09 December 2005

Ad Feminam Attacks are Not Rhetorically Classy

I'm so mad after reading Phantom's post for today that I"m moved to write myself, even if mostly what I have to say is what she said (scroll down for the part about Linda Hirshman--adorable stories about LG never make me mad!). Anyway, Linda Hershman has a follow-up piece in Inside Higher Education today and it ends with this paragraph:

A final note. When my American Prospect article was linked over to some of the many Stay at Home Mom Web sites, it generated a lot of commentary like “fuck you,” “you make me want to vomit,” “oh, puhleeze,” “she’s only looking for a book contract,” and similar well-reasoned responses. A brief look at the sources of these contributions to the discussion of this important issue revealed an alarming number of them came from retired or active female academics. I’m all for free speech, and I hope people who disagree will offer their views and critique my ideas, but a professional Web site like this one is normally blessedly free of such empty calories. I hope such will be the case again here. This is too important an issue for tactics like that.

It is true that some of the comments about Hirshman's article were brief, inarticulate, and immediately dismissive, and for a writer whose career was (I imagine, since she's retired) developed during an era of writing for print publications where responses were slow in coming and more formal, edited, and largely more decorous, the freewheeling discussion are open to critique on those grounds (and I think Hirshman's own reading of the "she only wants a book contract" article mis-stakes Miriam Pescowitz's own comments: see for yourself at Literary Mama or read Peskowitz's blog if you like).

In any event, as Phantom notes, to call SAHM criticism "empty calories" is to engage in exactly the kind of gendered role playing that Hirshman herself opposes, linking women's discourse to bad eating/weight/body image tropes. And to collapse all the critique to "SAHM websites" ignores those (like mine!) where critiques came from working mothers, and it simply dismisses the opinions of people with different work histories. That's not classy, not classy at all.

The first thing we teach in rhetoric classes is that arguments don't need to have two sides; in fact, most interesting arguments don't. Hirshman doesn't advance her cause by making such dismissive distinctions. This isn't to say I don't share her concerns as I look out at my own students and hear some of the women planning to be SAHMs when they don't yet have their degrees, their jobs, or their partners in place (I think it would be generally healthier if people plan their family/childrearing/working choices in a more particular context). This isn't to say I don't share her concerns about the missing women in the upper ranks of academia. And I'd like to find a way to discuss the trends in family/work choices without attacking people who've made whatever kinds of choices (Ann Berthoff, one of my favorite rhetoricians, always asked the question, "what difference would it make if you do it this way instead? Hirshman's article is what kicked off this debate and she has a responsibility to take responses to it more seriously.

Curious Girl wants to cut shapes now, so I'm off to engage in the apparently un-influential activity of playing with my child. Too bad it's a snow day so I missed my influential day of academic work.


Piece of Work said...

Oh. OH. I can't even respond coherently, I'm so angry. But then again, I'm just a stay at home mom--not even an academic!, so I'm sure she's not surprised.

That's exactly the kind of disrespect feminism is supposed to prevent, no?

Phantom Scribbler said...

Ah, thank you. I should think that your opinion counts more, since you're gainfully employed and all. But apparently female academics who disagree with Hirshman are no better than housewives.

I love the framing of Ann Berthoff's question. What a great way to get people to consider other ideas.