Back in the Stone Age, when I was getting my degree in journalism, there was no World Wide Web. Writing was a solitary occupation that often seemed like shouting into the universe. The words were sent forth, and the response was a long time coming back from the deep void. But at least you could get an idea if anyone paid attention. In broadcast news, this could be measured in the number of eyeballs estimated to be watching. In print news, this could be measured by circulation. But it was hard to know more than the estimated number of people who came in contact with your work. What the particular audience response was to that work, apart from the dedicated types who wrote letters to the editor, was hard to know. Was it a collective shrug--or not?
Now you can have your answer as fast as you can Google it, thanks to the blogosphere. In an unusual piece in yesterday's Washington Post, feminist author Linda Hirshman responded to the blog bashing she took for an article that recently appeared in the American Prospect magazine, in which she claimed women who quit their jobs to stay home with their children were making a mistake.
This response article, titled "Everybody Hates Linda," listed a number of comments from bloggers in the sidebar. I, too, was one of the bloggers who commented on this original piece. So I was eager to see what Ms. Hirshman thought of her feedback. It wasn't a particularly enlightening or insightful piece, unfortunately. It was a lengthy summary of the response, followed by her sweeping dismissal of those with religious views who disagreed with her:
I learned something people really need to know. The aggressive domesticity is not coming only from a bunch of women who can't manage all the demands on their time. Time and again, when I could identify the sources of the most rabid criticism and Google them, male and female, they had fundamentalist religious stuff on their Web sites or in the involuntary biographies that Google makes possible. A lot of the fundamentalism behind the stay-at-home mom movement is overt, such as the letters worrying about my soul that appeared after the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary suggested his followers chat me up. But a lot of it is covert, such as the identity of the authors of manuals disguised as tips on frugal housekeeping, but actually proselytizing women to stay home, as the Bible suggests.
What makes public debate tiresome these days is that when two worldviews clash, one side is usually blind to its own zeal to proselytize. I think we would have a much more intellectually honest discussion if someone like Ms. Hirshman could acknowledge that she is equally as interested in proselytizing her beliefs. With that as the starting point in public debate, we could get past the tedious finger-pointing that the Other Side Is Trying To Promote Its Own Beliefs and hopefully move on to examining the validity of the ideas presented. As such, her response piece was simply an exercise in musing aloud about her reaction to the unsurprising news that people disagreed with her. I had wished for something more substantive.
Here's what I've been musing about off and on since the original piece appeared: The marketplace does not represent the whole of life nor the sum of what is valuable in our society. There is a critical need to tend the private sphere of life. Feminists of the variety as Ms. Hirshman (for it must be acknowledged that there are probably as many philosophical flavors of feminism as there are denominations of Christianity) don't seem to recognize or articulate this. Perhaps it is because after the Industrial Revolution, the home shifted from primarily a place of production to a place of consumption. Therefore, it was deemed wasteful for women to be there.
But is it? The private sphere of home and relational networks needs someone to attend to it. Left on its own, stuff falls apart. There is a lot to manage. For most people, owning a home is the largest financial asset they possess. To be a homeowner means you need to understand complicated mortgage financing, general construction and renovation processes, insurance issues and risk management, legal protection and exposure, pest control, and much more. Fine print dominates a homeowner's life and even if you outsource every last bit of home management, from cleaning services to decorating, someone still has to call, coordinate, meet with, and pay the vendors.
And that's just the building. What about the people in it? The irony of being at your career peak is that typically you are also at your "dependent peak." You are the sandwich generation, with children on one side and elderly parents on the other. People need care. You may think you can outsource to nannies and nursing homes, but these are just more vendors to manage.
The women I know who are stay-at-home mothers are currently doing the following things:
- Battling insurance companies and shoddy auto repairs after a car accident
- Juggling medical care (appointments, paperwork) for a range of health issues for their children, some very serious
- Juggling medical care (appointments, paperwork) for both their parents and their in-laws, some very serious
- Performing detailed and demanding nursing work for a seriously incapacitated family member
- Overseeing difficult and messy home repairs after a series of natural disasters
- Helping a dying in-law wrap up end-of-life issues
- Moving a parent across the country and setting up a new home nearby
- Educating their children (both primarily at home and as a supplement to public school)
- Providing legal, financial, or administrative services as contract employees for their spouse's businesses
- Working on a contract basis for a former employer from home
- Developing a home-based business on a part-time basis or contracting to a family business
I could go on and on and on. Each task needs a complex array of skill sets, not to mention perseverance, organization, and limitless patience to be on hold with disinterested "customer service" people whose motto is "your call is very important to us."
This is hardly the picture of the mindless housewife enamored of her new vacuum cleaner. Ms. Hirshman presents herself as retired, so perhaps she's forgotten the strain of juggling these responsibilities along with a full-time job. Even so, she seems to be putting faith in the rising generation as the solution to her complaints. As she writes: "But a new generation of women is coming of age, and the backlash pushing women home is so last year."
I argue from an economic and demographic perspective that she is wrong. This group will have more complicated life issues to manage, not less. They will bear the crushing weight of caring for the burgeoning number of elderly Baby Boomers. They will probably find both their corporate retirement and their Social Security plans outsourced to Wall Street. They will have more complicated "managed health care" programs. In other words, the current trend of the marketplace is reverse-delegating many complicated and time-consuming processes back to individuals. The public sphere is offloading to the private sphere and someone better be there to catch it.
Instead of knocking the women who are heroically responding to the value of laboring in the private sphere, let's celebrate their selflessness. You won't hear that from Linda Hirshman, though--it truly is a thankless job. But for those who labor for the glory of God, the thanks will be invaluable when uttered by our Lord.