A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

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10 thoughts on “A Woman’s Place

  1. Ooh, this is brave, Hugh! And it has thrown me off my path. I was mulling over a post on capitalism and my mother’s egg whisk … yes, really.
    This topic has been on my mind too. Over the last few weeks I have taken on the entirety of our household chores – not the norm. In doing so I realised that even by abandoning what I normally do, I have neither the time, energy (nor inclination) to do everything ‘properly’. I began to think (shh, don’t tell) – ‘oh, for a servant’! Oddest of all, I rarely put on an apron, but have been wearing one occasionally this last couple of weeks and it makes me FEEL like a housewife!
    The apron – drum roll – says, between the frills:
    ‘Votes for women’.
    I should throw into this mix that I have been at times very senior in business. Part of the reason I eventually ducked out was that it was a cruel world, sometimes a 24 hours a day obsession – for what? Now I have the great fortune to be a ‘kept’ woman as I try to make a different route for myself by writing.
    I do think ‘biology’ has to be given a voice here. There have been a lot of recent studies about gender roles and nurture v nature. I shall go and consult the anthro- man of the house 😉 and see what he says – and possibly get back to you – or possibly write about it myself!
    Meanwhile I am most drawn to this bit of your post:
    “Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles. The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.”
    And I am all for changing attitudes to what we value in life…

    • It’s interesting that when men grow old they don’t regret spending more time at the office but they regret not having spent more time with their kids. (I speak from first-hand experience here). There’s something to this, though I have yet to figure it out. But I am so glad this one got the wheels turning — I will look forward to the end product of your thought process!

  2. ” Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it.” –

    Oh my; I expected to see a very long thread of comments, so am surprised – but not.

    The one comment so far shows a lot of thought and illustrates the many twists each individual life can take… but every experience, whether masculine or femine helps us to understand a little more – about ourselves and about each other.

    We need feminine/masculine just a much as we need day and night; hot and cold; there’s a balance…

    How one is raised, and the environment and mentors all play a part. Some people lock on to a childhood interest and stay with it for life. Others go from interet to interest, learning from each one, discarding or veering to other interests… There are some options that are definitely feminine or masculine – or not – ha like boxing.. No. Thank. You! – Not even to watch!

    I cannot imagine ever wanting to hold a political office, but I respect those who do – especially if they have the people’s best interest at heart. and our planet’s best interest as well. Some people thrive in the home setting where others crave the full-trottle challenges — some are the nurturers, and some are high strung and restless. Slowly we evolve; we should all be able to pursue what interests us and not fear being criticized or labeled…

    It’s very late, and I hope this makes sense when I read it again tomorrow!

    • Very thoughtful comment — and appreciated. I hesitated to post this because I thought it would annoy some readers. But apparently not so. I am surprised, and a bit disappointed! Thanks for your good comment.

      • Buenos dias.. I am staying in my friend’s hostal, and a housing project creeps slowly closer each day. For the past week, the workers start around 7 each morning and work until about 8 at night. Presently they are about 8 feet from the back wall of this bamboo cabana….oh, it is so loud, but i try to remind myself, ‘if it were my house they were building…’ the people who will receive these houses are still living in tents, so it’s a test of my own tolerance, empathy, etc.

        yes, i have found that often the most serious issues are the ones where readers go almost mute.

        or sometimes it’s just ‘timing’ and the post hits when people are busy with little time for reading or commenting.

        or maybe there’s a little city being built right behind their room, and it’s so noisy they cannot think – until the wee hours of the morning when all is calm!

        may the day smile on you, hugh!

  3. Hugh, I like to keep things practical. Most women do not have the choice and must do both. They must be the home care taker and equal or only breadwinner. They are not at liberty to choose to stay only at home. With half of marriages failing and with the need for both partners to work, this argument becomes moot.

    To me, women need not act like men unless they choose, but they should not be denied opportunity because of their gender. There are too many obstacles that still exist to women getting equal opportunity, but it is far better than the suffragette period in his history. Thanks for the thought provoking post. Keith

    • Thanks, Keith. I was stunned to see a lack of comments in a post I thought would stir up some mud! Even close blogger friends were silent. I do appreciate your comment, though I am more interested in this post in the repercussions of the move toward equality. There are hidden problems there.

  4. I’m still thinking! I had written and put off publishing a blog post myself that veers into very dodgy territory and when I read this put it back yet again… In favour of spring and trees and lovely lovely things! I wonder if – assuming I finally work up the courage to post – it will meet a similarly mute response. There is also the possibility that it is such a big subject we don’t know where to start on a debate with so many facets to it. I like Keith’s practical approach though.

    • I like Keith’s approach as well, except that it does not take into account the issue of the effect of the mother becoming a second breadwinner on the children and, eventually, the society as a whole which seems to be without any sort of moral compass at present. If the mother is the only breadwinner, that’s another story since we are then no longer talking about what is right or wrong, but what is necessary.
      (Also, I am quite surprised by the deadening silence in response to this post! I hesitated to post it for fear it would enrage certain people, but not so. Ah well…..)

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