Excerpt: 'Get to Work'

ByABC News via logo
June 12, 2006, 3:07 PM

June 13, 1006— -- Author Linda R. Hirshman doesn't believe that staying home leads to a good life for women.

For too long, she says, women have been forced to return to the home because of limited support from their husbands and the government, but mostly to maintain the 'illusion" that they have a choice.

In "Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World," she argues that a new revolution is needed to reform the sexual politics of family and to make women realize that full participation in the work force and the public sphere is their only path to becoming self-actualized human beings.

You can read an excerpt from the book below.

"Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World"

If Betty Friedan had just lived a little longer. We are about to restart the revolution. But now we have to do it without her.

For twenty-five years, she watched as the backlash generation slowly walked away from the promise of a better life. Women -- whether they stay home or, like most women, just carry the responsibility for home to work and back -- are homeward bound. Their husbands won't carry enough of the household to enable them to succeed fully in the public world. Glass ceiling? The thickest glass ceiling is at home.

Their bosses, who are mostly someone else's husband, won't do the job their own husbands turned down, so there is no employer day care and there are no government tax breaks. Look deeply and you will see that liberal and conservative commentators largely agree that ideally women belong at home.

And women say they choose this fate, and the feminist movement backs them up.

"Choice feminism," the shadowy remnant of the original movement, tells women that their choices, everyone's choices, the incredibly constrained "choices" they made, are good choices. Everyone says if feminism failed it was because it was too radical. But we know--and surely the real radical, Betty Friedan, knew--that it wasn't because feminism was too radical. It was because feminism was not radical enough. A movement that stands for everything ultimately stands for nothing.

Bounding home is not good for women and it's not good for the society. They aren't using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands. Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education are lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos. The abandonment of the public world by women at the top means the ruling class is overwhelmingly male. If the rulers are male, they will make mistakes that benefit males. Picture an all-male Supreme Court. We may well go back there. What will that mean for the women of America?

Educated women opting out and working mothers throughout society doing 70 percent of the housework reveals a hard truth. For all its achievements, feminism cannot make more progress, private or public, until it turns its spotlight on the family. Child care and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life. Gender ideology places these tasks on women's backs; women must demand redistribution.

Happily, the solution is near to hand. As any philosopher, including this one, can tell you, the alternative to a meaningless "choice" is value, the value of a flourishing life. People have been discussing what it means to have a good life for thousands of years. The answer, in Western culture, always includes using your talents and capacities to the fullest and reaping the rewards of doing so. Friedan started this movement with such a "values feminism," when she described a good life in The Feminine Mystique: "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...when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being."

At this moment, 55 percent of college undergraduates are female--girls who should have a vision and wish to shape the future to it, to aspire to something complex and demanding, which they know they can do well--become a great artist or a crusading prosecutor, own their own restaurant or start the next Starbucks, design the next wrap dress or the next iPod, be a lifesaving nurse, or the scientist who finds a cure for cancer. They may never get there, but however far they go--to the end of their abilities--the path is the path to a flourishing life. "Modern" society still puts roadblock after roadblock in their path. It will take a laser focus for women to reach their ambitions for a full human life. They must even resort to the love that dares not speak its name: love of work.

The world has changed since Friedan wrote, and now mere rhetoric--what we used to call consciousness raising--is not enough. It's a tough world. Women need a plan. Here's mine, for starts.

A Strategic Plan to Get to Work

- Don't study art. Use your education to prepare for a lifetime of work.
- Never quit a job until you have another one. Take work seriously.
- Never know when you're out of milk. Bargain relentlessly for a just household.
- Get the government you deserve. Stop electing governments that punish women's work.

I'll come back to the details later, but as this outline reflects, the changes that will bring women to the positions of power they deserve will come from many places. Change will start when women internalize centuries of hard-won insights into the content of a flourishing life. The next step is for women to stand up for themselves by making and keeping this plan or their own version of it, to lead a flourishing life. Men are not natural villains, but they will not make a fair deal on the home front unless women stand up and ask for one. As the economists say, they never met a man who washed a rented car before he returned it to the lot. It's an old story, but we'll tell it as long as we have to: Only when women make it necessary for men to take on a fair share of the family labor will they do so.

Starting the revolution at home does not rule out using the government. When I poked my head above the trench of choice feminism to suggest that moral categories apply to women's lives, I was immediately accused of trying to force women to abandon their homes and return to work. Stalinist! Nazi! Ultimately, Stalinists and Nazis can coerce only with the power of the state. I am not the state. But women are correct to feel they are being pushed. In the United States, the government interferes in women's lives all the time. All to push them back into the home. My favorite example is that the Internal Revenue Service taxes a married workingwoman's income much more heavily than a single woman's income. Just changing the tax law would do a lot to free up women to decide whether to return home or not.

If all of this sounds daunting, it's because for twenty-five years, the only messages women have heard are the ones telling them to forget their dreams and look homeward. For a generation, an acid rain of criticism has fallen daily on the heads of women trying to make a flourishing life in the larger world. No one would want to marry them, the mainstream media said; they were as likely to find a husband as be killed by a terrorist. They'd grow too old to have children, book writers warned them. If they had children, the poor things would be in the hands of "strangers." The only work available involves eighty-hour weeks. Stay-at-home moms suggest that only monsters of neglect would prefer adult work to children's play. Once, workingwomen could seek refuge under the umbrella of economic need. But the newest move of the mommy bunch is to contend that mothers should never work unless the alternative is the direst poverty. Last year conservative commentator Danielle Crittenden told workingwomen that their lives were "just a pile of pay stubs."

About a year ago, a Washington, D.C., mom, Judith Warner, dared to question the tyranny of the new momism with her book, Perfect Madness. Her frank reportage was the first real critical look into the stifling home world they had created. But all she could recommend for a solution was the same old public day-care business that has gone nowhere since 1972. The family, to her, is an unsolvable "conundrum." Books, magazines, blogs all are bursting with suggestions, like the one in a recent letter to the Times, that we "restructure the architecture of the work place." For what? To accommodate women in their role as caretaker of the patriarchal family? Why should the patriarchal workplace be bulldozed and the patriarchal family left untouched? It's perfect madness.

Don't get into the perfect madhouse to begin with, and if you're there, get out. Here's how.

The Way We Live Now

The Ultimate Bride, graduate of an Ivy League college and then an English acting school, with a most prestigious master's in journalism to boot, was the ideal subject for the New York Times featured Sunday wedding column "Vows." Walking down the aisle at her family farm, she wed her perfect counterpart, a master's in international relations, and a rising star in the competitive world of global policy.

When she married, the ultimate bride was using her journalism skills and training at a worthy nonprofit history center. Eight years later, when I tried to interview her for my book on marriage after feminism, I could not find her--or most of the other women who announced their weddings in the New York Times that month. He, on the other hand, Googled right up, on the Web site of his current employer, a political consulting firm. I called him up.

"Where's your wife?"

"At home in Brooklyn taking care of our daughter."

So were the rest. Eighty-five percent of the thirty-plus January brides in the New York Times had left the workplace in whole or in part. All of them were highly educated--degrees in business, including MBAs, lawyers, journalists, an opera singer, doctors, master's of higher education. All of them had worked full time after graduation. Ninety percent of them had had babies since 1996. Half the mothers were not working at all. Roughly one third were in part-time work at varying distances from their education and training. And six of them were working full time.