The wave of dicussion sloshes around the blogosphere again, and this time, I'm inspired not just to taste the spray, but to wade in. Specifically, I'm inspired by this question, which refers to the notorious book by Linda Hirshman, an excerpt of which is here. (Dated, curiously enough, before the Norman Conquest.)
The question, which I think deserves a fair answer, is this:
What are the implications, personal and political, of the choice many highly educated women make to bend their (advanced) education to the primarily quotidian pursuits of child care and housekeeping?
To clarify further, Hirshman believes that that great goal of humans throughout the history of Western civilization, the flourishing life, can only be reached by choosing a lucrative and prominent career path and storming full-steam down it to the end of one's days. She advises women not to study art, nor the contents of their refrigerator, nor to take time off from their jobs, for this will limit them from pursuing the other Grand Thing they might be doing.
I cannot deny that achieving One Great Thing with one's life can be a satisfying and flourishing way to live. But I do question whether that is the only manifestation of the flourishing life. If everyone is off pursuing a single end in a single-minded fashion, there is no one left to tie the loose ends together.
Division of labor is a wonderful idea. But it can be carried too far. Imagine a world where our laundry is all done by professional laundries, our food all cooked by professional kitchens, our entertainment all supplied by professional entertainers, and our confidences all received by professional counselors. Oh wait; you don't have to imagine such a world. It is the one we live in. But though each one of these things can no doubt be done very well professionally, and from time to time any one might make use of the professionals, when they are all done by different people something vital to human life is lost.
The lost thing is, I believe, a sense of wholeness. A sense of connection; a sense of who we are and how we fit in the world. If everyone is off pursuing one thing, no one has time to stop and look at all the things.
That is what I do. I am the hub of the wheel. I am the wall on which the paintings hang. I am the station where the trains come in. I say this with all modesty, not to brag about how well I do this job, but simply to point out that it is my job, as it is the job of everyone who keeps the home.
I say this with due consideration, as one who has worked at the job I always wanted, a job that meant going around and influencing people on ideas in which I truly believe. (Never mind what Ms. Hirshman would think of the ideas themselves; it's my passion for the work that matters here.) And a large part of the reason I quit and chose . . . CHOSE . . . to marry a patriarchal monster who would expect me to take care of any children we might have, was because I was dissatisfied, not with failure, but with success.
I could go around and speak to different groups; I could write articles and books; I could teach a class of students for a year. Ten years later, would anyone remember or care? Would anyone's life be different? Very little, at best. My influence might be relatively wide, but it was so very shallow.
I wanted something different. I wanted depth. I wanted to influence people, not just by talking to them, but by living with them. Day in and out for decades. I wanted to build and maintain not just a home, but a community. I wanted to stand up for the value of the life as a whole, not just life as a fragmented part.
To answer the question at the beginning, the personal and political implications of educated women opting to stay home is the recognition that life needs its generalists as well as its specialists; that depth of influence is as worthy an end as breadth of influence; that there is much, much more to life than making money and making partner.
As to why women do this more than men, beyond such obvious details as the inability of men's bodies to make baby food, I think it is simply because women are better at it than men. Women, on the whole, are more likely to see how much these things--life, home, beauty, manners--matter. They find it easier to look after it themselves than to persuade the men.
Ms. Hirshman does not see that these things matter. I am sorry for her that she does not, but a blind person is hardly a qualified critic of the path chosen by one who can see.