Unleashing the Wrath of Stay-at-Home Moms

By Linda R. Hirshman
Sunday, June 18, 2006

When I set out to write a book about how the first generation of women to grow up with feminism managed their marriages, I never dreamed I'd wind up the subject of a Web article called "Everybody Hates Linda."

Everybody started hating Linda, apparently, when I published an article in the progressive magazine the American Prospect last December, saying that women who quit their jobs to stay home with their children were making a mistake. Worse, I said that the tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings. They do not require a great intellect, they are not honored and they do not involve risks and the rewards that risk brings. Oh, and by the way, where were the dads when all this household labor was being distributed? Maybe the thickest glass ceiling, I wrote, is at home.

Okay, I'm judgmental. That's what CBS's Lesley Stahl called me on "60 Minutes." But I'm a philosopher, and it's a philosopher's job to tell people how they should lead their lives. We've been doing so since Socrates. And yet, even though I knew the Greeks made Socrates drink poison, the reaction to my judgment took me by surprise. It turns out that was what people really hated: the judgment. That working women have the better life.

Kapow! I had wandered, it seems, into ground zero of the Mommy Wars. Although I was aware of the stories about women quitting, I did not know what a minefield the subject was. Specifically, I did not know that you can say almost anything about how great it is for a woman to give up her job; standing up for staying at work is the big taboo.

The reaction started within a day or two of my article appearing on the American Prospect Web site. "Everyone's Talking about Linda Hirshman's 'Homeward Bound,' " said "Alas, a blog." "I was thinking of writing something" about it, the blogger continued, "but first I thought I'd see what other bloggers were saying . . . and that turned out to take up all my available blogging time."

All her blogging time? Imagine what it did to me! A month after the Internet exploded with comments about my article, I found myself the subject of an op-ed by conservative columnist David Brooks in the New York Times, quickly followed by a second Times article, a visit from the U.S. correspondent of the Guardian (recently in Iraq!) and an offer to appear on "Good Morning America." Google alerts telling me I'd been mentioned on the Internet kept going off.

The mommyblogs vilified me as a single, childless, bitter loser; the feminists claimed women weren't quitting; and a chorus of other voices didn't care what I said -- criticizing women just wasn't allowed. A handful of political thinkers did concede that I had raised the biggest issue left for feminism -- justice in the family -- but it was definitely a minority report.

I doubt that an article in an elite policy magazine would have become one of the most talked about and e-mailed pieces of social commentary in recent years without the Internet. Before, a controversial article would have generated letters to the editor, and maybe some follow-up in other traditional media. The Internet enables people who would never have passed that narrow gate to add their voices, it makes the voices expand exponentially -- and there's never a down moment.

But it cannot just be the power of the Web. I have come to believe that I tapped into something in the culture that was waiting to happen. For 25 years, the airwaves and bookstores of America have been overwhelmed by voices exhorting women to stay home and telling them what a mistake feminism is. Last month, "Inner Housewife" Caitlin Flanagan told comedian Stephen Colbert that the world that feminism created was so bad that she'd be glad to return to the days when any housewife who didn't want to have sex with her husband could be lobotomized.

But a new generation of women is coming of age, and the backlash pushing women home is so last year. I think what caused the ruckus is that someone came out full blast for women who work.

I didn't start out expecting that person to be me. When I began my book research in 2002 by calling couples who had announced their weddings in the Sunday New York Times in 1996, I thought I'd find a bunch of female managers, lawyers, journalists and doctors. Instead, they were, as my first interviewee described his wife, "at home in Brooklyn taking care of" the children. Oops. New book. I had uncovered more evidence of the opt-out phenomenon, if not the revolution.

As a working woman and a feminist, I would decry this important social development, rather than celebrate it. Doesn't the culture always want new insights? Visions of book contracts danced in my head. The first hint of a problem hit when a young editor at a publishing house considering my proposal called to tell me that her editorial board members had been screaming at one another for three weeks about the project, and had then, surprise, turned it down. It's not nice to criticize Mother Nature, as they say. Or, it turns out, Mother anyone.

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