G.K. Chesterton on Woman at Work and at Home

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“…if education is really the larger matter, then certainly domestic life is the larger matter; and official or commercial life the lesser matter.”

Chesterton was contending with feminist arguments of his day that painted domesticity as dull and prosaic as a way to promote emancipating women to work in the public realm. Although he didn’t disagree that women could certainly work outside the home (and quite possibly put men to shame with their diligence and loyalty), he questioned the arguments used to advance it. Is this truly emancipation?

Was woman freer working in some narrow field, for probably an even narrower boss, and contributing 1/20th to the production of a pin (an actual example)? This was especially true for the vast majority of woman-kind who would be working in factories and shops. Chesterton also notes that Woman’s work at home would still have to be done when she left the factory. This was an increase, for sure, but not an emancipating one.

It was the denigration of the home and private life that concerned Chesterton. At home, Woman was a queen who was in charge of something greater and more expansive than any contribution she could make to the nameless public. She had the task of guiding the development of the vast cosmoses that are the human souls of her children.

He illustrates this point when he compares what parents do at home, versus the teacher at school. “Private education really is universal. Public education can be comparatively narrow,” because the schoolmaster who teaches one subject is speaking to merely one aspect of his students’ souls. Rather, “the mother dealing with her own daughters in her own home does literally have to deal with all forms of freedom, because she has to deal with all sides of a single human soul.”

Chesterton does admit that the Private task of dealing with one human soul in its entirety is more difficult, but to call it contracted or narrow is simply a lie. He also says that he understands the human desire to retreat to the Public where, instead of having to confront one complete human soul, one can play around with parts of many (and hide their own). In this, Public life is always easier; it’s simply a retreat from the greater to the smaller.

The paradox is that we hide in Public!

“There have been many household gods and household saints and household fairies. I am not sure that there have yet been any factory gods or factory saints or factory fairies. I may be wrong, as I am no commercial expert, but I have not heard of them as yet. And we think that the reason lies in the distinction which I made at the beginning of these remarks. The imagination and the religious instinct and the human sense of humor have free play when people are dealing with something which, however small, is rounded and complete like a cosmos.

The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of mortal life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where people should work, or even the only place where women should work, it has the character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labor.”

From “Women in the Workplace—and at Home” December 18, 1926, Illustrated London News.

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