Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Emancipation of Domesticity

by G.K. Chesterton

There is only one way to preserve in the world that high levity and that more leisurely outlook which fulfils the old vision of universalism. That is, to permit the existence of a partly protected half of humanity; a half which the harassing industrial demand troubles indeed, but only troubles indirectly. In other words, there must be in every center of humanity one human being upon a larger plan; one who does not "give her best," but gives her all.

Our old analogy of the fire remains the most workable one. The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light. The wife is like the fire, or to put things in their proper proportion, the fire is like the wife. Like the fire, the woman is expected to cook: not to excel in cooking, but to cook; to cook better than her husband who is earning the coke by lecturing on botany or breaking stones. Like the fire, the woman is expected to tell tales to the children, not original and artistic tales, but tales--better tales than would probably be told by a first-class cook. Like the fire, the woman is expected to illuminate and ventilate, not by the most startling revelations or the wildest winds of thought, but better than a man can do it after breaking stones or lecturing. But she cannot be expected to endure anything like this universal duty if she is also to endure the direct cruelty of competitive or bureaucratic toil. Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school mistress, but not a competitive schoolmistress; a house-decorator but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women.

Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman's professions, unlike the child's, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful; so tragically real that nothing but her universality and balance prevented them being merely morbid. This is the substance of the contention I offer about the historic female position. I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time. I do not deny that even under the old tradition women had a harder time than men; that is why we take off our hats. I do not deny that all these various female functions were exasperating; but I say that there was some aim and meaning in keeping them various. I do not pause even to deny that woman was a servant; but at least she was a general servant.…

The final fact which fixes this is a sufficiently plain one. Supposing it to be conceded that humanity has acted at least not unnaturally in dividing itself into two halves, respectively typifying the ideals of special talent and of general sanity (since they are genuinely difficult to combine completely in one mind), it is not difficult to see why the line of cleavage has followed the line of sex, or why the female became the emblem of the universal and the male of the special and superior. Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren't. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world.

But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people's children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one's own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman's function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.…

I would observe here in parenthesis that much of the recent official trouble about women has arisen from the fact that they transfer to things of doubt and reason that sacred stubbornness only proper to the primary things which a woman was set to guard. One's own children, one's own altar, ought to be a matter of principle-- or if you like, a matter of prejudice. On the other hand, who wrote Junius's Letters ought not to be a principle or a prejudice, it ought to be a matter of free and almost indifferent inquiry. But take an energetic modern girl secretary to a league to show that George III wrote Junius, and in three months she will believe it, too, out of mere loyalty to her employers. Modern women defend their office with all the fierceness of domesticity. They fight for desk and typewriter as for hearth and home, and develop a sort of wolfish wifehood on behalf of the invisible head of the firm. That is why they do office work so well; and that is why they ought not to do it.


Katie Mahoney said...

I am so glad, Camille, that you are back posting on your blog again! I know you were much busy with studying and exams.

I liked what G.K. Chesterton had to say about women and their role. It helped me put things in perspective. Just the other day I was talking to Mom and bemoaning the fact that I wasn't really, really, good at any certain thing. I was thinking about giving up an instrument so I could practice my violin more. Mom told me that when I play five instruments I can't be as good as if I have one, but there are times when we play songs that a different instrument is needed. For example, some Irish songs sound better with a recorder, some really need the guitar, and some the mandolin. I need the piano to fill in at church when Briana is not there. The important thing is that I am doing what God wants me to do, and doing it to the best of my ability. Homemakers may have a tendency to feel the same when they are doing so many different things. It is very much a support position, but not in the least unimportant. Yay Chesterton!
I checked out a book you recommended "The Woman in White", but I wanted to make sure I had the right it by Wilkie Collins?

Thanks for your encouraging post!

Briana Mahoney said...

That was really good. In which of Chesterton’s books did you find it? It’s too bad that so many people don’t realize the truth of how fruitful and fulfilling it is when you do things the way God designed. We have become so far removed from the idea of a woman that “look(s) well to the ways of her household”, that nowadays when you say that you are at home, people have this vision of you sitting there watching soap operas and eating bon-bons. I am thankful for Chesterton’s license to develop my twenty, or shall I say fifty, “hobbies“. I have struggled with feeling hopelessly diverse as I am fascinated by so many subjects and pursuits. I think that the most exciting part of being a wife and mother would be the opportunity to teach ones own children. The greatest part of the books I have been collecting are all geared toward my kids (if the Lord wills me to have children). When I put a new one on the shelf, whether it is a story, or a book about history, bookbinding, art, or great heroes of the past, I wonder which one God may use to light a fire of interest and start them on the path of His direction for their life.
The part about “that is why we tip our hats” is absolutely hilarious. I suppose that the constant barrage of activities in our lives is merely the price we pay for never being bored.

Thank you for the messages!

Oh! I just recently finished Chesterton’s “Tales of the Long Bow” and “A Club of Queer Trades”, both of which I enjoyed immensely. The only problem was that when I was finished I felt a sudden longing to go out and do something completely out of the ordinary. :)

Christy Mahoney said...


Very true post!

I like the traditional roles of men and women when they are working together in their separate roles, and not competing with each other. Men and women these days do not know what they are missing when they don’t take on their God given roles.

Mahoney said...

A much needed and appreciated post. Thank you Camille.
The author expresses my sentiments better than I could. It is interesting that this was written in the early 1900's and how much the problem has since escalated.
From what I have observed in recent years, it is not always the women clamoring for their independence, but that men have grown to expect their wives to provide supplemental income. I think women are coming to realize how much they have lost. If only the men of today could realize how much greater the benefits of allowing their wives to "raise children and guide the house" in comparison to a "50/50" relationship. Also, there have been studies finding that women who stay at home are saving their households many tens of thousands of dollars a year. That also is only looking at the monetary perspective, what about raising your children with the love, security, patience, kindness, and peace, that only a fulltime mother can give? That, is beyond price. Then, there are families that are so caught up in what society expects of them that they think they have no other choice. If the mother and father both work fulltime, their children are raised, guided, and influenced, by a immoral, and ungodly, school system. Over time family relationships decay and the family falls apart. Our nation is composed of millions of families similar to this, and if the family falls apart, sooner or later our nation will too.
Sorry, this comment is starting to look more like an epistle. Thanks again for posting.

Camille Rose Wolaver said...

Katie: That's wonderful that you play so many instruments! I didn't know. :) Gretchen is like you in liking to play a lot of instruments. The more the better, eh? :) And yes, as long as you are obeying what God has told you to do then you will find fulfillment. Yes, it is Wilkie Collin's Woman in White. A very fun book!

Briana: This essay was from the book 'What's Wrong with the World'. It's great! Yes, I know exactly what you mean. :) I was always shocked, growing up, by how other children thought that because I was homeschooled I got to stay in my pajamas and laze around all day. Yes, tasks of a mother are diverse and yet extremely important. That is so wonderful that you are collecting books for your future children. I have done that a bit myself…it is amazing how the books you provide your young children and the activities you give them will shape their eternal being… Haha! Yes, every time I read a Chesterton novel I have a deep inherent longing to go out and have an ADVENTURE. :)

Christy: I agree with you!

Israel: You are so right. I think that many women would be open to the taking on of traditional mother-wife roles if their husband supported them in it. But in this day and age, such concepts as chivalry and leadership in males has been lost and degraded by pop culture. I have just been doing research on how their are more stay-at-home dads now than ever before, whereas women are entering the workforce more and more. Very sad! It seems to be a declaration of secular trends in our culture…a dependence on the government and the public school system to take over our responsibility as parents, and the desire for an income in equality with the great affluence of our culture.

Mrs. Hall said...

Very well said, Camille....I love it! What a woman does in the home is very holy work, from the wiping of little ones' noses, to the folding of clothes, to preparing the meals, to dusting the molding- it is glorious work, especially when we realize Who we are doing it for,and the eternal impact it has. Your words, Camille, were very refreshing. :)

Camille Rose Wolaver said...

Thank you, Mrs. Hall! You are so right! A woman's work is very holy work. :) I love about everything Chesterton has to say… He is Right at every turn! :)

lovingliving said...

I just wanted to say thank you for posting this. I thought that ladies did not agree with this philosophy any more. I am glad to see that I was wrong. As a young male I have taken a lot of hard knocks for believing this. Even in the church this philosophy is laughed at and called old fashioned. I have always been one to say that it is the man's place to provide for the family, and the woman's place to take care of the home. I do not say that in a derogatory manner, but as a male one way of showing our love toward someone is working to provide for them. When the women go out of the home to work, it makes men feel like they are not needed as much.
G.K. Chesterton was also right about the woman having a broad field of knowledge. My mom is a homemaker, and also homeshools me and my several syblings. My mom knows a little about everything. I think that one of the reasons God calls women to take care of the home is because their brains function like that. Females have been shown to be better at multitasking then men. I think God did that so women could do things like cook while reading out spelling words while feeding the baby while folding laundry, etc.
Once again thank you for posting this. It makes me think there is still hope for the American family.

P.S. Your families band is my favorite Christian band of all times and my favorite band of modern times. I actually met you and listened to your family play on the Klove Friends and Family music cruise. Thank you for all the great music.

Camille Rose Wolaver said...

Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you. Great to hear another kindred spirit out there!