Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Flawed Philosophy of Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman set of a firestorm with her article Homeward Bound last winter, and now she's followed it up with a compact new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. I have written a feature article in response to the book, which is making the rounds for publication. (It's hard to know how best to get a piece out these days--I'd love to just post it on my blog but I am willing to wait a bit for a chance to publish before a wider readership. In the meantime, the waiting feels maddeningly inefficient!) But here on the blog I want tell you about a wonderfully revelant tidbit I came across in psychologist Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling On Happiness.

Hirshman's thesis is that educated women are wasting their time spending years at home taking care of their children. She generally makes her case in such an irritating way that is hard to agree even with the few good points she makes. She frames her argument with the laser-sharp focus of a lawyer arguing a case before a jury in a sequestered courtroom, far from the real world. In this refined environment she defines success and a meaningful life and is therefore able to say that a stay-at-home Mom's life doesn't measure up. Hirshman, who has been a lawyer and philosphy professor, brings in Socratic and Platonic ideals to describe a good life that sounds a lot like being a lawyer and philosopher (how convenient):

"A good life, they concluded, would therefore include exercising the capacities that are uniquely human and enable people to live in groups. Those would be politics and philosophy, and enlightened people would display courage, piety, generosity, and prudence....By any measure, a life of housework and child care does not meet these standards for a good human life." (Get to Work pp. 32-33)

Who is she to make that conclusion about my life? Being a mother has taught me courage, piety, generosity and prudence. I believe one of Hirshman's prime flaws is a failure of imagination. Becoming a stay-at-home Mom was not a one-way street, and while motherhood has permanently altered my life's trajectory, it has not turned me into a brain-dead, uninvolved zombie. Neither are any of the other mothers I know. (Hirshman's descriptions of stay-at-home Moms who claim to enjoy their lives are particularly patronizing. When she speaks of deluded-by-happiness "homebodies, like the merry maid in the treetops with NPR on her iPod and a letter to her congressman in her overalls..." she could be describing me to a T.)

But don't just take my word for it when I say that Hirshman's lens is too narrow. I'd really like to refute Hirshman with this piece of Greek philosophy as quoted from Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness:

"You might be tempted to conclude that the word happiness does not indicate a good feeling but rather that it indicates a very special good feeling that can only be produced by a very special means--for example, by living one's life in a proper, moral, meaningful, deep, rich, Socratic, and non-piglike way. Now that would be the kind of feeling that one wouldn't be ashamed to strive for. In fact, the Greeks had a word for this kind of happiness--eudaimonia--which translates literally as 'good spirit' but which probably means something more like 'human flourishing' or 'life well lived.' For Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epicurious...the only thing that could induce that kind of happiness was the virtuous performance of one's duties, with the precise meaning of virtuous left for each philosopher to work out for himself. The ancient Athenian legislator Solon suggested that one could not say a person was happy until the person's life had ended because happiness is the result of living up to one's potential--and how can we make such a judgment until we see how the whole thing turns out?" (pp. 35-36)

Now that's a a refreshing change from Hirshman's insistence on wielding her philosopher's razor to divide the world into winners and losers on her terms, and long view I can embrace. My life's story at age 37 is made up of my experiences as a scientist, teacher, mother, writer, and entrepreneur. Changing an individual poopy diaper may not have led me to enlightenment but the journey of motherhood has changed my world view, and taught me that progress up the coroporate ladder (parter track, tenure track...) isn't the only way to value achievement. I am more patient, more grounded, and more fulfilled in my career than I was before I had a child. And yes, I am intertested in democracy, feminism, and women's leadership. I found Hirshman's book to be worth reading as an intellectual exercise, an irritating whetstone used to sharpen my own vision. For that I am grateful.


Anonymous obxmom said...

Did you see Linda on the Colbert Report? What did you think of the interview?

9:01 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

No, I didn't! I'm on vacation this week and I don't even have the TiVO recording.

Can you tell me the air date and does anyone know if there is a YouTube post?

Obxmom, what did you think of the interview?

9:47 PM  
Anonymous obxmom said...

It looks like you can get the interview in 3 parts off of the Comedy Central Website. It was not one of my favorite Colbert interviews. You nailed it when you said," She generally makes her case in such an irritating way that is hard to agree even with the few good points she makes." I want to read the book so that I have a full understanding of what she is trying to say. I fear while she is trying to express an interesting and thought provoking commentary, her brashness is a complete turnonff. She may be turning more people off than she is turning on. As a working mom, I hear what she is trying to say, but the tone from the interview and from your commentary on the book, appears to be hard to swallow. The "one size fits all" philosophy and "everyone should" philosophy just does not work.

Not stop blogging and enjoy your vacation!!!

9:01 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

I finally saw LH on The Colbert Report. I have to say that as much as I disagree with her, she did very well holding her own against Stephen Colbert's character. I'll bet she was a terrific attorney. When she's in an arena where she can control the terms of the debate, she can be very convincing. But as you know I think her arguments don't always translate well to the complexities of real life.

2:37 PM  
Anonymous Happy Working Mommy said...

If being a mother has taught you courage, piety, generosity and prudence - thats great. Where exactly does that play out in the world at large if you do not particpate in it?

2:41 AM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

What bothers me is that family and home life doesn't count as "the world at large" in many people's minds.

Men have had the privilege of being blind to family life. This gives us leaders who don't know the first thing about creating public policies that take caregiving into acount.

The world at large and family life in miniature are both valuable perspectives. Linda Hirshman wants to draw a line that diminishes the value of our family experiences. I want to draw a more inclusive circle that includes "family" as an important part of "the world."

7:33 AM  

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