Monday, January 30, 2006

Getting it straight

If you’ve noticed inconsistencies in feminist politics there’s a reason. It’s not that feminists are irrational or hypocritical or unintelligent. There is a deeper problem: the first principles on which feminism is based generate contradictory aims.

Poor feminists! They are locked into a belief system which can never pass the test of consistency because the starting point of their theory calls for opposing outcomes.

Homeward Bound

A good way to illustrate the tensions within feminist theory is to look at the article Homeward Bound. This was published late last year and was written by feminist Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of women’s studies.

Homeward Bound begins with the question of why women are not entering executive positions in larger numbers. Some feminists blame the “glass ceiling”: they believe that women are held back in their careers by male employers or by unfriendly work practices.

Linda Hirshman disagrees. In 2003 she undertook some interesting research. She contacted the women who had announced their weddings in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times in 1996. These were women who belonged to a well-educated elite and who had prestigious jobs.

To Hirshman’s surprise a large percentage of these elite women had opted out of careers and were pursuing motherhood and home life instead. Only five of the thirty women with children she interviewed were working full-time and half were not in paid work at all.

The women had not left full-time work reluctantly. Hirshman found that when they had quit “they were already alienated from their work or at least not committed to a life of work” and at least half “expressed a hope never to work again.”

Choice or judgement?

Why then are women not equally represented in upper management? Hirshman concludes from her research that it’s not due to discrimination in the workplace, but is the result of choices that women are making to leave paid work in order to raise their families at home.

Which raises a considerable problem in how feminists are to reconcile their own theory.

Feminism is basically liberalism applied to the lives of women. The starting point of liberalism is the idea that what makes us human, as distinct from the animals, is that we have the capacity to shape the course of our own lives.

This principle was stated clearly enough by the famous liberal philosopher J.S. Mill, who wrote in his influential work On Liberty (1859) that,

He who lets the world or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs his faculties.

This principle makes two clear demands on us. First, we must retain an individual freedom of choice over what we do or seek to become. Second, we must use our faculties of reason and will to plan our own unique, individual life rather than accepting a merely imitative path laid down by tradition.

What, though, if women are naturally drawn to a motherhood role? Then the two liberal demands come into conflict.

On the one hand, if motherhood is what most women would naturally choose to do then it would be “illiberal” to deny them an individual freedom of choice.

But, on the other hand, if women are adopting a traditional role based on gender, they are following a “biological destiny” rather than employing their rational faculties to shape a unique, individual life plan as careerist women might claim to be doing. Accepting this would also seem to be “illiberal”.

Hirshman is not unaware of this conflict in feminist theory. She admits that women who stay at home are justifying their decision in terms of a “choice feminism” and that as soon as feminism accepted the legitimacy of individual choice “the movement had no language” to challenge what was happening.

Hirshman, though, cannot accept the choices that women are making. This is because the other side of the liberal coin is more important to her: the idea that “human flourishing” cannot be found in a traditional role within the family.

She provides us with the following quote from fellow feminist Betty Friedan to support her point of view:

A baked potato is not as big as the world, and vacuuming the living room floor – with or without makeup – is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. Women are human beings, not stuffed dolls, not animals. Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it. He shares a need for food and sex with other animals, but when he loves, he loves as a man, and when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.

Hirshman sets herself against the “choice” aspect of feminism, in which women can choose to be homemakers, and does so by returning to liberal first principles about what makes us distinctively human.

Having determined on an anti-choice feminism, Hirshman does not hold back in attacking the motherhood role. She tells us that the family,

allows for fewer opportunities for human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.

Hirshman believes it is unjust for women to stay at home because it does not accord with liberal views of what it means to be human. There is nothing worse than injustice. Therefore, it does not matter that women are made happy by the motherhood role. Hirshman can write that the “privileged brides of the Times – and their husbands – seem happy” but still judge them to be doing the wrong thing because “what they do is bad for them”.

Hirshman is drawing, in a principled way, on an anti-choice logic within feminist theory which was expressed most stridently in 1975 by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir who proclaimed that,

No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.

So the problem is this: how can feminism be consistent when its first principles generate both an insistence on individual choice but also an equally striking rejection of it?

[Note: conservatives don’t find themselves in this fix, because our starting point is different. Liberals pose things in such a way as to make individuals self-create their own value. Conservatives do not see individuals as creating what is good in man and nature, but as seeking to live by the good already existing as part of the human condition.

Therefore, it would not matter to a conservative woman that the act of creating a new human life was not a unique product of her own mind but part of a “biological destiny”. It would not alter the goodness or significance of the experience of motherhood.]

The rules

Hirshman admits that “Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy”.

She lists a number of rules to get women out of the home and into management positions.

The first rule is that women should reject arts degrees and choose courses leading to high incomes. She suggests that,

Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category ...

The second rule is to treat work seriously. This means that women should not be so concerned with finding work which is socially meaningful, or intellectually rewarding or prestigious. Instead,

The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.

The third rule is to avoid household responsibilities. Hirshman advises women to marry down by finding “a spouse with less social power than you”. Marrying “a pure counterpart,” cautions Hirshman, is “risky”.

The final rule is to have only one baby, as research shows that women with two babies are more likely to opt out and move to the suburbs.

Equality & caste

What impression do you have of these rules? Many people will think that the rules are overly mercenary, and too much based on the pursuit of money and power.

Hirshman does little to dispel such an impression when she says of child-rearing that,

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.

So why does Hirshman place such an emphasis on money and power?

Remember that liberalism starts out with the claim that we are made human by our capacity to shape our own lives.

But what if some people have a greater capacity to shape their lives? Liberalism responds to this problem with a strong egalitarianism: everyone must be equally human and therefore everyone must have the same opportunity to shape their life outcomes.

However, as Hirshman’s mindset warns us, there will always be tension within the liberal view. After all, what really matters in liberalism is the enabling of individual will: this is what defines our humanity. And what gives us the freedom to enact our will? Hirshman’s logical answer is: not equality but power, and money too, since money brings power.

Nor is the idea that we should equalise human wills convincing in terms of liberalism when you consider that we are most free to enact our will when we have power over others. Therefore, having power over others might seem (unofficially) to be an important good within the liberal value system.

If this is correct it might help to explain why feminists often accuse men of acting to consolidate power over women; feminists are assuming that the average man is acting within the same mindset as themselves, in which the significance of our lives depends on obtaining power over others.

It might not be said aloud, but it is not uncommon for feminist politics to be inegalitarian. Hirshman’s article, for example, assumes that women “arrive” when they reach the executive suite. But it can only ever be the case that a small minority of women will be leaders in their field. It’s not possible for all Western women to be rulers at work. Some must be ruled over.

So what Hirshman is attempting to offer is “justice” (in liberal terms) for a small caste of women; most women will necessarily be excluded.

We have here, therefore, a tension within feminism which is unlikely to be resolved. The same principle which generates a concern for equality of will, also motivates feminists to campaign for money and power for an elite of women, as these are held to be the things which matter.

What, though, if you don’t make an “enabling of will” the starting point for your politics? In this case, neither the breaking down of gender distinctions in the name of equality, nor the pursuit of money and power will seem to be necessary to a good life.

A conservative woman who values a love of family, of nation, of nature, of God, will not think it necessary to subordinate marriage and motherhood to a pursuit of money and power. She will not be caught within a political theory which leads her to such a view.


  1. Women going to work & pretending to be men is an aweful idea. When nature calls, it all comes unravelled.

    From a man's point of view, there is little novelty to be had from a woman who goes against nature. With her femininity gone, she ends up being that which Feminism despises most... a body.



  2. There's an interesting article in Slate about this now. I don't believe Hirshman is trying to say that women should give up motherhood but that women should have a job other than motherhood. The Slate article suggests that if these highly-educated, wealthy women opt out of their jobs, it's much more difficult for women who must work- single, poorer women- to have bargaining power for maternity leave or to defeat the glass ceiling. Furthermore, I don't consider it "against nature" to go to work. If it were, I don't think we would have been given brains that think things other than diaper care. Moreover, it says God created Eve as a helper- arguably to help Adam with his work. I think everyone just defends the side the know best and my mom was a working mother and a damned good mother too.