My girlfriend and I have lately had a number of argum…er, lively discussions over the appropriate and complementary roles of men and women in marriage and society as a whole. Which is, yes, a big topic, and one that can quickly inflame passions, and not always in a good way. However, our conversations have actually led me to some very interesting conclusions (or at least musings, I don’t believe I can claim to have all this figured out yet) about the shortcoming of both secular feminism and modern capitalism.
Distributism by and large is not known for engaging with women’s issues, or indeed women at all. A look at a roster of leading distributists past and present will show a concentration of masculine Christian names. To be fair, a look at any list of leading capitalist, communist, or socialist thinkers may not paint a drastically different picture, but as distributism is supposed to be a truly humanitarian and family-based approach to economic and social life, I think the question, ‘Where are all the women at?’ is a fair one.
That ‘family-based’ qualifier may be where hackles start to rise. It quickly conjures up images of women barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, their lives ‘put on hold’ to care for children while their husband pursues his own career and engages in a variety of enriching social circles (more on this later). For this reason, secular feminism, or at least prominent strains of it, have largely rejected the importance of motherhood to womanhood, viewing it as an irrelevant (and often unwelcome) characteristic of the sex. According to this view, women can have children if they wish, but it is understood that they are letting the sisterhood down if they take too much time away from their careers to get pregnant and care for their offspring. This is valuable time that should be spent clambering up the career ladder, showing those male representatives of the patriarchy that there is nothing they can do that women can’t do better.
This is a dangerous view of life, not to mention relations between the sexes, and thankfully it appears to be increasingly abandoned by mainstream feminist thought. Fundamentally, it is dangerous because it is about power: who has it, who exercises it, how other groups can get it. Historically, power seems to be a masculine obsession, to disastrous results; I don’t see why turning it into a feminine one as well is expected to make things better. It is precisely the complementary interaction between masculine power and feminine mercy that allows for balance, not only at the societal level, but also at that of the individual. It is not, of course, surprising or unhealthy that men usually display predominantly masculine traits and women feminine ones; but any healthy person, male or female, must balance both tendencies within themselves in order to avoid becoming a sociopath or a pushover (Virginia Woolf has a good insight on this in A Room of One’s Own).
The other night, my girlfriend (who is not, it must be said, the most ardent of monarchists) and I watched the first part of a wonderful BBC documentary on Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her Diamond Jubilee. While watching footage of her driving service vehicles during the Second World War, firing a rifle in the prone from a raft, addressing the other children displaced by the Blitz over the radio, and generally carrying herself with more dignity than any other public figure in the world (save perhaps Pope Benedict XVI), we both commented to each at the same time how she is in many ways the perfect feminist role model. She literally is the United Kingdom personified, but she does not wield power in the common sense; she is the colonel-in-chief of a number of British Army regiments, but she has never fought in a war. However, she is not merely a figurehead, a pretty ornament while the men go about doing the real work. The documentary shows how the queen works tirelessly, exercising subtle—but perhaps all the more effective for that—influence on behalf of her realm. She balances in her female person the masculine and feminine, the active and contemplative, the authoritative and nurturing. This doesn’t mean that she balances them in the same way a king would, suggesting that her sex is irrelevant, but rather that her particular approach to her office as a woman has both masculine and feminine elements.
The reply quickly comes back that this is all well and good for Her Majesty, who lives a sheltered and coddled life soaked in wealth, but it is far from the experience of the middle classes, to say nothing of the poor. Her life is completely out of touch with the dog-eat-dog world of everyday life in a professional career, especially in times of economic depression. For those of us living below the royal orbit, it is essential that we, whether men or women, exercise masculine power in order to get ahead. This means that women cannot really choose to have both a family (at least if they intend to be intimately involved in the raising of their children) and a significant career (sometimes at all, but at the very least not simultaneously). Children and the family must therefore take a backseat if a woman is to be fulfilled professionally.
But it seems unfair to excessively criticise women for wanting to ‘have it all,’ when it is taken for granted that men will usually have both a career and a family. It is true that it is a simple biological fact that men cannot conceive, gestate, give birth, or breastfeed a child. However, while motherhood is a beautiful gift to womanhood, a true non plus ultra, that does not justify falling back on a conception of women as baby-making machines fit only for the domestic affairs of the household. And this is where the genius of a distributist system comes in.
The reforms needed for our current way of life depend, in fact, on the rediscovery of the feminine. At a talk given by Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, (an assistant professor of environmental science at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston) in Madrid last August, she discussed the importance of the feminine genius in our approach to agriculture. Technological masculine advances have been essential (I, for one, am very grateful for the invention of the plough), but are not sufficient in themselves. We must rediscover the feminine process of agriculture and the attendant ability to be receptive to the natural world; a rediscovery of the gestation of the land, the nurturing of livestock, the very seasons and cycles we have been trying to circumvent with our technologies and our agrobusiness conglomerates in order to provide perpetual access to all sorts of foods with no thought to humane treatment of animals or sustainability of crops.
This does not apply only to farming. If our economic society as a whole was not dependent upon global corporations, but rested primarily on locally produced goods and locally provided services, there would presumably be less pressure to compete, and thus less strain on the labourer. It’s worth noting that this lack of competition does not inherently mean a decline in quality; a local businessman or -woman who provides shoddy goods or services will have to answer to his or her neighbours for it, and there is nothing to stop someone else in the locality setting up shop to make up for his or her deficiencies. Furthermore, if those who work in these businesses are also their owners, either individually or collectively, the need to climb career ladders is diminished considerably. In this sort of climate, the pace of working life becomes much more managable. Does it mean doing without certain conveniences and amenities for the consumer? Yes. But how much time do we actually save with our microwave dinners and how do we use it? How much stress is relieved by having 24/7 shops burning neon through the night and what do we do to relax? How much real happiness do we derive from our year-round supply of nectarines and how grateful are we for them?
On the other hand, with these pressures (of managing continent- and globe-spanning corporations, of providing inessential services every day of the week, or of supplying luxury foods in all seasons and across great distances) relieved, everything slows down. For example, maternity leave suddenly becomes no big deal. If the family (there’s that word again) owns its venture outright or has a share in it with other workers, the gap left by the woman moving out of the workplace can be filled, for example, by an apprentice who may hope to acquire his or her own share in the venture alongside the family one day or start a venture of his or her own. If the family owns its own capital, and provides goods and services only locally, the whole affair becomes much more workable and less risky professionally for the woman.
Which brings us back to the issue of the family basis of the proposal. Even if the family owns its own capital, thus making it easier for the woman to take leave to care for children, wouldn’t this in practice lead to the (alleged) historical arrangement whereby, in practice, ownership really rests with the husband? Two answers to this challenge are immediately visible. First, the historical veracity of this picture has been increasingly questioned. Of course, in the past as now, women have often been subject to pressures imposed by unbalanced masculinity in culture, but more recent waves of feminist historians have been illuminating the extent to which pre-industrial women really did have a say in the government of family affairs both at home and in the workshop, to say nothing of the temporal and spiritual authority wielded by women religious in the Church. Second, the ‘barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen’ model doesn’t strike me as a vision of a particularly healthy family, precisely because it seems to be lacking a father. If the husband and father is never participating in the raising of the children, the entire system of a ‘family-based economy’ surely breaks down. But in truth, is this not much more the case with modern families living in atomistic capitalist societies? The absent father (in too many cases mother as well), the alienated and disaffected children, the destruction of community ties, is endemic in the industrialised world. Owning families, on the other hand, are empowered families, both in their male and female members, and this empowerment extends to the community at large.
Ultimately, it seems that the tension between career and biology for women is a product of modern capitalism rather than something inherent to nature. And this conflict is not exclusive to women, simply more pronounced; just as the suffocating canary warns the miners that the air is running out, so the frustration of women with finding fulfillment in modern professional structures (as a result of their creative sensitivity to correctly ordered natural processes) is actually a signal to men that those very structures are unsustainable for them as well. The decline of motherhood, both physically and spiritually, is dangerous for society, but the sublimation of fathers into their careers also poses a dire threat, not only to their own health and happiness, but, more importantly, to the development of future generations. The frenetic pace of modern business is not sympathetic to women who also (properly and necessarily) wish to be mothers, but it is not sympathetic to men who would be fathers either. Men must be able to devote time to both their labours and their family, and women must be able to put their talents to use both inside and outside the household. Everything must slow down and reach a human level, for all our good.
Of course such a proposed transformation of the economy to benefit women and families could not happen smoothly overnight, requiring as it does enormous investment in changing attitudes toward the sexes, the economy, and the family. But that is not to say it is impossible. Indeed, the deteriorating economic situation and mounting scarcity of natural resources may mean it is necessary if we are to successfully adapt to our changing social and physical environment. And even if the crisis were not imminent, true freedom (with its attendant responsibilities), harmony, and justice (not only for women, but for all who labour) are aims that should be pursued together, even if it calls for the sacrifice of our luxuries and conveniences. Finally, all of this must be placed under the rule of charity, yet one more area where our overly masculinsed society could stand to benefit from the influence of the feminine genius.