The glass ceiling is cracking. Women have been leaving the home in droves to move into the marketplace, and though we still experience challenges related to equal pay and breaking into the last vestiges of “good ol’ boy” clubs, the opportunities opening to us in every field are encouraging. My own experience confirms it: I earned a degree in supply chain management, which encompasses the traditionally male-dominated fields of manufacturing, transportation, and purchasing (i.e. negotiation). As I watched the program at my university grow, I saw many women enroll and successfully compete with men for the most desirable jobs. It’s exciting to see women breaking into male industries and roles from which they’ve been excluded for so long.
Playing by Men’s Rules in Man’s World
However, as I looked around at women wearing broad-shouldered pant suits and reading books about developing more aggressive negotiating styles, something began to trouble me. Women have broken into “man’s world” and are successfully playing by the men’s rules, but they are just that – men’s rules. Success is defined by men’s values: salary, title, and how well a person can relate “man to man” with his – or her – business associates and leaders. Beyond that, women’s very desire to enter the marketplace largely derives from male-constructed values. Who says the men’s world is a better one? Men do. So when women reject our traditional sphere of domesticity and run to the world of men, we communicate that we think their world is better than ours. We discard our femininity in exchange for masculinity and call it feminism.
Feminism’s greatest win was in giving me civic rights equal to those of men: the right to vote on who will represent me in government (and the right to run for office if I want to), attend college, compete on equal footing with men for jobs, and own a business, as I do right now. Where feminism came up pitiably short was in its capitulation to masculine values by surrendering the dignity of domestic work. Housework can be tedious, dirty, and exhausting. When a woman is forced to perform this work due to the threat of a man’s physical or verbal abuse, or the withholding of his money or affection, it is oppressive. In the appropriate context, however, work in the home holds a great deal of dignity. Women have long understood the worth of domestic work, but in recent years that dignity has been stamped out as women refused to stand their ground and defend their own set of values to complement and balance the values of men. Instead, tired of being looked down on by men and (increasingly) progressive women, many women in the home gave up the fight and went to find affirmation in the male-dominated public sphere. In doing so, we quietly accepted and internalized masculine values at the expense of our feminine ones.
Homemaking is More than Drudgery
How do we make feminism feminine again? To begin with, women must restore our own faith in feminine values. Is there any value in traditionally feminine work, or is it really just drudgery to be endured? Drudge work is part of any job a person holds – man or woman. In the home, we deal with endless laundry, cooking, and cleaning, but in the office it’s emails and tedious “project status” meetings. The service industry (foodservice, retail, airlines, taxis, etc.) has developed a whole economy of drudge work. Drudgery isn’t unique to homemaking and shouldn’t define it.
Neither does child-rearing define homemaking, though we often use the term in that sense. Single people, even if they work, are also homemakers. Wives with no children are homemakers. Homemaking is the activity of creating space for a healthy inner world. It’s an outward expression of our inner being, who we are when the public isn’t watching. Ideally, the home is a source of energy for our work in the public sphere. It’s the location of our hobbies, a gathering place for people we love, a safe place to be ourselves and gain perspective on other areas of life. Domestic work is hard work, but it’s also worthwhile because its primary goal is to meet some of the deepest needs of the body and soul: the need for food and rest, and the need for a place to belong. In its own quiet way, homemaking is essentially world-building for an entire household.
Unfortunately, the source of dignity for domestic work – its location in the private sphere – is also an obstacle to women receiving the recognition they deserve for their work in the home. Only a handful of people see the dishes cleaned, the household budget made, the groceries purchased and prepared, the bandaged knees, the words spoken in a child’s bedroom to a hurting heart. In the public sphere, progress is demanded, recognized, and rewarded; in the private sphere, progress happens and it’s called daily life. Men live in a world of status and hierarchy, but a housewife has only one co-worker (her husband), and he’s often too distracted by his own world to share the concerns and small victories of her day. Women at home are easily discouraged because recognizing and celebrating success is not practiced as regularly in her organization (the family) as it is in his (the workplace).
Uphold the Dignity of Women’s Work
This leads to a twofold challenge. For men, the challenge is to recognize the ways women support you in your daily activities, at work, but especially in the home. Learn to understand the unique ways their femininity shapes your world, and verbalize your respect for the women in your life. You can even participate in their world-building through acts as mundane as helping maintain a clean house or genuinely listening to your wife when she wants to discuss her concerns about bad habits or relationship problems. Recognize that she is trying to maintain a healthy culture for the home – your home. For women, this means we should not look down on other women who have courageously chosen to work in the home when so many other options are available to them. Instead, we should support them woman-to-woman by affirming the dignity of their work and their commitment to the next generation. Additionally, in the way that we speak about ourselves and other women, especially to men, we should boldly uphold the dignity of women’s work, with the goal of leading them to understand and accept feminine values, even as we have accepted many of their masculine ones.
Feminine values have long stewarded the homes, happiness, and inner worlds of men and women alike. It’s time for women to remind ourselves that femininity grants us dignity and power in ways that masculinity does not. While it’s commendable that women have made their way outside the home (as even I have), we don’t have to succeed in the workplace to earn dignity. Domestic work is inherently valuable, not because it supports a man’s work, but because it is crucial to maintaining a healthy and whole person. Though it’s countercultural to say so, we know that in the home, we also are world changers.