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The New York Times
Week in Review
Today, Some Feminists Hate the Word 'Choice'
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: January 15, 2006
THROUGHOUT its lifetime, feminism has spawned its share of catchphrases and epithets. Simone de Beauvoir gave us "the second sex." Betty Friedan invented "the feminine mystique." Arlie Hochschild labeled the daily housework that followed office work "the second shift," while Rush Limbaugh contributed "feminazis" to the discourse.
Illustration by Jeffrey Scales; photograph by William C. Shrout/Time Life Pictures - Getty images; Betty Friedan inset, Susana RaabNow another phrase - choice feminism - is suddenly gaining currency, while managing to annoy people on the left, right and just about everywhere in between.
This seemingly innocuous term, coined by a lawyer and scholar, Linda R. Hirshman, in the December issue of The American Prospect, refers to the popular feminist philosophy that in her words declares "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 it," Ms. Hirshman wrote.
The concepts behind choice feminism took over the mainstream in the 1980's, replacing more militant agendas that derided or neglected family life. The idea was that women should decide for themselves how to combine children, career, romance and vacuuming. What it didn't tell them was how to make the right decision. Figuring out the balance between home and work turned out to be a lot trickier than anyone thought.
Ms. Hirshman would like to help - though not in a way many women would welcome. In her article she denounced choice feminism as a con. It promised liberation, she said, but actually betrayed women by leaving traditional sex roles intact. In short, women were still stuck with the housework and child-rearing. The public sphere, outside the home, she argued, is the only place where women can fully flourish. And that, she proclaimed, is where they should be.
She issued a few simple rules: Marry someone poorer or socially inferior; increase your tolerance of dust. And, as she puts it: "Have a baby. Just don't have two."
On the Web and elsewhere, responses were quick, numerous and fierce. There were a few supporters, but many more critics. Conservatives saw her argument as another example of how feminists are intent on destroying the family. Liberals criticized her for being authoritarian and defining success only by money and status. Mothers denounced her for just about everything.
What is perhaps most surprising, though, is not that feminists like Ms. Hirshman believe homemaking is second-class drudgery, but that so many people still get worked up over the issue. After all, feminist thinkers have been proclaiming the need to free women from the bondage of housework for a long time. It is, as Ms. Hirshman freely acknowledges, precisely what Ms. Friedan argued in "The Feminine Mystique," first published more than 40 years ago.
"The only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully," Ms. Friedan wrote, "is the kind that was forbidden by the feminine mystique, the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession." Not homemaking, not motherhood.
In an interview, Ms. Hirshman said that in the course of researching a book, she began to wonder when feminism switched from offering a clear blueprint for liberation to choosing from Column A and Column B.
"I was curious to see when we got to the place when they decided to sidestep the definition of the good life by Friedan," she said, "to whatever floats your boats."
She traced the change to the late 80's, when the women's movement decided to frame the debate over legalized abortion as a question of a woman's choice. The language, she says, "spilled over."
That Ms. Hirshman's views on family life now sound so radical is a testament to how roundly the mainstream has rejected them. While rigid doctrines may have made sense in the early days, they don't now, when major goals have been won and a more diverse group of women are in the picture. Indeed, the common critique of the women's movement in the 60's and 70's was that it was too elitist and dogmatic, that it didn't respect women who wanted to stay home.
Choice feminism was an adjustment to reality. But reality, of course, is messy and confusing. It's not clear what should give when women are still responsible for a disproportionate share of the housework, they miss their children while they're at work all day, good child care is expensive, and time off or part-time work hampers a career.
In the continuing Web discussion about Ms. Hirshman's article, many women angry with her conclusions still agreed with her complaints about the unequal burden between men and women for home and family.
A Web site called the Half Changed World, for example, written by a self-described mom and policy wonk, said: "I honestly don't know what's going to break through the domestic glass ceiling. I used to think that it just was going to take time, that of course the younger generation would adopt a more equitable distribution of labor. I don't see that happening."
Choice feminism doesn't provide any formula or model for happily balancing family, work, love, chores, play, sleep and more. Nothing does anymore.
. "We've been living through this massive transformation where those predictable pathways have really eroded," said Kathleen Gerson, a New York University sociologist.
That is why edicts that order women either to get out of the house or to stay there inevitably resurface. Issuing marching orders is simple. "Viva la revolución!" is a lot catchier than "Muddle Through!" It's just not helpful.