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.

Still, when the American Prospect finally agreed to publish my analysis of why women are better off staying at work, I expected that working women all over America would be sending me flowers. A year ago, conservative pundit Danielle Crittenden told childless working women that their lives were nothing but "a pile of pay stubs." Wouldn't you think the poor lawyer moms and doctor moms would be glad to hear someone say they'd made the right decision?

I heard from women, all right. But not from as many female CEOs (not like there are so many female CEOs) as mommy bloggers, out there in cyberspace documenting their lives for one another. (My favorite example is the benighted soul, pregnant and renovating, reporting daily on her roofing and her barfing. Really makes you long for the iron-fisted editors of "The Front Page.") After I appeared on "Good Morning America," I'm told, they crashed the server at ABC News. "Linda Hirshman makes me sick," said one. "F.U." "I wave my middle finger." Whew! I was at something of a loss to figure out how to argue with "You make me vomit." You make me vomit, too?

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.

Even institutions that don't present themselves as coming from the world of revealed religion turn out to include an impressive percentage of religion scholars, students of divinity and advisers to the Vatican. Brad Wilcox, the most visible "family" scholar on the Family Scholars Blog of the Institute for American Values , is revered in the world of religious culture for his writings about how evangelical Protestant husbands make their wives happier than other guys, even though they won't wash a dish. He also wrote a long article about how the Catholic Church is right to forbid the use of birth control . Nothing on the Web site would clue you in.

Much worse than the roofing-and-barfing and salvation crowds, though, were the relativists, who criticized me for trying to give feminism some context and boundaries. My favorite was the woman who dissed me for defining feminism and then said, "Supporting other women's choices is the very essence of feminism, at least as I define it."

These so-called liberals and feminists, who were once in the forefront of making social change, declared that people could no longer suggest that women should change their lives. A generation ago, such liberals included Betty Friedan, who called staying at home "the problem that has no name," and Alix Kates Shulman, who suggested that women should take on the problem by refusing to do 70 percent of the housework.

Well. There was no chance that I was going to shut up. I'm retired. If I'm not going to raise hard questions for women, who will? So I did what any sensible person would do when exposed for the first time to the unmediated content of the Internet. I stopped reading it.

Now here's the mad (non)housewife part. I started to feel like a split personality.

Because all the time the bloggers were ranting about my character, I was surrounded by supportive family and friends. My husband of long standing. Our three daughters. Their husbands. My sister. Our wonderful friends -- conservatives, liberals and libertarians. My agent. My editor at the American Prospect. Some disagreed with my analysis, but all respected the sincerity of my effort to make better lives for women, and all were tickled by my newfound fame. They were upset with "Good Morning America," which called me a flamethrower and posed me against a panel of mommies, because they thought the camera should have stayed on me the whole time. Honest. I can show you the e-mails.

It was sort of a relief when David Brooks attacked me in his column. A traditional conservative, he laid down the traditional conservative markers -- American women are natural mothers, because prehistoric women were natural mothers. The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. These are not what you'd call knockdown arguments, and Brooks quickly fell into the trap of speculating that I must have had the terrible fate of never having practiced law, an egregious error that he could have avoided with two keystrokes. Still, at least it was an argument.

But, I kept asking myself, were my only backers people related to me by blood or friendship? Why wasn't I getting bouquets from Morgan Stanley and chocolates from Arnold and Porter? Did every working mother in America wish only for a hedge-fund manager to come and rescue her?

Then the clouds parted. I received an e-mail from a reporter. She wanted to write about how working women all over New York had been e-mailing my article from the American Prospect to one another on their office computers. Oh boy. I called her. "What are they saying?" I asked. "They're saying, 'At last!' " she told me. At last someone is standing up for us.

I guess working women are too busy at work to blog about their lives and are already on their way to their jobs when "Good Morning America" puts me on at 8 a.m. Maybe a little scared? They're doing what beleaguered, overworked people do. They're publishing a manifesto. Using the samizdat of the modern world -- e-mail. I don't know whether e-mail will bring down the regime of "choice, choice" and its allies, the religious advocates of patriarchal marriage. But it didn't help the Soviet Union when samizdat really got going. And it sure made me feel better.


Linda R. Hirshman, a retired professor of philosophy and women's studies at Brandeis University, is author of the just-published "Get to Work: A Manifesto

for Women of the World" (Viking).

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company