The Flawed Philosophy of Linda Hirshman
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.