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21.11.05

Immoral Men

Linda Hirshman argue that the main thing holding us back from gender equality today is the household division of labor. The fundamental problem is that men won't do their share of the work -- indeed, the work-family dilemma never even appears on their radar. Certainly there's a mutually reinforcing relationship between inequality in the workplace and inequality at home, and workplace discrimination is a real problem, but I think Hirshman is right that in many cases today it's the home relationship that acts as the heavy flywheel keeping the structure in place.

I don't agree so much with where Hirshman goes from there, however. She first claims that the persistence of inequality shows that "choice feminism" has failed. After all, the women who opt to quit full-time work and take on the lion's share of the housework and childrearing will all tell you it was their choice. Hirshman lambasts the "choice feminists" who allowed this to happen by not condemning housework as unfulfilling drudgery that women should refuse to accept. But I think a more sophisticated idea of choice still works. A naive choice perspective only asks whether the selection of an option was freely made. A more sophisticated view of choice also asks about the parameters of the choice -- what was the set of options presented, and who had to make what choices at what time? Feminism has done much to reduce the overt inequality of unfree choices, but powerful structural inequalities persist in what choice sets people are presented with. Thinking this way allows us to condemn the inequality in society without blaming individual women for choices that were, given the circumstances, perfectly rational -- and without denying that an equal society will (due to variation in tastes and abilities) include some families where the woman does the housework alongside ones where the man does and ones where the work is split equally. Besides, if we condemn housework in such uncompromising terms, how do we expect to convince men to take up their fair share?

This brings us to the next point: for all her talk about how feminism has failed by not being radical enough, Hirshman never utters the four magic words: I blame the patriarchy. All of these unequal relationships contain a man, and yet Hirshman tiptoes around pointing a finger at them for perpetuating (albeit usually passively, by failing to question the prevailing social structure) the inequality. Her discussion of solutions all focus on how women can increase their bargaining power through things like career-focused education and marrying more vulnerable men. Those strategies are fine as far as they go -- at worst they deprive couples of the crude economic rationalizations for traditional gender roles*, and at best they provide crucial leverage against a sexist husband. But if we're looking to re-inject a moral element into household gender politics, let's start with this: men have a responsibility to examine their own attitudes, behaviors, and assumptions, and to correct those that are incompatible with real equality. Men must be held responsible by other men and women, and boys must be taught from a young age that household equality is their responsibility too. A man who fails to do his share of the work, or who fails to seriously face the same questions that his wife faces, is acting immorally. Sadly, it seems that most heterosexual men in contemporary America are immoral.

*Of course, this is easy for me to say, since I think no household making more than $50,000 a year (except with significant extenuating circumstances) has much right to complain about finances or sacrifice other things for more money.

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