Are Stay at Home Moms “Letting Down the Team?”

Are stay at home moms a threat to civilization? Those of you who are shocked by this question should take note of the fact that ABC’s “Good Morning America” program devoted segments to this question on two successive days, featuring the arguments of Linda Hirshman, a prominent feminist thinker.

“I am saying an educated, competent adult’s place is in the office,” Hirshman told “Good Morning America.” In other words, moms who stay at home with their children have given themselves to a calling that no educated or competent adult should desire or accept

Hirshman threw herself into the debate over motherhood last year, when she responded to a spate of media reports that indicated an amazing trend–large numbers of highly educated young women on elite college and university campuses indicated that they did not intend to pursue a career outside the home, but to give themselves to being wives and mothers.

Hirshman’s response was vehement and verbose. Writing in the pages of The American Prospect, Hirshman argued that “feminism has largely failed in its goals.” As she explained, “There are few women in the corridors of power, and marriage is essentially unchanged. The number of women at universities exceeds the number of men. But, more than a generation after feminism, the number of women in elite jobs just doesn’t come close.”

According to Hirshman’s diagnosis, this problem is largely traceable to the fact that too many women are staying at home with their children. In particular, she attacked the notion that women should feel free to choose motherhood as a life calling. In attacking “choice feminism,” Hirshman asserts that women who give themselves to mothering undermine the status of all women and threaten the emergence of an egalitarian civilization.

In her article in The American Prospect, Hirshman reviewed a wealth of data. Interestingly, the statistics she expects her readers to find so disappointing will be the cause of surprise and hope for those who value the family, parenthood, and the responsibility of child rearing. As she explains, the census numbers for all working mothers have fallen modestly since 1998, after having leveled off around 1990.

Concerned by these statistics, Hirshman decided to undertake some research of her own. She selected a sample of young women who had been identified as brides in the “Sunday Styles” section of The New York Times in 1996. Hirshman believed that “the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides” of her sample would be indicative of the way this generation of young women is approaching career, marriage, and motherhood.

As Hirshman relates: “At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism’s promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that.”

This section of her article is startling, to say the least. Like Hirshman, I must admit that I am surprised by her data. Nevertheless, the fact that so many talented, highly educated, and promising young women were giving themselves to motherhood is a source of genuine hope and encouragement.

Hirshman went on to describe additional findings in her research. “Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.”

Beyond Hirshman’s data, research indicates that far more women than men drop out of the workforce to take care of their children. In addition to this, recent research indicates that women with graduate or professional degrees are only slightly more likely to remain in the workforce after having children than women with only one year of college. “When their children are infants (under a year), 54 percent of females with graduate or professional degrees are not working full time (18 percent are working part time and 36 percent are not working at all). Even among those who have children who are not infants, 41 percent are not working full time (18 percent are working part time and 23 percent are not working at all).”

From Hirshman’s perspective, it only gets worse. “This isn’t only about daycare,” she admits. “Half my Times brides quit before the first baby came. In interviews, at least half of them expressed a hope never to work again. None had realistic plans to work. More importantly, when they quit, they were already alienated from their work or at least not committed to a life of work.”

The very fact that these women turned their back on promising careers seems virtually inconceivable to Linda Hirshman. When a female MBA expressed her lack of connection with the men at her previous workplace who got so excited about making deals, Hirshman observes all this with incredulity.

In Hirshman’s view, all this simply proves that the feminist revolution was not revolutionary enough. In other words, the revolution that opened the workplace to women did nothing, in her view, to fundamentally reshape marriage and the family power structure. “Why did this happen? The answer I discovered–an answer neither feminist leaders nor women themselves want to face–is that while the public world has changed, albeit imperfectly, to accommodate women among the elite, private lives have hardly budged. The real glass ceiling is at home.”

Thus, the problem of “the unreconstructed family” is the concern of Hirshman and many of her fellow feminists. Hirshman, retired as a distinguished visiting professor at Brandeis University, had previously taught academic courses on subjects such as “sexual bargaining.” Infused with the ideology of radical feminism, she now argues that the entire pattern of gender relations must be revolutionized.

“Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family. Feminists could not say, ‘Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.”

Clearly, what she argues that liberal feminism was unable to propose, she now intends to take up as her central argument. She clearly believes that housekeeping and child-rearing are not interesting and should not be socially validated.

In her appearance on “Good Morning America,” Hirshman attacked the notion that women can feel fulfilled and validated in the calling of motherhood. As the ABC report indicates, “Hirshman says working is also a matter of feeling fulfilled. She doesn’t buy into the arguments of many homemakers who say taking care of the family is the most fulfilling thing they could imagine.” Hirshman’s response is a demonstration of breathtaking arrogance. “I would like to see a description of their daily lives that substantiates that position,” she said. “One of the things I’ve done working on my book is to read a lot of the diaries online, and their description of their lives does not sound particularly interesting or fulfilling for a complicated person, for a complicated, educated person.”

Get that? Hirshman is telling America’s moms that their work is fundamentally unimportant, uninteresting, and fundamentally unworthy of any “complicated” and “educated” person.

Women who stay at home with their children, turning their back on promising careers, “are letting down the team,” she asserts. They are rejecting the very feminist ideal that the radical ideologues have adopted and they are undermining the cause of all women, in Hirshman’s condescending view.

Make no mistake–Hirshman does not want women to have any real choice in the matter. “Choice feminism” is an abysmal failure, in her view, because it validates what should never be validated–motherhood.

Her answer? “Women who want to have sex and children with men as well as good work in interesting jobs where they may occasionally wield real social power need guidance, and they need it early. Step one is simply to begin talking about flourishing. In so doing, feminism will be returning to its early, judgmental roots. This may anger some, but it should sound the alarm before the next generation winds up in the same situation. Next, feminists will have to start offering young women not choices and not utopian dreams but solutions they can enact on their own. Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy.”

There is more. Hirshman argues that allowing motherhood as a choice is “bad for women individually.” Hirshman is ready to tell young women that they have no inherent right to choose a status lower, in Hirshman’s view, from what they should seek and demand in the public sphere.

“A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.”

This is stunning stuff. In Hirshman’s view, a woman’s choice to deploy her “capacities for speech and reason” as a mother is not prudent or acceptable. Beyond this, she seems to demonstrate an inherent dislike for children in general, and infants in particular. She accuses stay at home moms of “bearing most of the burden of the work always associated with the lowest caste.” She identifies these tasks as “sweeping and cleaning bodily waste,” and condemned mothers who were described in a press account as “vigilantly watching their babies for signs of excretion 24-7” as “untouchables” by choice.

The very fact that “Good Morning America” devoted two segments to Linda Hirshman and her attack on motherhood is a significant cultural development. Of course, the ABC program included voices that opposed Hirshman’s arguments, but these arguments were considered newsworthy nonetheless.

Without doubt, Hirshman is speaking for a sizeable percentage of the cultural elite when she argues that “an educated, competent adult’s place is in the office.” In the view of so many, the office and the professional workplace are the arenas where real life is lived and important work is done. The thought that motherhood could be a higher calling than law, medicine, finance, or any number of other professions is completely beyond her comprehension. Indeed, she sees the very logic of motherhood as undermining the entire feminist project.

Thus, when she argues that stay at home moms are “letting down the team,” she means to shame young women out of motherhood and back into the workplace. At the very least, she argues that mothers should have only one baby so that they can return to the workplace in short order.

The Christian response to this article must be a combination of refutation, amazement, and affirmation of motherhood. Hirshman’s article and media appearances can serve to remind us all of the unspeakably high calling of motherhood and to the sacrifices that so many women make, day in and day out, to the raising of children, the nurture of the home, and the shaping of civilization itself.

I respond to Hirshman’s arguments from a highly privileged position–as the son, husband, and son-in-law of women who gave and give themselves to the calling of motherhood without reservation. They, like so many millions of other dedicated mothers, are the ones who demonstrate a wisdom and dedication that goes beyond anything a man can offer in terms of motherly intuition, loving devotion, and management challenges that would daunt the boldest Fortune 500 CEO.

Nevertheless, the best refutation of Hirshman’s awful argument is the happiness experienced by so many mothers and the evidence of motherly love and attention in the lives of their children.

These women are not “letting down the team.” To the contrary, they are holding civilization together where civilization begins–in the home.