The purpose of work
Why do we work? Why is it important?
“Our work – whatever it is - should become a means to pursue holiness for ourselves and our families, and to model holiness to those around us.” Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
The Catechism teaches that from work we draw the means of providing for ourselves and our families (CCC 2428). At its most basic, a job brings income, and income allows for housing and nourishment and fun. Beyond that, work is occupation – it is ‘not-idleness’; it is labour and service. It is a means of fulfillment of the potential written within us by means of the gifts we have been given.
There is another, transformative, purpose of work. Edith Stein (Woman, 257) writes about how the very gifts of femininity (maternity, being concerned with the personal and relationships) can become unhealthy. We see this in over-doting mothers, in gossips and nosey-parkers. She writes that work – whether housework, a trade, science, or anything else – requires we submit the whole of our person – thoughts, mood, disposition – to it, and thereby we temper what she calls ‘hyper-individuality’ which very loosely is an over-emphasis on ourselves. Dying to self is another way to say it: work demands of us that we submit ourselves to something or someone beyond our own wants and comforts.
‘Work’ has become a sensitive subject in recent decades, a hot-button topic for those who believe a woman’s work is in the home, and those who argue a woman can do everything a man can do. Who is right?
A brief history
The concept of work, or at least our approach to work, changed with the onset of the industrial revolution. In the Middle Ages for example, much of the important work of the time took place in the home, performed or overseen by women. Women were the bakers, the weavers, brewers, distillers, preservers, and so on. Men either worked alongside the women, or they were away from home for war or business. Work was a family concern, integrating ‘home’ and ‘labour’. The arrival of factories removed industry from the home, meaning someone had to leave home to work. The result was that trade, or business, became more definitely separated from family life. Gradually, industry became the domain of men, and having a wife who didn’t need to work was a marker of success. (Dorothy Sayers. Are women human? 31-33)
We then went through a period of time when women were, as a group, thought to be suited only to home life (The Victorian period especially.) As always happens, the pendulum of opinion shifted from that position to that of erasing the lines between men and women completely, and from the work that men and women do.
I see fervent advocates for both views in the world today, and tend to believe, as Dorothy Sayers wrote, that a job should be done by the person best suited to it, which neutralizes the issue altogether. I particularly like this: “It is ridiculous to take on a man’s job just in order to be able to say that ‘a woman has done it – yah!’ The only decent reason for tackling any job is that it is your job, and you want to do it.” (Sayers. Are women human? 30)
The work itself
Certainly there are occupations that are traditionally feminine in that they address the personal rather than the abstract (teaching and nursing are two examples.) We tend to be comfortable with the idea of a woman in these fields rather than a more typically masculine line of work because these are maternal, nurturing jobs.
Is it the maternal aspect of a given job that makes it suitable work for a woman? Often yes, but not always. As Gertrud von le Fort tells us, “the professions of women are not meant to be the substitute for motherhood, but rather the application of the never failing motherliness that is in every genuine woman.” (The Eternal Woman. 80) She goes on to say that it is only when a woman betrays her maternal character that she goes wrong (her words are “have a fatal influence”). (Eternal Woman. 81)
Dorothy Sayers writes about the little girl who likes chemistry – but it doesn’t mean that every little girl should become a chemist; or the fact that most girls enjoy dolls – but that doesn’t mean that every girl will like to play with dolls. In other words, there must be room for individuality. There are certain things that are true about us because we are women… and there are other things that are true about us because we are a unique creature of God with an individual calling and the gifts to live it out. These two facts about us mean that with maturity and self-knowledge, we can be drawn to a profession with masculine traits, and transform it with our feminine gifts. (Edith Stein. Woman. 254,255)
What women contribute to the world of work
Women tend to want certain qualities in their work: they prefer it to be purposeful, humanizing, and personal, and, As Alice von Hildebrand writes, “our minds work best when animated by our hearts.” (Privilege of Being a Woman. 62)
If these qualities are lacking, she will likely find the work draining and even demeaning. Because these qualities are in keeping with her feminine heart, if the work itself doesn’t demand it of her, hopefully she can find scope to “humanize man” (Alice von Hildebrand. The Privilege of Being a Woman. 46) She can be a reminder of the need for balance: home and family as well as work. She brings her beauty, delicacy, charm, ability to relate to the personal, her creativity to the workplace. She is a reminder that not all strength is physical. Most importantly, she provides a feminine voice and a maternal heart to the public sphere.
“Woman’s intrinsic value can work in every place … completely independent of the profession which she practices … Everywhere she meets with a human being, she will find opportunity to sustain, to counsel, to help. … The motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relations or of personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened.” (Edith Stein, Woman. 264)
The importance of discernment
Whether to work or not is just one question that needs careful and thoughtful consideration. Hopefully prayer and discernment is involved in the decision – for women with children or not, for married women or not. What field of work and the specific job also should be discerned: does it take away from higher priorities (especially family); is it morally and ethically sound; does it respect your dignity and that of others; will it enhance or diminish you as a person.
One thing to keep in mind is that ‘having it all’ is a lie. Saying yes to one choice means saying no to something else. It also isn’t possible to be always happy and fulfilled in every moment. Ask any working mother and she will tell you about the guilt she feels for leaving her children (and ask the woman providing care for those children and she will tell you of her gratitude for having a good job!) Ask a ‘stay-at-home’ mom and she will tell you about the days she longs to get out of the house. None of these scenarios is absolutely perfect or easy; we all make sacrifices.
Best advice? Heed the wisdom of our Blessed Mother at the wedding at Cana: Do whatever He tells you to do.
“Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of "mystery", to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.” (Letter of Pope John Paul II to women)