Por: Brenda M. Hafera
Fuente: Law & Liberty
30 de enero 2024

Feminism is continually being redefined, and a group of conservative (and not so traditionally conservative) men and women are now piloting another new approachFairer Disputations, part of the Wollstonecraft Project at the Abigail Adams Institute, publishes and compiles work by individuals that do not always agree but defend “a vision of female and male as embodied expressions of human personhood,” and affirm “that men and women are equal in their dignity and their capacity for human excellence, yet distinct in many significant ways, particularly when it comes to sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and care for children.”

Feminism eludes concrete definitions, but questions regarding work often fit under its umbrella, and, fittingly, this is one topic of interest for Fairer Disputations. How can women contribute to a variety of civic and professional roles while respecting the vocation and obligations of motherhood? What is the value and dignity that work affords men and women, and what is its proper place amongst the competing goods available to individuals?

Answering such questions requires negotiation and recalibration as conditions change and are informed by principles pertaining to the nature of human beings and purpose. When seeking answers, some second wave feminists erroneously turned to contemporary psychology, but the theology of vocation and the body (teachings on the human person, sex, marriage, etc.) offers a more promising path to flourishing.

During the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement championed anti-discrimination laws in employment. At that time, women were sometimes fired for getting pregnant, and job advertisements were segregated by sex. Women bristled at such unfairness, especially as they had taken on a wide range of jobs during WWII.

What liberalism brings to the table is the insight that choices are often best made on the individual level. It promotes a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.

Concurrently, new technologies saved middle-class suburban homemakers time, and many were looking for meaningful ways to utilize that time. In the past, married women without paid positions had taken a lead in philanthropic associations. But after 1920, volunteer work became increasingly professionalized by social workers and administrators; by the 1960s, would-be volunteers were sidelined more and more. In Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, one woman noted that the new social workers sometimes had a “self-righteous attitude” and felt volunteers should look upon them with “an open-mouthed admiration” at their performance. Today, we would call that a toxic work environment.

Enter Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, it sold more than one million copies in its first year. The book does not address abortion or related issues that would come to characterize the sexual revolution; it is about work. As historian Christopher Lasch wrote in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism, “In the light of the subsequent radicalization of the women’s movement, The Feminine Mystique is usually read (when it is read at all) as the first halting step down the road since traveled by an army of more militant women.” The main concern at hand is not the legacy or correctness of Betty Friedan (who made many errors), but the partial truth in her writing that seemed to appeal to many. As Lasch contends, “The issue, in a word, was how to revive a sense of vocation in a society destitute of any sense of common purpose.” This is a conversation worth having.

The women Friedan holds up as satisfied are those who sought “to fulfill an ambition of their own, long buried or brand new, to work at top capacity, to have a sense of achievement.” Fulfilling such an ambition “was like finding a missing piece in the puzzle of their lives.” This is very much in keeping with the spirit of the American ethos and the Protestant work ethic. She continues, “They knew that it did not come from the work alone, but from the whole—their marriages, homes, children, work, their changing, growing links with the community.” There is a lot of truth and appeal in this, even if Friedan’s focus sometimes led her to be too dismissive of work done within the home and of marriage as a vocation.

Regrettably, Friedan was not always a consistent or careful thinker. In trying to substantiate her ideas, she disastrously turned to Abraham Maslow, whose work was becoming popular at the time and whose hierarchy of needs and aim of “self-actualization” are now part of our social imagery. This intellectual turn opened up an alliance between feminists and Sexual Revolutionaries.

Some of Maslow’s theories seem reasonable but shallow. It’s fair to encourage human beings to develop their talents and abilities, but that in itself is an insufficient aim. Those capacities must be directed towards something and be grounded in morality and a proper understanding of an immutable human nature. Maslow’s ideology is about being true to oneself and doing what pleases the individual, permeating it with the seeds of expressive individualism. As Alma Acevedo writes in “A Personalistic Appraisal of Maslow’s Needs Theory of Motivation: From ‘Humanistic’ Psychology to Integral Humanism,” in “the needs theory, consequently, ethical norms are neither consistent, universal, nor communicable, but precariously shut into the individual’s ‘private psychological world.’ Moral good is not what everyone ought to will, but what self-actualizers desire.” Self-actualizers are self-creators, not those who have achieved human flourishing through the mastery of virtues common to all.

While division of labor is common between couples and throughout human history, there is no perfect, uniform, and timeless model. These delineations are best discovered, rather than enforced.

Rather than turning to such problematic psychology, better answers about the division and nature of work and purpose can be found in liberalism and the theology of vocation and the body.

What liberalism (a liberalism that respects the duality of rights and duties) brings to the table is the insight that choices are often best made on the individual level. It promotes a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. Individuals and families are most equipped to navigate their particular circumstances with prudence.

Within a family and marriage, men and women often institute a division of labor based on their differences. Some hold up the 1950s as the ideal conception of relations between men and women. Yet the notion of a housewife is itself an anomaly, made possible only by profound abundance and the industrial shift from the agrarian household that characterized much of human history. This point has been emphasized by several writers in recent years, including Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Erika Bachiochi and UnHerd columnist Mary Harrington.

While division of labor is common between couples and throughout human history, there is no perfect, uniform, and timeless model. These delineations are best discovered, rather than enforced. What the division specifically looks like depends on the individual talents of the husband and wife, as well as the conditions of their family. Sometimes, due to financial considerations, both need to earn a wage. The proportion and balance of work and family life often evolves with time. Families grow and children’s needs and abilities also change as they get older.

Ideally, we should view work done within and outside the home, and in civil society, with an understanding of the duties of vocation. As articulated by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, “Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.” Work is an obligation we fulfill to inculcate virtue, improve and beautify what already exists, and serve others.

It is undeniably true that work (both paid and unpaid) is often banal, but we sometimes overlook the importance of even the mundane. A factory worker may produce canvases to support his family, which is honorable. An artist may later beautify the canvas into something far from mundane. And sometimes tedious work teaches us the hard and often unwelcome virtue of humility, which is reason enough.

Work can be intellectual or bodily, creative or healthful. Many of us understand the tired satisfaction that comes after a hard day of physical labor or the delight of having transformed a chaotic space into organized beauty. This work is not inferior to but complementary to the work of the mind. Both bring their satisfactions with the recognition that the human person is body and intellect inextricably unified.

Questions surrounding work and vocation are serious ones, worthy of the examination of the individual and the revisitation of each generation. Am I spending my time wisely, or do I have more to give? Am I utilizing, rather than burying, my talents? It is unsurprising and good that men and women are grappling with these ideas today. Let’s hope in our reflections that we credit the older wisdom of theology above the whispers of modern psychology.