Ann Romney & Choice Feminism.

Reihan Salam, at The Agenda, has a rich interpretation of the significance of the Ann Romney “War on Moms” uproar that got me thinking about a lot of ancillary points, which I’m going to try to coherently elaborate on, especially with respect to feminism.

I didn’t expect the Ann Romney debacle to raise these questions, and I thank Salam for making me think back on some of feminism’s grappling with these issues. As an economics major I’m quite amenable to viewing people atomistically, and thinking as if a husband and wife essentially come together at a table and calculate their optimal division of labor (if you’re Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, the answer is to hire a nanny and a personal driver). But there are certainly moral and metaphysical dimensions regarding agency and the “flourishing” (a concept we’ve been grappling with since Aristotle) that we want individuals to partake in that make this much more than a positivist problem. At its core, I think this is exactly why Salam says that policies that influence women’s decisions to either work in the home or go out into the market strike such a visceral nerve in the respective political communities.

Specifically, he cites the work of Catherine Hakim on “preference theory.” This is a theory she allegedly has developed to help explain women’s economic and family choices in the modern world. Her theory predicts diversity among modern women as to the ideal family arrangement. This isn’t necessarily good, as Salam quotes her in his piece:

The heterogeneity of women’s preferences and priorities creates conflicting interests between groups of women: sometimes between home-centred women and work-centred women, sometimes between the middle group of adaptive women and women who have one firm priority (whether for family work or employment). The conflicting interests of women have given a great advantage to men, whose interests are comparatively homogeneous; this is one cause of patriarchy and its disproportionate success.

Damn that patriarchy. It’s quite ironic that the opening of opportunity for women in the market has worked both to liberate them and divide them. Men are monolithically oriented toward being breadwinners. Women aren’t so sure. This is bad for women’s interests in jockeying for resources. I think this is plausible. Hakim portrays this is empirically modeled behavior, but I’m not so sure there’s not a tinge of normatively. If women’s diversity of economic participation is bad, then that seems to imply that there are some decisions women ought to be making.

Salam also has a section on how land use regulations can actually exacerbate this problem. Suffice it to say that I also find that compelling (land use is suddenly sexy and seems to find its way into an awful lot of narratives recently). More on that in a minute.

I find this fascinating for the fact that this is an instance when a seemingly banal teapot tempest steeped in superficial politicking actually has some substantive undercurrent. I’m specifically intrigued by what seems to be an ongoing discussion in feminism about whether one ought to be agnostic about women’s work choices.

The extent to which women have authentic agency, as strong patriarchal social forces still prevail, is disputable. I am very libertarian on a lot of these issues and it’s therefore crucial for me to assume people are agentic. I could be wrong. If women in fact lack authentic agency, then what is the value in something like preference theory, which seeks to empirically model women’s choices? If you don’t have agency, you don’t actually choose in any meaningful way. This is a fascinating question to me and one that I think it quite contentious mainly because we can’t measure this with any certainty, and, if we buy the feminist narrative about the power of social currents, then our own thinking is critically debilitated. It seems that Hakim has to assume that modern women have for the most part overcome patriarchal forces. From what Salam quotes, she seems to suggest that:

Preference theory forms part of the new stream of sociological theory that emphasises ideational change as a major cause of social behaviour. Giddens’ theory of reflexive modernity emphasises individualisation as the driving force for change in late modernity. Individualisation frees people from the influence of social class, nation, and family. Agency becomes more important than the social structure as a determinant of behaviour, even when ‘structure’ is understood in Giddens’ sense of rules and resources. Men and women not only gain the freedom to choose their own biography, values and lifestyle, they are forced to make their own decisions because there are no universal certainties or collectively agreed conventions, no fixed models of the good life, as in traditional or early modern industrial societies (Beck et al., 1994; Giddens, 1991).

Yet she refers to ongoing patriarchy up above. In fact, the very reason that women have their own theory about how they make these kinds of decisions seems to suggest the presence of strong social forces that override agency. Why do men not face the same calculus about whether to stay home? I’d love to hear Hakim discuss agency more — I’m sure she has an explanation.

One person who has little tolerance for upper class women making choices about whether to work in the market or at home is feminist Linda Hirshman. In a piece for the American Prospect called “Homeward Bound,” this is what she had to say about Choice Feminism, which, like Salam and presumably Hakim, seeks to be agnostic about women’s work decisions:

Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women “choices.” The choice talk spilled over from people trying to avoid saying “abortion,” and it provided an irresistible solution to feminists trying to duck the mommy wars. A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as “feminist” as long as she chose it. (So dominant has the concept of choice become that when Charlotte, with a push from her insufferable first husband, quits her job, the writers at Sex and the City have her screaming, “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”)

What does Hirshman say to that?

Here’s the feminist moral analysis that choice avoided: The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust. To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, “A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.”

I’ve always found this piece fascinating. Hirshman’s advice is that women who have the means to get a good education and become affluent should. They should marry down, in fact, so that they have resource advantages over their spouse. Her argument is very preachy, but it has potency. One can certainly argue that flourishing demands being in the public sphere. And no one can argue against the notion that women cannot enact beneficial social change if they are at home. One can count on the diversity of personal choice to allow some women to get out there and become leadersBut if you follow Hirshman’s logic, not working when you could sets back women, or at least stands to. It also ensures your inability to flourish. Who wants to be negligent and decadent?

Hirshman has written on this topic a number of times. Most recently, she addressed the Ann Romney controversy in the Washington Post. One point in her piece that struck me:

Women who work in the home do not have the same interest in the recovery of the formal job market as women who have to work for pay. Indeed, wage-earning women probably have more in common with their paycheck-dependent male co-workers on the subject of economic recovery than with household laborers such as Ann Romney.

This I actually find less persuasive. Hirshman says later on that housewives overwhelmingly vote for the GOP, and perhaps she’s trying to find a reason as to why (presumably she believes that Democrats are more supportive of, or at least less antithetical to, the ends of women in the economic sphere). In any case, Hirshman thinks the Ann Romneys of the world are an electoral lost cause, and Democrats can do better by focusing on working women who actually care about equal pay, state-suported reproductive initiatives, and other politically-charged economic issues.

But the notion that women at home are not as interested in job market recovery as working women seems like an incorrect intuition. Here’s Salam again, on land use regulation (promised it’d be back).

Families that place a strong emphasis on allowing female partners to specialize in household production might be particularly drawn to low-cost metropolitan areas, in which land-use regulations are relatively relaxed and housing and other necessities are relatively inexpensive. Families that place a strong emphasis on a less-specialized division of labor, in contrast, might be more drawn to highly productive metropolitan areas rich in job opportunities, thus easing coordination problems between partners in different occupations. Yet these regions also tend to have stricter land-use regulations and thus higher housing costs.

But you can’t just move to a city because you want to both be able to work. City living is expensive (unnecessarily so) and cities are particularly amenable in the modern economy to individuals who are high cognitive performers — the kind of people who are highly educated service workers in jobs that realized most of the income gains over the past half century or so. The tradeoff is that housewives in the suburbs/exurbs might find themselves stuck there. There’s less economic opportunity, and they are possibly not as skilled as their city-dwelling counterparts. If true, these women are much more dependent upon their spouses, who also may be working in the kinds of jobs that have seen less income gains and have been hit hard by the recession. These women are so path dependent as to have a far larger vested interest in recovery. This is my sense, anyway.


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