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The education of a regretful housewife

Published January 8, 2006

The New Year's Day column was relegated to the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, a frivolous place where the au courant of fashion, fun and fabulousness is featured alongside society brides and grooms. ("The bride, 39, ... is keeping her surname.") But Terry Martin Hekker's confessional was more earthshaking than anything that appeared on the day's Op-Ed pages. (More on that later.)

In the late 1970s, Hekker was, in her own words, "the authority on homemaking as a viable choice for women." Though supportive of women's equality in general, she publicly pulled back against the tide of women entering the workplace and vocally proclaimed the value of housewifery and motherhood as a full-time occupation.

In a 1977 Op-Ed column in the Times, a witty Hekker proudly boasted that she came "from a long line of women, most of them more Edith Bunker than Betty Friedan, who never knew they were unfulfilled." A book and lecture tour followed.

But then, she took it all back.

What happened between 1977 and 2006? Hekker was unceremoniously dumped. In her 60s, after raising five children and being the faithful and dutiful helpmate, Hekker says her husband presented her with divorce papers. They consisted of 16 pages "meticulously detailing my faults and flaws," Hekker wrote. It was their 40th wedding anniversary.

Hekker's 2006 column describes the painful divorce process, and her emotional and financial devastation. "He got to take his girlfriend to Cancun, while I got to sell my engagement ring to pay the roofer," Hekker wrote. A number of her friends found themselves in similar predicaments. They were old appliances traded in for "sleeker models." Hekker soon realized that she qualified for food stamps.

Hekker now calls her 1979 happy homemaker book "anachronistic" and says it "has little relevance for modern women, except perhaps as a cautionary tale." Yet on the same day Hekker made her revelations, in the same newspaper, columnist David Brooks opined on the far more serious pages of the Op-Ed section that the home front is a fine place for women to confine themselves. (I swear I felt him patting my head as I read.)

Brooks used his New Year's Day column to dissect an essay by Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis professor, who posited that women with elite educations are doing a disservice to themselves and society if they leave the work force to stay at home.

After surveying the brides featured in the Times over three Sundays in 1996, most of whom are now around 40 years old, Hirshman found that nearly all of them had left full-time employment.

These were women listed in their wedding announcements as a gastroenterologist, lawyer and marketing executive, among other professions. But they bowed out of the competitive work force when they had the chance. Half left, according to Hirshman, even before they had children. As for the grooms, none "took even brief paternity leave when his children were born," Hirshman wrote.

She urged women to start getting serious about using their skills and intellect for broader purposes, sticking with work and making money. The person who makes the money generally is the one who wields power, including within the family, Hirshman wrote. And when the highly educated women of the decisionmaking classes opt out of business, politics and positions of influence, the men in charge are more likely to put aside women's interests, "whether from ignorance or from indifference," according to Hirshman.

All this clear-eyed sense was too much for Brooks, who claimed that the workplace is not the primary "realm of power." Rather, he wrote, bringing up small children is the "realm of unmatched influence."

Really? Funny, I don't see many ambitious, influence-seeking men leaving Wall Street, K Street or the executive suite to stay at home with the youngsters or become day care workers or elementary school teachers. I don't see Brooks making that choice to be with his two children.

International aid workers will tell you that countries in the developing world advance only when its women are educated and provided access to capital and employment. It is not the women who stay home but those with financial independence who have the power to transform society.

Brooks scoffs at Hirshman's assertion that high-paying jobs provide more opportunity for personal growth than does the repetitive grunt work of parenting. His proof is that our best memories are of times with our family.

Yes, and some of my best memories are from terrific vacations, drinking mango daiquiris on a beach, but that doesn't mean those times were self-actualizing. We define ourselves by what we do and what we have accomplished in life. Striving in jobs that stretch our intellect, finding a niche in the economy and building a business, influencing public policy or making money so we can direct the course of our lives, are expansive endeavors that engender widespread respect, unlike, to be blunt, stay-at-home parenting.

Brooks is either being disingenuous or blind when he insists that the real power in society is "in the kitchen." Just ask Hekker, who said if she were writing a sequel to her life's story it would be titled Disregard First Book.

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 00:28:01]

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