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Is a Woman’s Place at Work?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Antipathy towards stay-at-home mothers goes back to the early days of modern feminism.

This house believes that a woman’s place is at work. That is the motion The Economist’s editors invited me to oppose in a ten-day, online, Oxford-style debate. A friend urged me to decline. The motion is silly, she said. No one can seriously defend the view that women must be in the workplace. You will be left attacking a strawman. Don’t do it.

Well, I did do it. I have spent years studying the organized women’s movement, and I knew the motion would not lack for serious defenders. Antipathy towards stay-at-home mothers goes back to the early days of modern feminism. In her classic, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan called the traditional suburban home a “comfortable concentration camp” and described housewives as “walking corpses.” But Friedan was a moderate compared to feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir once said, “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children … Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

The prescription that a woman’s place is the workplace is as objectionable, I concluded, as the traditional prescription that her place is in the home.

My debate opponent, Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women, was less harsh but no less censorious. Right out of the gate, she asserted: “Women belong in the workplace. It is right for families, communities, the economy, and, most importantly, for women so that they can live to their full potential as productive and self-reliant individuals.”

My view throughout was that modern women do not have a single “place”—in a free society it is up to them to determine how to live their lives. The prescription that a woman’s place is the workplace is as objectionable, I concluded, as the traditional prescription that her place is in the home. A majority of Economist readers (including many tolerant feminists who respect women’s choices) supported my side and I won the debate.  But defending motherhood was not as easy as it might seem.

The moderator, Barbara Beck, a long-time Economist writer, was gracious throughout, but she was clearly unhappy when it appeared I might be winning. Midway through the proceedings she tried to revise the motion, explaining to readers that it was proposed “ironically.” Said Beck, “It was not intended to be taken literally, but to suggest that times had changed and that for most women being part of the workforce has become the norm—and a good thing too.” She alerted readers that my side—now re-defined as people who think it a bad thing that so many women are in the workforce—was in the lead and encouraged people with “strong views” to join the debate and “tip the balance.” Next, a Greek chorus of two “featured guest experts” turned up to offer their expertise—both of them strong allies of Basch. Do they do this at Oxford?

After announcing that I had won, she quickly added, ‘But it is hard to be sure what our participants meant by voting as they did.’

To be fair, I was well aware of Beck’s views before I entered the fray. A few weeks before the debate, The Economist had published her extensive “Special Report” on the wage gap. (Beck thanks Basch in the acknowledgments and cites the two guest experts in the text.) On the surface, the report was a typical Economist production—quality journalism replete with “studies show” references to the latest academic research. But to anyone in the know, it was tendentious in the extreme—suffused with feminist talking points and a women-are-victims narrative. For instance, the report laments that “In Japan women are awarded only 11 percent of all degrees in engineering, manufacturing, and construction; in Indonesia their share is exactly half.” Beck cites “ingrained gendering” as the likely source for Japan’s poor showing. But the figures from Japan and Indonesia fit perfectly with the findings of Susan Pinker and others, nowhere mentioned in the report, that occupational differentiation between men and women increases as societies become wealthier and freer. Why? Because women have more choices. I doubt The Economist would be so intellectually oblivious in its reporting on business and finance. One reason I entered the debate was that I hoped that I could correct the record.

As I said, Beck was cordial throughout, and when the debate ended she thanked me for my “sturdy” arguments. Still, she was clearly disheartened by the results. After announcing that I had won, she quickly added, “But it is hard to be sure what our participants meant by voting as they did.”

Here is what I think they meant. With few exceptions, participants celebrated women’s progress and opportunity. They were rejecting a rigid, gender-quota feminism of the sort featured in the “Special Report”— and captured in the phrase “A woman’s place is at work.”

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Sommers also writes “Tina Brown's Post-Feminist Summit,” “Single-Sex Schools: Separate but Equal?” “Oh, Come On, Men Aren't Finished,” and “In Making Campuses Safe for Women, a Travesty of Justice for Men.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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