Thursday, March 13, 2008

Piling On

Again, I really don't care about the Spitzer thing, except that it's generating some interesting discussions on whether sex work should be legalized, whether it is in fact oppressive (if you take out the abusive pimps part, which you can't, so...), and whether it is a "victimless" crime, and whether, if like porn, it cannot escape its oppressive nature (MacKinnon).

But you know, I don't even want to talk about that part. Lots of smart people and feminist theorists do that much better.

But I read it all, trust me. I don't generally like to opine on subjects with which I am unfamiliar, and so generally I refrain from talking about feminist theories of gender and subordination with respect to sexuality and sex work.

But here's another feminist dimension of the whole sordid affair that may not be immediately apparent to you. What about Silda Spitzer? How dumb was she for abandoning her own high-powered legal career to be the supportive politician's wife?

Or such is the gist of Linda Hirschman's article in Slate:

What could she have done? What can any woman do?

How about this: Don't quit your day job.

Silda Wall Spitzer was the poster child of the "opt-out revolution." A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, she was one of the highest-billing associates at the incredibly successful mergers and acquisitions law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Later, she went to the office of the general counsel of Chase bank. But sometime in the 1990s, like many of the other women of her class, she decided to "opt out," to quit her job, in her words, as her husband began his electoral career to devote herself to raising their three daughters and to her philanthropies.

What happened? Like all revolutionaries, the opt-out revolutionaries often wind up bleeding on the barricades. Sure, all marriages don't end in the arms of an international prostitution ring. Indeed, in the Spitzers' social class, the divorce rate is far from the 50 percent we so often read about. However, the rate of divorce, prostitution, online pornography, and the rest isn't negligible, either. And even if the marriage does not break up, women's decisions to make their social position completely dependent on the ambition, discipline, judgment, and steadiness of another human being is not only an act of extreme self-abnegation, it risks the very dramatic fall we have just witnessed in the Spitzer matter. Does anyone think that even as well-heeled a divorcée as Mrs. Spitzer would be the same force in philanthropic Upper East Side circles as the governor's wife?

It is true that Hillary Clinton managed to make lemonade out of her situation. But that ending is the rare exception to the narrative that is likely to describe Silda Wall Spitzer's social fall.

What happened? Like all revolutionaries, the opt-out revolutionaries often wind up bleeding on the barricades. Sure, all marriages don't end in the arms of an international prostitution ring. Indeed, in the Spitzers' social class, the divorce rate is far from the 50 percent we so often read about. However, the rate of divorce, prostitution, online pornography, and the rest isn't negligible, either. And even if the marriage does not break up, women's decisions to make their social position completely dependent on the ambition, discipline, judgment, and steadiness of another human being is not only an act of extreme self-abnegation, it risks the very dramatic fall we have just witnessed in the Spitzer matter. Does anyone think that even as well-heeled a divorcée as Mrs. Spitzer would be the same force in philanthropic Upper East Side circles as the governor's wife?

It is true that Hillary Clinton managed to make lemonade out of her situation. But that ending is the rare exception to the narrative that is likely to describe Silda Wall Spitzer's social fall.

Of course, the women who quit their jobs to tend their alpha-male husbands' ambitions could just hire a private detective to follow him around all the time. But I think I'd prefer the mergers and acquisitions practice myself.


Hirschman, you are not helping by piling on the blame on Silda Spitzer. I am extraordinarily sympathetic to the causualties of scandal. But more than that, I am quite sensitive, as I do research in family and medical leave and work/life law, about the false construct of "choice" in the women-and-work narrative. Granted, I cannot say "Opt Out Revolution" or "Caitlin Flanagan's work" or "Lisa Belkin's articles" without saying "I fucking hate the" as the immediate pre-fix. But I am not quite certain the strident rhetoric of the Hirschman critique of stay-at-home-mothers (SAHM) is the right tactic either. There is a myth that women "choose" the mommy-track at law firms and organizations and sideline themselves out of the higher-paying positions as soon as they have a child. The 40+ hour work week (oh that it was only 40 hours; TD has worked till midnight every night this week) privileges single men or "providers," not caretakers. So many women are basically forced out of their firms because of the incredible gender stratification of the legal profession. It's a myth that you can choose between work or life (e.g. family). So if it's a myth that female workers are going to "choose" the mommy track and should thus be relegated to lower-paying positions with less responsibilities, then isn't it also a myth that they can always choose to work rather than care for their children? And if it is a choice, why do we judge them so harshly for choosing to be SAHM?

Also, while I myself plan to work after having my children, I don't see it much as a "choice." I don't see it as a responsibility, either, except to myself and my family. But if my child was born with a disability, or needed constant care, and I was in the best position to give up my salary (if it were lower, say) and provide that care--you bet I would. But I don't think I'm a worser feminist for choosing to take care of my child.

The problem with the rhetoric on both sides is that it is so strident and reflexively judgmental, without critically assessing the structural, institutional, cultural factors that operate to constrain choice. Perhaps there is really such a thing as a preference. Or perhaps these factors, in confluence, operate to produce "emerging preferences" that aren't really choices at all, but the best decisions made under the existing conditions.

I am not making some philosophical argument that modern women do not really have choice or autonomy--that is just as bad feminism and a not very cogent argument. Rather, I would like to see a discussion of the work/life issue that is more sensitive to the sociological and economic realities that confront all women, and even women of great privilege and power.

My mom stayed at home with me. Was that a choice? Not really. She had six children. Will I stay at home with my kids? Probably not, not with the tenure system (assuming I have babies before tenure, which I have surmised is inadvisable, even though my tenure-clock years directly confront my prime child-bearing years unless I want an at-risk pregnancy). If I want to actually work, I can't take more than the minimum time I have off. And I do want to work. But supposing I didn't want to keep working, because it wasn't the best choice for myself and my family at the time. It would be a difficult decision to make, as my entire identity is bound in my work. But it isn't totally defined by it.

Neither is Silda Spitzer's. Sure, she was a kick-ass attorney. But she was a mother and wife too. At certain points, different parts of our identities become more salient, and for most of our lives, they are in constant conflict and cognitive dissonance--nevermind when they operate as roles that directly conflict. So I wouldn't be too hard on Silda Spitzer. I would actually be very sympathetic. I wouldn't tell her, flippantly, that it was her own damn fault for putting all of her eggs in one man-basket and quitting her day job.

Decisions involving work/family are so complex and complicated that it is impossible to assess and judge another person for so personal a process. While I am all for being rational about the rates of divorce, illness, injury, and death such that it is very foolish for any couple to bank on one person's salary for too long (or to be too optimistic about returning to the workforce after too great a resume gap), I don't judge people too harshly for that either. I certainly don't blame the woman, especially given the gendered constraints and expectations.

Yes, feminism begins with every woman and it begins at home. But really, I don't think these "you were an idiot and life is not a Tammy Wynette song" articles do much to promote feminism.

It's an odd case of where I agree with Linda Hirschman, and yet totally reject her on the basis of her rhetoric and tone. So much of argumentation is in tone and and delivery. Perhaps I should stop saying "I fucking hate Lisa Belkin's articles." Pedagogical note #104.

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