Open University

The Anxiety Of Influence, In Reverse

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by Linda Hirshman
My email box is full. Everyone I know has emailed me to ask me why they see a book advising women not to quit their jobs to stay home with their children just eleven months after I published my book advising women not to quit their jobs to stay home with their children, worse, the latter being reviewed as if I had never written a word. I take a deep breath. Anyone who has been in academic life knows how it feels to see ideas a lot like yours, the very currency of your citizenship in the community of scholars and writers, coming from somewhere else.

Still, certainly after 30 or more backlash years, the idea of revitalizing the original feminist insight into the rewards of public life for women was in the zeitgeist for anyone who looked to see. I'm also glad not to be the only one saying that women should aspire to work even if they have children. Just last year, a mommy blogger gathered all the mommy blog posts about my writing into a meta-analysis. She called it "Everybody Hates Linda." Now she'd have to call it "Everybody Hates Linda and Leslie." Pretty soon, I hope, there will be so many voices urging young women to stay at work that the stay-at-home moms will have to address the substance of the arguments rather than nattering on about how Leslie and I do our hair or the size of our waistlines. Obloquy loves company?

But in a reversal of Harold Bloom's famous formulation, I am anxious about the later influence. This second book of advice warned women, with almost 300 pages of harrowing examples, that their husbands will leave them or croak--and that is why they should spend most of their waking hours at the office. I hope people won't forget that "Get to Work" tried to offer women the carrot of aspiration to use your highest human capacities rather than use the stick of male infidelity. Granted, I reminded my readers that there is a virtue to independence and that good economic studies of marriage showed that the person who gets the gold does indeed legislate. But even [Everybody Hates] Linda would not counsel adult human beings to lay out their life paths out of fear that their meal tickets will fall in love with a youthful stranger.

Especially since divorce is not nearly as prevalent as the urban legend of a 50 percent rate. I cannot understand why this will not go the way of the tax on modems and other Internet hoaxes. The chief government divorce statistician, Rose Krieger, has said clearly that the prospect of divorce, never 50 percent, is now closer to 40 percent. And the women with the fastest growing opt out rate from the workplace--the married, high income, highly educated workers--are the least likely to experience divorce. Good statistics reveal that four years of college reduces the rate of divorce by a whopping 30 percent and having children after marriage rather than before reduces the rate still further.

For an educated middle-class woman with children divorce is the moderately small chance of a great harm, as my torts teacher Harry Kalven taught us to think about risk. It's a risk. But it's not Russian roulette, in which the gain from taking the chance is pretty close to nil. Middle-class women gambling that they won't be in the, say, 25 percent of middle-class marriages that end in divorce gain the leisure and luxury of living a bourgeois life without having to work in the market economy. They're not just pulling a trigger at their heads for the momentary thrill.

This dependent and privatized life is unworthy of their talents. In many ways, that's a much harsher message than predicting their husbands will leave them, because it applies to all of them, not just the unidentified 25 percent who might get dumped. But it comes from respect, not fear.

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