Feminism Kills Again!

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.

Her Prospect Magazine article “Working Girls” is generating a lot of discussion in the blogosphere. Samhita at Feministing put it well when she wrote: “I am left confused”.

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!

2 Responses to “Feminism Kills Again!”

  1. dave s Says:

    Wolf’s not wrong. That doesn’t mean that there’s some justification to turn the clock back, but it does mean that some social functions which used to be accomplished by women volunteers either won’t happen or have to be done some other way. My wife is a lawyer, works for a big firm, makes a good living, and is utterly out of time if there is a call for someone to work on a schools committee or do a teacher lunch during the teacher work days. Not there. In my community there used to be several (largely women volunteer staffed) committees to work on County policy, feed into the political process. They are largely gone now, and most decisions are made without a lot of citizen input, in any real way. The local Democratic Party partially replaces the old voluntary groups.
    Things are better than they were. If I go off the rails, become unbearable, my wife has the resources to tell me to take a hike. If I get disabled, or she does, the other can keep the family going. But I think Wolf’s is a good lens to train on our situation, in thinking how to replace the functions women volunteers used to fill.

  2. ancarett Says:

    Dave, thanks for commenting! I agree with you that, on one level, Wolf is correct when she says that the face of volunteerism has changed. But she seems to suggest that we could/should turn back the clock and do it selectively — that women can “choose” to leave their careers or ratchet them down for some sort of public good and to restore this historical status quo.

    She’s reading the history wrong in terms of how we came to rely on women’s unpaid labour outside the home in schools, politics and charities — women’s domination of volunteer organizations a hundred years ago wasn’t an active choice on the part of many women or society as a whole but one forced upon many educated and ambitious women due to the systemic barriers against other work. Nineteenth century women couldn’t work as lawyers, but they could apply their skills to organizing their husband’s political campaign, household or affinity, for instance. And I suspect that we’re talking about a very small number of women with the leisure and social cachet to run these organizations — many working-class women were working for wages or taking in piece-work, married or not.

    And, furthermore, if one goes back a century or two beforehand, one finds fewer and fewer women in any sort of voluntary leadership roles. Those were dominated by “men of the cloth” in many Western countries, whether Catholic priests or Protestant ministers, who, alongside other privileged men, kept the administration of much charitable aid and organization a male domain.

    So, rather than thinking about “replacing women volunteers” (which usually gets people thinking things like “how can we stop women from doing what they’re doing now and go back to what they were doing then”) can we think about “what are the jobs that need to be done, and how can we ensure that”? And less about the end of sisterhood, too, while we’re at it!