Oh, lordie, look out, people! Feminism has killed again. This time, it’s responsible for the demise of “female altruism” and the catastrophic decline in the number of middle-class, unpaid female volunteers who used to maintain our social services infrastructure. Or so Alison Wolf would have us think.
Well, so am I. I’m going to add a historical twist that I rarely see brought up in these critiques. Look, people, what you remember from your mother’s generation or even your grandmother’s generation is not a universal human way of life. Go back to the 16th century and you’ll not see many women running the English charitable infrastructure: it was split between church, community and private hands with men dominating most of the organizing. The Reformation shook the comfortable structures of charitable support in the nation — monasteries which had provided educational, medical and gerontological care were closed and there was no coherent system set up to replace them. (Note: Nunneries were also targetted, yet, for the most part, their loss was more as a refuge for excess women of the elites than as a blow to the social services system of the nation — social structures and values strongly limited women from having a more active role in their communities.)
Would anyone today argue that we ought to mandate that a certain percentage of all men commit to a life of celibacy and service to recreate those good old days of monastic brotherhood and a social services network? Well, the Catholic church might appreciate a revitalization of the priesthood, but other than that, most people would consider that to be an anachronistic and unnecessary interference in the personal choices of many.
And the change in patterns of childbearing, are these, too, to be set in stone as they have come to be idealized in relatively recent nostalgia? In the early modern era, elite women tended to go through a few more pregnancies than less-well-off women due to earlier age of marriage for women in the wealthier classes and the much-denounced but nevertheless popular wetnurse. Well-off women didn’t have the opportunity to use what education they had for much of anything: most careers and professions were closed to them, emphatically so upon marriage. My mother and others of her generation remembered, with no fondness, the way in which they were unceremoniously fired or demoted upon marriage and/or pregnancy. And let us not forget that many educated, talented women in the past felt themselves forced to opt for either marriage and children or their other interests, unable to pursue them together.
We should not romanticize a time when women were continually employed with household work, unable to take up a pen or pursue an outside interest. We should not glorify the day when women rarely worked for pay outside the home after marriage or childbearing, because we forget that that wasn’t always by personal or family choice. Don’t forget the rapid rise in sweated labour and the horrible privations that struck many households when the Ten Hours Act sent women factory workers home short of hours and wages. Don’t forget how many families and individuals were lost in the highly selective and highly judgmental social safety nets of the day when it was perfectly fine to ignore the needs of someone just because they were of a different faith, a different skin colour or a different lifestyle.
Wolf bemoans “the end of sisterhood” in her set piece. I don’t think that there ever was a universal sisterhood, some rosy era where women supported other women and happy homes were underpinned by fulfilled women volunteering to fill the gaps. What we had in the nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial West was a society where women were limited by legislation and custom from pursuing most interests and activities outside the home. For some of the upper and middle class women, a few socially acceptable outlets were found in education (a formerly male province which rapidly became devalued when women teachers emerged in any number) and in charitable activities. For others, the outlets weren’t there, the support was never adequate and the entire situation was miserable.
It may seem strange for a historian to argue against looking backwards, but I firmly believe that we can’t find a solution to our problems of today by attempting to legislate a return to yesterday. Yesterday wasn’t what Wolf or others think it was — it wasn’t some glorious heydey of domestic balance and bliss. I’d argue, instead, that we look backwards with a fine and informed eye, an historian’s eye, to see the past for what it was, to see their systems not as ideal constructs, but as pasted-together and always inadequate responses to fluxes they barely understood and certainly never mastered. Let’s stop looking back for a nostalgia-powered quick-fix prescription and start looking back, as well as around ourselves in our own time, for a more nuanced sense of the world. It’ll do everyone a lot more good!