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Stay-at-home dads help women move up in the corporate world Add to ...

There is a move to quantify a housewife's value. A recent study by salary.com suggested that if a full-time housewife were paid, she would be making more than $134,000 (U.S.) a year, taking into account hours spent housekeeping, cleaning and cooking as well as child care. Still, one of Ms. Hekker's realizations is particularly chilling: "For a divorced mother, the harsh reality is that the work for which you do get paid is the only work that will keep you afloat."

Prof. Duxbury says that by focusing on the politics of the family, Ms. Hirshman unwittingly lets the patriarchal corporate world off the hook: "She's only talking about half the problem," she says. "We have to make it so women can have a meaningful life at home and a job."

A job, yes, but perhaps never the top jobs. Ms. Hirshman would point out that it's difficult to imagine workplaces so different that CEOs and law partners would not work extended hours.

In such a world, she lays it harshly on the line: "Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions."

The debate is about more than which camp is making the happier or more secure choice. Ms. Hirshman is asking whether, if highly educated women continue to abandon their posts, the small number of Fortune 500 CEOs -- and only one, short-tenured female prime minister of Canada -- now represents the status quo in perpetuity. And do women forfeit the right to bitch about the lack of political representation if they don't step up to the plate?

As you may imagine, well-off, educated stay-at-home moms don't take kindly to the implication that they are betraying womankind. Many of them dwell in the high-traffic Internet zone in which "mommy bloggers" write about their experiences and philosophies of motherhood. Unsurprisingly, few of them are fans of Ms. Hirshman.

Some of her foes feel the architecture of individual families is off limits to feminist analysis. In an on-line quarrel on author Miriam Peskowitz's blog literarymama.com, Ms. Hirshman wrote that in an interview with her, Ms. Peskowitz allowed that violence in the family was worthy of review, but nothing else.

"So it's not that Peskowitz thinks the private family is immune from moral analysis; she just thinks the only immoral thing you can do within a family is hit someone. I disagree," Ms. Hirshman wrote. "I think -- and can defend the opinion -- that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological, ideological, economic or other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or on the pages of The New York Times.

"So I don't blog on about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever qualifies as sincere feminism in the weird space the Internet creates. But if you quit your job because you were living eight hours from good academic work when your first child came, I will be the one who will ask 'Who decided to move there?' "

Jennifer Lawrence, 34, defended her choice to stay home on the Toronto-based literarymama.com.

"Gosh. It's all so very bleak," she wrote. "The only way for women to be feminist is to be market-driven, work-oriented and treat marriage as an economic decision -- the Feminism-as-Gordon-Gekko philosophy, I guess."

Ms. Lawrence has an MBA in finance, and husband in the same field who is chugging along in his career. Ms. Lawrence left her post in a large bank, first for work in the non-profit sector, then to raise her two children. She is exactly the demographic Ms. Hirshman admonished for dropping the feminist baton.

"For me, one of the exercises of feminism is to challenge everything," Ms. Lawrence says in an interview. "It's true, we want policy-makers and elected leaders to be women and typically leaders have come out of law or business -- maybe that needs to be challenged."

She argues that educated, politically engaged women are operating in "shades of grey" -- "mommy bloggers" writing on-line, "mompreneurs" running businesses such as jewellery making out of their homes, and bartering among themselves.

"It's not that women's skills are being pulled out into the ether and disappearing. They're just using them in a different way."

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