Is this really feminism?

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No movement is official these days until it has a magazine. So when Total 180! landed on my doorstep, declaring itself to be “The magazine for the professional woman turned stay-at-home mom”, a new ripple in American feminism was clearly upon us.

Founded by three California women who “opted out” of their careers, the advertising-rich glossy is by turns angry and affirming. There’s advice for the CHO (that’s Chief Household Officer), tips on buying everything from wine to lip gloss, and one woman’s rant about getting asked “What do you do all day?”

Sometimes it sounds like a traditional women’s magazine with an extra dose of mummy-glee. And sometimes it sounds like a warning to anyone entering the briefcases versus nappies debate: “When I was the boss of big people . . . they respected me to my face and saved all the other stuff for after hours or when they thought I was out of earshot. And I could handle that. So why then am I reduced to feeling totally incompetent at the first screech from my child telling me I’m not the boss of her?”

The choices the magazine describes aren’t real options for most and they are downright worrying for some – especially those women who look back fondly on Ms Magazine when it made its 1972 debut with a cover story entitled “Raising Kids without Sex Roles”.

But the phenomenon it encapsulates – dubbed “choice feminism” – is real. Highly educated women are “choosing” to eschew the workplace and devote their considerable energies to raising children and running homes. There are data. There are anecdotes. And there are the wedding announcements in each Sunday’s New York Times.

Actually, here I should confess: I am a full-time working mother, with a full-time working husband and a daughter in school. I hate the expression “working mother”. It immediately conjures such a frazzled image; wet cereal on a lapel and crayons where pens should be. And it implies an asterisk in the record book of life, an instant explanation when it comes to scoring performance at work (“Missed big meeting to attend trip to the zoo”) and at home (“Bought cookies, didn’t bake, for school birthday party”).

I have late-night anxiety attacks and thoughts of quitting my job (remember to send I-love-my-job note to boss before this story appears). I stumble for words when I bump into old acquaintances, unable to find the right formulation to ask if they are working or at home. And, like a lot of mothers who work, and those who opt out, I am more and more defensive about my choices. I was beyond angry when a stay-at-home mum noticed my daughter at swimming ­lessons a few Sundays ago, and then saw me. “Oh, are you her mother?” she said. “I’ve only ever seen your husband at school.”

But back to The New York Times wedding announcements.

Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis University professor who takes credit for the term “choice feminism”, tracked down dozens of the smart, accomplished, worldly women who announced their weddings in the newspaper in 1996. By the time she spoke with them, seven or eight years later, what did she find? Of the 30 who had children, just five were working full-time and only half were working at all.

Hirshman published her findings late last year in a much-discussed article in The American Prospect, a liberal magazine. The debate has raged since then, in newspapers and magazines, on the internet, on television, and in all the places modern mums meet. Her new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World is sure to keep it going.

Her findings about the Times brides don’t make Hirshman happy. She worries that the feminism launched by Betty Friedan, with publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, has lost its judgmental edge. “The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying ‘abortion’, [the pro-choice debate] and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars,” Hirshman wrote. “A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as ‘feminist’ as long as she chose to do it.”

But that celebration of choice, she said, avoids some fundamental facts. “The family – with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks – is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or government,” Hirshman wrote.

“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. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said: ‘A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.’ ”

Emma knows how to read. I met her at a couples’ book club my husband and I were invited to join. (Don’t laugh. This is social life in Washington, DC.) She was one of two women in the group of 10 who called herself a “recovering attorney”. The sheaf of printed notes she arrived with – for a casual discussion of a short novel – was supporting evidence.

Petite and intense, Emma went straight from Yale University to law school, then to a big firm in New York. After the birth of her second daughter, a female partner in her group suggested she return to work part-time. A little later, Emma was told she would not make partner.

She kept working at the firm but the demands were too great. “There’s just an expectation that you’re going to live and breathe it 24 hours a day,” she said. Instead, “what I wanted was to be able to go in, have a brief thrown at me, work hard on research and writing, and then go home and be with my girls.”

When Emma’s husband was offered a job in Washington, where they could afford to live on just his salary, she said goodbye to the office.

“I garden, I cook, I embroider with the girls, I take them to the farmers market. I spend time reading to them, teaching them to write, pointing out interesting things to them,” she said. “You have your kids for such a short period of time. I love being home with them.”

Her daughters, now 11 and 12, are well-mannered and compassionate, she said. “I would like to think I had something to do with the people they are becoming.”

But, she said: “There are parts of me that are not fulfilled by staying at home.” She laughed about the book club notes, then told me how she devoted way too much energy to learning about design so that she could write the perfect memo for the architect who is working on a plan for remodelling her home.

“I end up putting too much of myself into things that don’t warrant it,” Emma said, adding that she tries not to get too involved in her daughters’ homework.

I giggled, remembering the frightened Blackberry message my husband sent from a parents’ meeting at our daughter’s school, where he encountered a few stay-at-home mums who were overzealous about organising the details of a fundraiser. “Someone tell these women to go back to their law firms,” he wrote.

Claudia recently considered returning to work; she had a job interview and got an offer for a part-time job at a law firm. “But we decided that as a family it made more sense for us to continue with the division of labour that we have,” she said. “This is the choice we made.”

It is precisely all the current talk about choice that aggravates an earlier wave of women. “The term ‘choice feminism’ bothers me so much. It takes things as they are and says: ‘Make a choice’,” says Ruth Rosen, author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. “But the notion that we have a free choice masks the reality of the pain these women experience with these choices.”

Speaking by telephone from Berkeley, California, where she is writing a new afterword about choice feminism for her book, Rosen points out that very few women really have the luxury of deciding between work and home, and most are just “turning themselves into pretzels” trying to somehow balance the two.

And, with Hirshman and the debate she has stirred clearly in mind, Rosen bristles at the idea that the women’s movement was all about encouraging women to work full time – and make a career of it.

Instead, she points to the three goals of the August 1970 Women’s March for Equality in New York, a defining moment in modern feminism: legal abortion, equal pay for equal work and universal childcare.

After decades of trying, far too little has changed to make it easier for women to be parents and full participants in the labour force, she complains.

Not only have the great promises – of Scandinavian-style parental leave; affordable, reliable full-day childcare; employers that allow women, and men, to work less, or not at all, when their children are young, without penalty – not been attained. But the push for broad societal shifts and “collective solutions” that marked the earlier wave has been replaced by women pursuing individual solutions to the dilemmas they face. “It’s the mirror image of the free-market zeitgeist that we’re living in,” Rosen says.

Hirshman cites the relative absence of women in elite workplaces, in US business, the law and academia, as proof that feminism has stalled. In the broader population, the percentage of mothers of infants who were working rose steadily, from 31 per cent in 1976 to 58.7 per cent in 1998, according to the US Census Bureau. But then it began to drop, reaching 54.6 per cent in 2004.

Other analysts, with other numbers, disagree with that assessment.

In a study prompted by the choice-feminism storm, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think-tank, said recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the impact of having children on women’s participation in the labour force – called the “child penalty” – had fallen in 2004 compared to earlier years.

From 1984 to 2004, the labour force participation by women aged 25 to 45 with children averaged 14.5 percentage points less than for women without children at home. The penalty was 20.7 percentage points in 1984, falling consistently, to 9.2 percentage points in 2004.

“The data stand in opposition to the media frenzy on this topic,” said Heather Boushey, an economist at the centre who wrote the report. Instead, she argued, the weak economy in the early 2000s led to a decline in work rates for all women – with and without children.

That may all be true but in my bit of the world there are plenty of women, well-educated and well-off, who have given up their careers to raise their children, swapped morning meetings for Mommy and Me yoga classes.

Many are smart women who went to law school right after university, because that is what smart people were doing, and then realised they really didn’t want to be lawyers at all.

At the same time, as jobs have become more demanding and workdays have become longer, many found it just too difficult to manage in a household with both parents working outside the home and trying to play a role inside the home.

And, it must be said, in this dreaded work-life balance debate, it still is usually taken for granted that if one parent is going to stay at home, it won’t be Dad.

But the decisions are difficult and women on both sides of the debate frequently find themselves with an us-versus-them mentality. (That’s definitely how I felt at swimming lessons.) The “mummy wars” haven’t been this hostile since the 1950s, Rosen said, “when working women were sneered at by women who stayed at home”.

In her new book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, author Caitlin Flanagan devoted a lot of attention to the 1950s and the iconic housewife of that era. But Flanagan said she was something else: “I’m an at-home mother, far too educated and uppity to have knuckled down and learned anything about stain removal or knitting or stretching recipes.” Simply put, she has added fuel to the fire Hirshman started.

Flanagan made a name for herself a few years ago as an “anti-feminist”, and caused a stir with an article in The Atlantic Monthly that said upper-middle-class working mothers had taken advantage of poor immigrant women to get where they were, their nannies toiling as they seemed to have it all.

With her new book – which I started to read during another swimming lesson – I thought she might have mellowed a bit. “In the end, what did my boys gain from those thousand days they spent with me before school took them out into the larger world? Nothing, it seems to me, of any quantifiable value.

“No head start in life that will ensure them of some prize that will forever elude the children of working mothers. All they gained, really, was the sweetness of being with the person who loved them most in the world. All they gained was an immersion in the most powerful force on earth: mother love. And perhaps there is something of worth in that alone.”

My first reaction: that’s nice. My second? Hold on a minute – what is she saying about me?

Flanagan boils the current debate down like this: “Affluent working mothers stubbornly insist that no one question their commitment to their children, while at-home mothers demand that the world confer on them the social cachet that comes with working outside the home. But these are mutually exclusive demands.”

I’m not ready to concede that. My commitment to my child is beyond question. And at-home mothers have a lot of social cachet these days – with or without their own magazine.

The real problem, it seems to me, is the notion that we can’t all be right if we are making different choices.

My mother taught me never to say anything un-pleasant about the food other people chose to put on their plates. It might not look good to me but that doesn’t matter – it’s not my plate.

Holly Yeager is the FT’s US political correspondent

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