m quoting myself. So make rude noises in my direction :-).

50

Sebastian Holsclaw 06.19.06 at 9:15 pm

No, if Hirshman’s facts are right, it’s not about an arbitrary definition of values. If I want to make partner at the law firm I work at (debateable, considering the time I waste online, but take it as a premise), and the partners who will decide whether I do or not look at all women with the expectation that they will quit work sometime in their mid-thirties, and so are reasonably reluctant to invest in a woman’s career, than women who opt out have literally injured me. If these facts are true, they have made it more difficult for me to do what fulfills me most. That’s not an artifact of defining values, that’s a concrete injury.

Similarly, a woman who stays at home, loses her earning potential, and then is left after a divorce without income support is injured by my decision to work, because that allows the courts to frame her decision not to as a free choice for which she should bear all of the risks. The effects that one person’s decisions about how to live their life has on those around them aren’t imaginary—they have real consequences.

First, it is ridiculously lawyerly to count either of those injuries as being “caused by” the other women in any morally useful sense of the word. In the first instance the problem is caused by the law partner’s unwillingness to look beyond stereotypes and evaluate the individual candidate. And it still represents one side of a clash of values in valuing the attainment of partnership (without forcing the law partners to deal with women as individuals) as something that is more worthy than staying at home your children.

The second side of your hypothetical shows the clash of values more clearly by explicitly valuing work over staying at home.

The reason this is such an emotionally difficult issue is because many women see the appeal of both sides and don’t like being called a traitor to one half of their persona by choosing to value one of the sides somewhat more than the other. The extremists want to trumpet the obvious-to-any-right-thinking-person ascendant priority of their own choice and only then can they call the side effects of the other choice “harm”.

Another interesting point about the “partners will stereotype women so stay-at-home moms are harming me” argument is how it changes the focus of the feminist movement. A movement with that focus is not as focused as it used to be on having society judge women without reference to their gender.

51

Down and Out in Sài Gòn 06.19.06 at 9:25 pm

…[T]o have a meta-debate about why it is that this is such an emotive topic…

Maybe it’s because the editorial staff of The Washington Post chose it to be emotive. Their off-line circulation is declining, I believe. The strategy involved is that the more “controversial” a topic is, the more it is likely to sell on the street. So make it controversial. Your opponents aren’t just misguided – they’re bad people. Susequently, people will pay for the pulp, or so the thinking goes. Standard Media Thinking 101.

Personally, I think the strategy is crap. Make op-ed writing worse, and people are less likely to bother buying from the newsagent. You can get “real” news elsewhere online, and the op-ed writers can be replaced by bloggers. Plus I really loathe this sort of thing. Take side A of issue B and make their proponents look like fools is OK. Take side A of issue B and make their proponents look evil is generally not OK, if I don’t feel strongly about issue B. “Priorities, people – priorities.”

52

Russell L. Carter 06.19.06 at 9:41 pm

I think that Sebastian is roughly right here, but embedded in a larger context.

The context is at least a partial contribution to a social discourse that has really coarsened in the last 15 years. Thus emotion is emerging as the main cudgel to batter your opponents. This context is technological change. I guess the economists call it productivity. Other commenters have described the effects, which has put much stress on both strategies in this context. That is, of deploying the traditional strategy–staying at home, vs. the strategy of being a modern–an equal in the workplace regardless of gender, or spousal status. Each blames the other, when technological progress is much to blame.

53

pdf23ds 06.19.06 at 10:20 pm

SH:
“In the first instance the problem is caused by the law partner’s unwillingness to look beyond stereotypes and evaluate the individual candidate.”

This is not relevant to the question, so I’ll just assert that it is indeed rational and not unfairly discriminatory for the partner to judge in the way LizardBreath described.

Daniel Nexon:
“So Hirshman, along with her evil twin [C.F.], forces self-identified feminists who have made different choices into the box of implicitly or explicitly criticizing one another’s decisions.”

As I said in 38, even if work in the US did not demand so much of employees, people would still face the same decisions with the same tradeoffs (only not so harsh), and the debate would be largely unchanged. Maybe less intense.

In other words, it would still force those feminists into the same box, only the box would be a bit bigger.

54

John Faughnan 06.19.06 at 10:20 pm

I think much of this is media amplification. So there is an underlying tension, but it’s greatly magnified by people who are growing wealthy on the emotional surge. Hirshman is playing the game Ann Coulter has perfected.

If you were to interview the middle-aged families I know personally, physicians staying at home, executives balancing several lives, several two woman couples, one two man couple with twins, you’d get a whole range of opinions — with far less emotion.

Everyone makes choices and then defends them. Each choice means giving up a lot of things. So there’s some true sensitivity, something for the amplifiers to work on, but it’s mostly amplification.

I confess, though, it would be fun to lock Coulter and Hirshman in a glass house and just watch for a while …

55

Eli Rabett 06.19.06 at 10:46 pm

Because rational people recognize that no matter what you do, stay home/work, you are wrong. It hurts and there are fools who think they can make the decision for you

56

Arturis 06.19.06 at 10:55 pm

There will always be a contingent of people who, regardless of what they believe specifically, believe they speak for everyone like them. Some feminists believe they speak for all women. Some Israelis believe they speak for all Jews. Some Americans believe they speak for all citizens of all democracies. Such people will always be angry when they people they are speaking for disagree with them.

57

Omri 06.19.06 at 11:17 pm

A US centric response: the two income family needs the economy’s child-care sector to be extensive (to cover years 1-18, pretty much) and affordable, and that requires a large enough demographic to demand it from the government.

The one income family requires that it could be supported by one income, house, food, clothes and all.

Like it or not, the economy cannot support both models. If your family goes one route, it makes it harder for people to go the other. Resentment against people going the other route is driven by self-interest.

58

Christopher M 06.19.06 at 11:34 pm

Trying to stay on the meta-debate, I still think LizardBreath’s comment needs a response:

If I want to make partner at the law firm I work at…than women who opt out have literally injured me….Similarly, a woman who stays at home…and then is left after a divorce without income support is injured by my decision to work…

I think one of the reasons the Hirshmann piece raised “such an emotive topic” is that it isn’t just divorced stay-at-home moms who are “injured” by LizardBreath’s lifestyle (an associate at a large-ish big city law firm). It’s everyone who thinks that the prioritization (in terms of success, power, etc.) of that way of living sucks. I’m an associate at a large-ish big city law firm too, and frankly, people who play (more or less) by the rules (as I take it LizardBreath does for the most part, since making partner isn’t totally out of the question) infuriate me. They make it harder for me to live the kind of life that I’d like to, and it’s hard (for me) to see how their sacrifices make sense unless you define happiness in terms of either money or power, both of which I find vaguely distasteful.

These are biases, of course, which I’m not going to defend here (per Henry’s instruction). My point (in the meta-debate) is just that these are very important issues, that go to the heart of the kind of lives that people want to lead (and want society to make it reasonably easy for them to lead).

59

Patrick 06.20.06 at 12:38 am

There are two issues here.

First, in this particular instance, Henry’s question is misaimed. Its an emotive topic because the discussion was touched off by a series of vicious insults. (You touch FECES! You’re a PARIAH! You’re hurting us ALL!) Why does that not lead to calm and rational discussion? Umm… that should be obvious.

Second, in general, people do take the fact that other people choose to live their lives differently than they do as an attack. One of the most common ways people do this is by reacting to the statement, “Oh, I don’t believe in god” as if it were a vicious and direct attack on their religion of choice. But, maybe that’s because it is, in a way? That statement carries with the implication, “I have evaluated your way of life and found it wanting, and have accordingly rejected it.” If you stay at home to raise children because you believe that’s what is best for your kids, when someone says, “Oh, my kids are fine in daycare,” the implication is that they’ve considered what you did, and concluded that you are wrong. This implied critique is a constant part of public debate. Even saying, “I’m a democrat,” to a republican carries with it the implication (at least for many republicans) “I reject the beliefs and values you feel to be self evident.” If you are that republican and you believe that the speaker is a rational person, you suddenly have to bring your own beliefs and values into question. You have to find a reason why a rational person would disagree with what you believe to be obvious. Far better to just reject the democrat as irrational.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, while these things may happen, in this particular instance the fight is emotional because it was begun by metaphorically smashing a bottle on a bar counter and jacking someone in the face with it.

60

Daniel 06.20.06 at 1:14 am

Two theories:

1. Most of the people involved are basically, with or without realising it, having the argument that they want to have with their mothers.

2. Israel, motherhood and abortion are all issues which are highly emotive for the Adorno F-type personality. So my guess is that it’s all rooted in status anxiety, which is the big motivating psychological force for the F-type (and the little bit of F-type in all of us). I will extend this hypothesis by suggesting that the following subject will also lead to big and very personal flamewars: evolutionary psychology. And by golly I am right; I have never ever met a Dawkinsite who could, even as an academic exercise, stay on topic and leave out the insults.

61

LogicGuru 06.20.06 at 1:22 am

What bugs me is that the current SAHM regime is in some respects the worst of all possible worlds for women–for most, neither the benefits of having a real career nor the benefits of being a career housewife, with guaranteed lifelong financial support. You start on the career track, then drop out for 5 or 10 years to do the hard work of child care, and then, after having socked a hole in your career path are expected to go back into the work force with your skills degraded, without recent work experience, without any real prospects. After that hard work, you don’t get to retire to a leisurely life of home decorating and volunteer work–you’ve got to go back out and earn money.

It may be different for lawyers and the ultra elite, but what this means for most women is going back to work in your 40’s to sell real estate or do secretarial work. It means that women have jobs, not careers and that seems to me the worst of all possible worlds: neither the satisfaction of having a career nor the leisure of staying at home as a reward for the hard work of caring for young children. Personally, I pursued my career, didn’t drop out with three kids, not because I was so keen on my career but because I didn’t want to end up doing a non-career job.

I’m not a member of this ultra-elite. I don’t understand what women who drop out imagine they’re getting. It just isn’t realistic, or fair, to think that after shooting this hole in your career you can just pick up 10 years later and get back on track. Back in 1963, Betty Friedan imagined that women could–the Feminine Mystique included what she called “a new life-plan for women” that envisaged women dropping out to do childcare and then picking up where they left off in their careers. For most of us it just doesn’t work this way and I think that demanding that it work this way is just unfair.

I still wonder what women who drop out imagine that their lives will be, why they aren’t scared of the prospect of 20 years of drudge work after their child care job is over. Again, I’m speaking for ordinary educated women, not the ultra-elite who apparently play by different rules.

62

mightyiguana 06.20.06 at 2:21 am

redacted

63

Aaron 06.20.06 at 2:22 am

The question that frames our discussion is why does the career vs. house wife choice adult women face arouse such antagonistic debate? Do you think the debate would be so infected with destructive enthusiasm if circumstances were such that we genuinely thought of the question as the choice a parent makes? If it was as likely for a man as for a woman to bear the work of childrearing and domestic labour do you think individuals would be faced with the kind of family vs. career choice embarrassingly lingering in most developed economies? The ill-tempered disappointment underlying this debate is due to the fact that the debate itself is still framed in the same way that it was framed when women first entered into the paid labour force. What an embarrassment!

64

abb1 06.20.06 at 2:44 am

Betrayal of the movement is despicable and intolerable. Sartre-Camus thing.

65

Z 06.20.06 at 2:49 am

What I would like to know, as far as meta-debate is going, is why nobody ever ask men this question. I have always make perfectly clear that I wanted children, and the earlier the better, and nobody ever asked me if I was going to opt-out of work as a consequence. Maybe I should feel grateful that noone is trying to exert pressure on me, but I mostly feel insulted that most people seem to think the decision to father children has no consequence.

66

eb 06.20.06 at 3:28 am

This is meta, but perhaps not the right kind: I’ve been struck by how some of this debate parallels arguments about the war in Iraq.

Hirschman presents herself as a hard-headed realist, bringing to light uncomfortable truths about the world we live in and the actions we must take to transform it for the better. Her opponents are unserious, averse to commitment and hard work, hoping to find fulfilment in the withdrawal from the world of outside relations.

Hirschman writes

Still, when the American Prospect finally agreed to publish my analysis of why women are better off staying at work, I expected that working women all over America would be sending me flowers.

But instead of flowers she’s met with harsh criticism and opposition from the very people she wants to liberate.

67

goatchowder 06.20.06 at 3:49 am

Pretty straightforward.

I have found that, no matter the field or discipline or the personalities, gender, or ethnicities involved, or the stakes, or any other material or incidental factor, the most passionate, violent, and wildly emotional debates are reserved for areas where neither side has the slightest fucking idea what they’re talking about.

Wanna see brutal, vicious debates? Try a stock-market gossip site. Or a sports site. Or the perennial favourite topic here: macroeconomics. Or any debate amongst academicians or researchers in a brand-new or exciting field in which there is much more unknown than known. Or those old bugaboos, politics and religion.

I think the vitriol and hatefulness correlates positively with the uncertainty.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

68

djw 06.20.06 at 3:53 am

What I would like to know, as far as meta-debate is going, is why nobody ever ask men this question.

This is part of why I get upset with Hirschman (and the evil twin, too). Men always get a pass, women always get the waggling finger. The LB/LH thesis that SAHM are literally hurting women’s careers has a flipside–the utter lack of SAHDs, who could be levelling the playing field for working women simply by existing, don’t get any blame or opprobrium.

Two possible explanations:
1) Sexism, plain and simple. Men get to do whatever it is that they do, women must work around that.

2) People really do buy logicguru’s theories about work (42). It seems like a grim, depressing, and utterly foreign worldview to me but she may be right. How sad.

69

Alison 06.20.06 at 4:15 am

Women with children have to choose between two unpleasant and painful options, or in practice most mothers build some kind of compromise between the two. All of us therefore experience some guilt (at being selfish) and some personal loss (from putting others first). In our pain we lash out, we blame ourselves, we blame other women.

IMHO this shows that Capitalism is broken.

70

soru 06.20.06 at 4:37 am

Surely what’s going on here is your common or garden Class War?

SAHM are clearly members of a different economic class than working mothers, in that the source, not merely the size, of their income is different. To the extent that they are conscious of that, and self-identify with their economic class, bitter conflict is inevitable, as even subtle interactions that affect averages are taken as direct and fundamental assaults.

All property is theft :: all child care is abandonment.

71

Backpacker Muncher 06.20.06 at 5:25 am

9: ‹i›Ultralight backpackers versus traditional ones.‹/i›

The ultralights are generally sorta stringy and a little gamey. Traditionals are much tastier.

72

ingrid robeyns 06.20.06 at 6:07 am

Since I am pressed for time (not uncommon for working mothers with small children), I haven’t been able to read all comments – so apologies in advance if I repeat too much of what’s already been said, but here are my two cents of why this debates inflames so easily (what i will say will be very sketchy, but, in case anyone cares, it is based on many hours of reading on this topic).

As some comments already pointed out, we care deeply about our children, and most mothers (parents, i guess) agonise a lot about whether they are doing what’s best for their children. Hence issues of guilt, blame, etc. are always around.

Then there is the issue of statistical discrimination: women with children (or who are in the age categories where the likelihood that they will become pregnant is high) who want to make a career are discriminated against on the labour market because employers know that the likelihood that such a women will quite her job, or stay home if a child is ill, etc. is larger. Fathers, in contrast, generally have supporting wives (whether they hold jobs or not, they will stay home with the sick child). This is, I would submitt, supported by empirical evidence from feminist economics and labour economics. Thus, it is in the interest of women who want to have a carreer that more women do so, since that would weaken the rationality basis for statistical discrimination.

On the personal front, most women want to have a partner and kids: but most also want to have an egalitarian relationship. As long as there are many women prepared to put their own career interest below those of their husband/ partner, it will be much more difficult for an individual woman to find such a man. The supply of egalitarian men is much lower than the demand. So: there really is a collective action problem here, since by chaning their priorities/preferences women increase their chance to find a partner, but then they simultaneously weaken the bargaining position of other women. When (heterosexual) partners “bargain” in the household, they judge what is “fair” by comparing themselves to their peers: so my male friend X keeps saying that he is doing so much in the household *because* his male friends all do much less. Still, he is married with an equally ambitious and talented woman who does much more than 50% of the care and household work.

Thus, it will be very hard for an individual woman to compete with men on an equal footing as long as so many other women are supporting men in their carreers. That’s why some feminists who prioritise equal chances on the labour market(in contrast to those feminists who want to put care issues more central in politics) are so vicious in their attacks on SAHMs.

The problems of collective action and statistical discrimination also hold for other groups in this debat, e.g. men who want to work part time; but since they are much smaller in number, employers do not apply statistical discriminatin to them, and I would also submit that the “demand” for such men on the partner market is much higher than the “supply”, hence they are in a stronger bargaining position.

73

StephenJohnson 06.20.06 at 7:00 am

My two cents worth – I’m fairly much in line with 42, especially regarding the core conflict between “everyone should work all the time” and “Women should stay home and make babies” – both strong (also largely unconcious & unchallenged) social norms in flat out contradiction with each other, though I think 55 and 66 both make valid points about why the issue gets so amplified (cheerleaders) and emotionally charged (uncertainty).

67 is flat wrong, IMAO. In traditional normative values men get NO choice at all. Man=breadwinner – a man who is not a good breadwinner is a capital-F Failure – the Mr.Mom role is dubious, at best.

None of this is to suggest that is how things ought to be, but I think that’s how things are, here in North America at least.

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magistra 06.20.06 at 7:46 am

I’ve just been blogging on the ‘mummy wars’ (http://magistraetmater.blog.co.uk/2006/06/17/mummy_wars~887882) and as a part-time working mother, my take is that it’s not really mothers who are actually doing the warring. (We don’t have time to start flame wars in between work and/or childcare). Instead the real hype is being done by three interest groups. On the stay at home side it’s traditionalists plus the extreme child-centred child experts (who think that the well-being of small children is far more significant than that of their parents). On the go to work side, it’s less feminists than the supporters of capitalism who are anti-stay at home mothers. Linda Hirshman’s just an example of one minor streak of feminism that has so internalised capitalist values that she believes people’s worth depends solely on their market value. Since none of these interest groups have anything much to gain by compromise, of course it’s going to get nasty.

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JR 06.20.06 at 8:07 am

Hi. In an attempt to obey the problematic rules of this thread, I will not give you any substantive arguments, but in order to make my (meta-)point I will have to note that my substantive view is that we live in a massively gender-stratified, hierarchical society in which the norm of male dominance in family arrangements — and everything that entails, including man-as-breadwinner, and woman-as-primary-caretaker-of-children-and-of-man – is deeply entrenched and rarely discussed. Ever since the 1970s, the norm of male-headed households has been under threat, though it still is quite strong in the USA (see e.g. comment #15).

My (meta-)point is this. It’s not hard to see why this is an emotional issue. Both MEN AND WOMEN in the SAHM / ideal-worker dad traditional arrangement, or those who approach it or wish they did, become very deeply attached to the gender norms that underlie the way they live (and all the various virtues and goals and competencies and accomplishments for women and for men that these norms entail). Similarly, many of us on the other side — men AND women — are deeply attached to notions of gender equality that underlie the way WE choose to live or wish we lived (and all the virtues and goals and competencies and accomplishments for both women and men that THESE norms entail).

These norms of male dominance or gender equality are deeply entrenched and constituitive of who we are. It is hard to think of any norms that cut deeper to the core of what we think our place is in the world. Apparently some SAHMs may feel this even more strongly than their husbands, but fundamentally this is not, and has never been, a debate about women. It’s a debate about gender. That’s why it’s so impassioned.

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LizardBreath 06.20.06 at 8:43 am

I’m an associate at a large-ish big city law firm too, and frankly, people who play (more or less) by the rules (as I take it LizardBreath does for the most part, since making partner isn’t totally out of the question) infuriate me.

Chris M — Not that this is or should be about me, but to the extent that my making partner isn’t totally out of the question it’s due to flashes of brillance rather than all that much hard work. By the standards of my firm, my billable hours are a scandal. IRL, we’d probably get along just fine.

The LB/LH thesis that SAHM are literally hurting women’s careers has a flipside—the utter lack of SAHDs, who could be levelling the playing field for working women simply by existing, don’t get any blame or opprobrium.

You know, djw, you missed a facet of Hrishman’s argument. While she doesn’t spend a lot of effort on blaming men who don’t SAH, she does strongly advocate that women refuse to marry or have kids with men who rule that sort of thing out. She’s very clear that women who want to take their careers seriously either need to marry men who for structural reasons (much younger, much older, much lower earning capacity), or for ideological reasons (committed to gender equity) can be relied on to provide domestic support. So she’s on top of the SAHD issue; she’s just looking at changing male behavior by changing the applicable incentives rather than by berating them.

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Tim B. 06.20.06 at 9:05 am

Any debate puts either side in jeopardy of having a wrong opinion. Human beings are not well-adapted to existing in chronic self doubt. The topic of any debate is connected to all other topics making up one’s world view. That any one opinion might possibly be wrong threatens to unravel the entire structure of one’s self-perceived place in the world.

In short — and regardless of merits — whatever ground one stakes out, involves a holistic self-image. Only the rare few are capable of doubting themselves, thus capable of changing their minds according to merits of argument.

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Peter 06.20.06 at 9:16 am

So to be clear – what I’m interested in is why the bombthrowers like Hirshman (and Caitlin Flanagan on the other side of the debate) have become the dominant voices

Who else could be the dominant voices in this debate? If it were about fundamental changes in masculinities and femininities post-1970s, or a discussion about how the State could intervene in the labor market to make things more manageable for men and women, or a debate over well-being of children, in these cases we would have different voices and different arguments. But it couldn’t be about those things. (Some) men have too much to lose by reframing things about the relationship between masculinities and femininites, the (current) State has no intention of intervening, and discussions about children have been perhaps rightfully?) colonized by psychologists and education specialists.

So what is left? A flamethrowing debate between avowed feminists, which is easily digested and made into a storyline about working moms vs. stay at home moms. It fits, making the debate meaningful without being too challenging; contentious, while masking just enough the broader social forces going on. Masculinity remains hegemonic, the State remains in the background.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 06.20.06 at 9:22 am

“Not that this is or should be about me, but to the extent that my making partner isn’t totally out of the question it’s due to flashes of brillance rather than all that much hard work. By the standards of my firm, my billable hours are a scandal. IRL, we’d probably get along just fine.”

This may be the only advice that I’m really sure of. Unless you are really loving a law firm, go to a corporation. The pay is still good even if not as amazing as a law partner, but even bad corporations don’t suck the life out of you the way even relatively tolerable law firms do.

Oh, and um, I’m sure that has something to do with the topic if you look really close…. :)

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Steve 06.20.06 at 9:28 am

Meta-argument:
The entire premise of the discussion is flawed.

“So to be clear – what I’m interested in is why the bombthrowers like Hirshman (and Caitlin Flanagan on the other side of the debate) have become the dominant voices.”

I doubt if one American in a thousand has ever heard of either of these people. I had never heard of either of them until I read this thread, and I’ve still never read anything by Flanagan (I’ve only read Hirshman’s article because of this thread). To link to the two most extreme individuals in any argument*, then ask why those two extremes ‘have become the dominant voices,’ is itself the mistake in the argument-the arguments themselves have very little to do with the issue.

Steve

* ‘Why have the arguments of The John Birch Society and the American Communist Party become the dominant voices in American politics today?’ Is this a reasonable question to ask?

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pdf23ds 06.20.06 at 9:33 am

Steve, you’re misreading. Henry didn’t mean “the dominant voices [of American politics]”, he meant “the dominant voices [among all those who discuss the relationship between SAHMs and feminism]”.

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eudoxis 06.20.06 at 10:16 am

Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates? Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life?

Because women on both sides of the divide have made a large sacrifice and bitterly resent the women who didn’t invest in a future that would have made their struggle, possibly, a little easier.

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JR 06.20.06 at 10:34 am

comment 79 definitely gets it. Setting up an artificial war between “working moms” and “SAHMs” masks the important assumptions in the debate, to wit:
1 – work/family decisions are all about moms (dads are just ideal workers, full stop), so let’s talk about women’s choices instead of women’s AND men’s choices.
2 – this issue is one of women’s choices rather than gender norms and work/family structures, because we are all atomistic individuals as opposed to people embedded in social structures. (Frankly, Harry, the way you framed the question really disappointed me because it totally adopted this frame.)

So [meta-point here]: the reason there’s so much heat in this “debate” is that by enforcing assumptions 1 & 2 the “debate” pushes the main issue — gender equality — just below the surface, thereby forcing all sides to twist their arguments to fit the cramped space of the debate. The argument ought to be about equality and autonomy on one side [the autonomy to live without the constraining forces of gender norms] and on the other side, the natural-ness of gender roles and another version of autonomy [the autonomy to live out one’s gender-prescribed proper role without interference].

But instead, because we don’t want to talk about all that — questioning gender tends to make people uneasy — we’re stuck arguing about the very narrow and frustrating question of what wealthy moms with husbands who work enough for two should do vis a vis their own career or lack thereof.

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JR 06.20.06 at 10:36 am

Just realized the original post was by Henry, not Harry. Apologies. (This makes much more sense!)

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Alison 06.20.06 at 11:21 am

tim b said, with some justification

Human beings are not well-adapted to existing in chronic self doubt

And yet I wonder whether most women don’t live in that state? I often feel that I do, and my friends speak as if they doubt and blame themselves at every step.

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Rob Breymaier 06.20.06 at 11:35 am

Isn’t this debate is so emotive because women are trying to find a reasonable response to an act of oppression? That is, socialy, women are the ones forced to choose between full-time motherhood, full-time paid employment, or some combination. Men only enter into this dilema when a couple individually decides to think of the situation in more egalitarian terms. But, even then, women are statistically likely to find themsleves being the primary parent because of economics (i.e. salary gaps). Seems that simple at its base to me.

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Henry 06.20.06 at 11:57 am

JR – I think you’re misunderstanding the way I framed the post. I deliberately declined to state my own position on this, and won’t do it here (I think I’ve posted on it in the past so if you’re sufficiently determined you could probably figure it out). But to describe this as choice _certainly_ isn’t to foreclose the possibility that the choices you’re given are limited by external conditions. Men and women make history, but not under circumstances of their choosing, or however it goes.

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maurinsky 06.20.06 at 1:32 pm

First off, not just the ultra-elite have to make these kinds of decisions, although they certainly have more choices. The poor also can have one person stay home, since they can’t make enough money to afford child-care that isn’t heavily subsidized. Their decision, of course, is easier – they only have to factor in who gets paid more vs. who gets better benefits.

I think insecurity certainly plays a part. For the working mother, you wonder if your child would do better in school or have more free play time or a better social life if you were home with them, or if you are missing out on the important moments in their life, or if you are simply losing touch with your children while you’re at work.

If you’re a working mother like me, who doesn’t have a career but a lousy job, you wonder if it’s worth it. Then you remember that your husband’s job doesn’t offer medical benefits, so even if he made enough money to pay the mortgage and feed the family, you would need to work.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom, you might miss out not just on developing a career that might be fulfilling, but on having your own resources and skills, maybe improving your social life. You might feel like you never stop working if you are a SAHM, because there’s always more laundry and sweeping and more meals to cook, and maybe financial stress.

In short, no matter how many choices women have (if indeed women are actually free to make those choices for themselves, which I don’t think is across the board true), there is never a choice that is solely positive. Caitlin Flanagan angers me because she married wealthy and contends she is a SAHM even though she is clearly earning an income, and seems to be oblivious to the fact that her life is out of reach for most women. Linda Hirschman angers me because she diminishes the importance of tasks like running a home or raising children (both of which, btw, need to be done by parents whether the mother stays home or not). And neither one of them is taking a stand that would work for my life, so I’m being attacked by both sides, and I don’t feel like I have many options as it is.

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r4d20 06.20.06 at 2:26 pm

“It’s not about taking other people’s choices as value-judgments, it’s about believing that one is actually injured by those choices.”

Yeah, but thats always the case. There is no purely “idealogical” persecution – it is always backed by a link between the forbidden ideaology or ‘private’ behavior and real-world consequences. Religious persecution also makes caims regarding he objective danger that heretics and assorted non-believers pose to the faithful. Same with political persecution of “counter-revolutionaries” and “subversives” – the names themselves comes from the harm they supposedly do (hold back the revolution / subvert the natural, correct, order).

I am really suspicious of people who try to portray second and third order societal effects as though they were obvious truths. What she is doing is isloating a few variables in the much more complex equation of society and making an argument from them – in the process she is almost certainly ignoring other important variables that effect the final outcome as much, or more, as he ones she is looking at.

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Jonathan 06.20.06 at 2:30 pm

I’m with janiem. he problem is in two parts:
1) When you write an op-ed, you argue for universality. The correct answer answer, namely that the right thing to do is whatever happens to be right for you, is lost in an op-ed quest for universality.
2) Since this is a decision whose consequences you have to live with for a long time, many, many people experience but-for regret even if they made the best decision available using the info they had at the time — this regret is sometimes justifiable, sometimes not, but it doesn’t really matter. But writing it up in a jeremiad sounds like it’s “helpful,” even when it isn’t, so the other side similarly wants to be “helpful,” even though they’re not.

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r4d20 06.20.06 at 2:36 pm

“(The same, of course, is true about hard core-fundamentalist Christians and homosexuality. They’re wrong because it simply isn’t true that homosexuality injures the morality of society as a whole. It’s not the structure of the argument that’s wrong, it’s the premises.)”

Whether or not homosexuality – or ANYTHING – “hurts” society depends on what a person values about that society. There is no reason why a person cannot decide “I think the most important thing a society can do is give everyone has their fill of M&Ms” – and such a person would be CORRECT in seeing anything that interfered with an adequate social supply of M&Ms as being “harmful” to society.

Obviously, for reasons that I dont agree with, many people DO see homosexuality as being harmful to society because they of their own values. When you say they are “Wrong” you are simply making your own value judgement about what YOU think is important in a healthy “society”. The things YOU value about society are not hurt by gay behavior, but thats all you can say without advancing your own subjective ideas as objective facts.

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LogicGuru 06.20.06 at 2:39 pm

logicguru’s theories about work (42)…a grim, depressing, and utterly foreign worldview to me

Here is the other component of this debate that generates heat under the surface–CLASS. This debate is carried on within an elite subculture that probably doesn’t represent more than 5 or 10 percent of the population: those whose occupations provide real job satisfaction and salaries that make it possible for a family to live the good life on one income. In this vein, the NYTimes runs stories about Yale girls who fanticize being SAHMs (with nannies and cleaners to help out) mornings playing tennis, book discussion groups for cultural entertainment, etc. The debate is set in their terms: shall I do 60 hours a week to make partner in that high-gloss law firm or shall I be a tennis mom lunching with the girls at the club?

The rest of us, who don’t have either of these options, look on with outrage. It amazes me that anyone should regard the “grim, depressing” picture I suggested in 42 as “utterly foreign”–this is the way it is for perhaps 90-95% of people in affluent countries and 99.99% of the human race. Setting up ultra-privileged women who have these choices as typical reinforces the entrenched idea that women have it really good and have nothing to complain about.

3/4 of Americans over 25 don’t have college degrees. Of the 1/4 that do, most graduated from crappy colleges you’ve never heard of and the jobs they do, even though they’re now blessed with fancy titles, are basically sales, bookkeeping and secretarial work. They work because they have to and, even if they make the best of it, enjoy the commeraderie of the office and take pride in their jobs, (rightly) regard work as a burden rather than a benefit. Why is it so hard to understand the resentment of blue-collar males who see women as privileged because they don’t have to punch the clock at 8 am or spend their days laying tar on roofs and are outraged at feminists for what they regard as pushing for even more privileges for women? Why is it so hard to understand the defensiveness and guilt of non-elite SAHMs whose only realistic options in the job market are boring, dead-end jobs that hardly pay enough to cover the costs of child care, transportation and a decent office wardrobe but feel pressed to work because their families are pinched financially and because “housewife” has become a dirty word? Why is it so hard to understand the resentment of non-elite working women, manning the check stands at Walmart or sitting in carrels taking phone orders when they read about these Yale brats vexed decisions about whether to be high-powered lawyers or tennis moms? Read this, empathize, imagine what it’s like for most people and it’s easy to see where the heat comes from.

These are not a few seriously underprivileged people out there in some urban no-go area or rural poverty trap or some strange Fundamentalists living in another world–they’re perhaps 90% of the population and most, correctly, regard themselves as middle class. These are the Nascar Dads and Soccer Moms who own houses in the suburbs, drive better cars than mine, and vote–regular, normal people. The fact that they’re largely dismissed in this and other discussions, that their “worldview” strikes us as “foreign,” is a large part of the sad story of why progressives have such a hard time getting a hearing from people whose economic interests they represent.

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Martin James 06.20.06 at 4:30 pm

“Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life?”

Because they are highly correlated. People who engage in activity X, are more likely to believe activity X is a good thing. Its not a 100%, but the choices reflect value judgements and vice versa.

The answer for harmony is simple. If no one had any more kids, there would be a lot fewer arguments in the future!

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Mrs. Coulter 06.21.06 at 2:46 pm

Why does it matter so much what is on other people’s plates? Why do we so often take other people’s choices as being value-judgements on our own in this area of social life?

I apologize for being so late to the discussion, but I’ve been dealing with a round-robin of strep throat (first the kid, then me) so the blog world has been low priority.

Unfortunately, I think there is a vicious circle going on here–a self-reinforcing social phenomenon. We all make decisions within the context of a flawed world. Few of the decisions we make are clear-cut one way or the other. So we feel guilt and misgivings about the choice not taken. It doesn’t help matters when people feel the need to vocally self-justify their own decision by criticizing others’. Whenever I have publicly discussed the issue of staying home with kids vs. staying in the workforce, I have always been very careful to avoid language that seems critical of other people’s choices (such as “I didn’t want someone else raising my kids”), but there are still people who take it as a criticism. I think I have to go along with the divide and conquer theory–if we’re all sniping at one another, we’re too busy to start noticing what the real problem is.

People like Hirshman and Flanagan just pour gasoline on the fire in order to sell more books. Both of them deliberately use inflammatory language (saying that SAHMs lead “lesser lives” and that “something is lost when women work”). They are taking advantage of our insecurities for their own benefit. In other words, we’ve been had.

I hope this doesn’t veer too far into the substantive (if it does, please feel free to delete this paragraph), but I was discussing this whole flap over the weekend with my husband, and we got to wondering how the working world has altered over the last 50-60 years, in terms of time commitment expectations, because my sense is that we’ve all gotten the squeeze. After all, the stereotype of the happy 50s housewife who always has dinner waiting on the table for her husband assumes that he will be home for dinner most nights. Perhaps there is a labor economist or sociologist reading Crooked Timber who might have some insight into this question.

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Bitch | Lab 06.22.06 at 10:20 pm

I didn’t participate in the blog wars over SAHMs. I did participate in the sex wars. At Daniel Davies’ Blog, I just explained that it was, in that debate, about two things:

1. freedom/autonomy 2. epistemology Well, actually 3: How do we get from here to the feminist utopia.

—-

it’s an old war, as old as the second wave itself. The phrase ‘The personal is political’ was inspired by Carol Hanisch who wrote, to paraphrse, “We come to learn our so-called personal problems (that we can’t have vaginal orgasms and have inferior clitoral orgasms) are not personal, but political and that means that there are no personal solution, only _political_ ones.

In the new introduction to that essay, she laments that the phrase is very differently than she used or meant it. Most people use it as: “Your personal behavior is shaped by social structures. To change social structure, you need to change your behavior.

But Hanisch was schooled in a dialectical materialist framework. You’d not more tell a worker to fix capitalism by quitting his job, then you’d tell a woman to ‘fix’ patriarchy by quitting her personal patriarch and telling her to b/c a political lesbian.

In Hanisch’s era, the vituperative war was the Miss American pageant: Should they attack the contestants or should they attack the people who profited from it?

Hanisch took the latter perspective, which she caled the “pro-woman line”. There emerged an early split among feminists over exactly that issue.

Same split emerged over how to deal with ‘apolitical women’. Hanisch thought they should not berate them for being traitors to the movement, hangers on who benefited from the hard work of their sisters, but who wouldn’t get involved. Hanisch thought that feminists should try to understand apolitical women: what was going on that made them reluctant to join the ranks.

In Hanisch’s era, the issue was one of “false consciousness.” You have a theory that not only do men oppress you, but they do so and it can only work if you go along with it. “There can be no master without a slave,” as the slogan went.

Without an actual social movement, Hirschman is just shouting into the wilderness to tell women that they should behave like X, otherwise they harm feminism.

It hits home on two major issues:

1. autonomy and 2. epistemology.

A lot of feminists aren’t really interested in, as one woman put it, exchanging one set of asshole (let’s call them, the patriarchy) for another set (feminists who think they can define what feminism is.)

Most women who are feminists usually come to think of their feminism as simply about fighting for free choice. Naturally, if Hirshman is attacking their choice and telling them their real husband is feminism, she’s going to get some heat.

The classic liberal enlightenment position is that the individual knows her desires best. For Hirschman to suggest they are falsely conscious is simply absurd. you can hear people responding: how do you know you’re not falsely conscious?

What or who gives you the right to be the arbiter of what feminism is and how to be a feminist?

She was basically saying: You are slaves staring at shadows on the cave wall.

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