The Question of Women and Work

July 22, 2014

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)

Babette's Feast - a movie review

July 16, 2014

I once went to a Swedish film with a friend, and when the movie started with subtitles running along the bottom she turned to me and said, “Wait. This movie is IN Swedish?” So, with that moment in mind, I will straight away tell you that this movie, Babette’s Feast, is in Danish, and Swedish, with a smattering of French – but the subtitles are in English. This isn’t a talky-talky sort of movie with lots of darting and witty conversation, so having to read the translation of what is said isn’t arduous.

Babette’s Feast won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988, along with many other accolades around the world. I love this movie.  It’s a quiet, gentle film based on a short story by Karen Blixen (who also wrote Out of Africa). For all it could be considered a small movie, it finds a way to settle deep within the viewer, sinking into the quiet, reflective place in the mind where it can be brought out and pondered from time to time later.

Like any good story, there are poignant moments, prudent touches of humour throughout, and lines of dialogue that you realize are telling you something True. It is the story of two daughters of a Protestant minister in a very small village in Jutland, Denmark. They are beautiful and talented and kind, helping their father in his work and caring for those in need in their community. Suitors come and suitors go (discouraged by Papa), and the daughters carry on in their usual routine of good works even after their father dies. One bleak night Babette appears at their door with a letter of introduction from one of the long-ago suitors. He asks the sisters to take Babette in, as she is a refugee from Paris who has lost her family to the revolution. “She can cook,” he writes.  And so she stays with them and the years go by. She patiently allows them to teach her how to soak dried fish then boil it, and how to soak bread in ale to make some sort of soup. Oddly enough, after Babette takes over the kitchen, money goes further than before and the food tastes better – a fact gratefully appreciated by those in the community the sisters were feeding.

Meanwhile, grievances and squabbles are taking over the little congregation. They take to snipping at each other and rehashing old hurts. The sisters decide to host a simple celebration in honour of what would have been their father’s 100th birthday – for a little party is sure to remind them all of what he used to teach them. 

The best laid plans, however, are often derailed so that we can learn something important. Circumstances arose to allow Babette to change their plans of a simple meal with a cup of coffee to a luxurious French feast the likes of which that little group had never seen. The whole village was amazed to see the ingredients brought by special order from across the sea. The members of the congregation – a Puritan-leaning sect – agreed that in order to not be tempted by their senses they would partake of Babette’s meal but not take any notice of what they ate or drank.  Of course we know that happiness experienced through the body can bring mellowness and contentment, and that the well-being following a meal shared with family and friends encourages cordiality and charity and forgiveness and all sorts of good things.

The ‘Babette’s Feast’ scene is a delight on many levels: it is beautifully filmed and well acted, and perfectly simple; watching Babette prepare the meal is intriguing while the food and the set dressings are sumptuous; seeing the effect of it all on the diners is Chestertonian – I just know G.K. would have appreciated the way food and wine and conversation restored friendships, healed old hurts, and melted hearts – and it is ripe with symbolism in that the meal represents charity, love, and generosity. We understand without being told that a need within Babette was being fulfilled by being able to serve this meal to these people.

Because Babette’s Feast is a simple story well told, there is room for the viewer to take from it what they will. There is plenty of meaning to be gleaned if you look for it, or it can just be a gorgeous piece of Danish cinematography. Either way, there is grace through art, and grace aplenty in this movie. I heartily recommend it.

Are you a Feminist?

July 15, 2014

I took an online survey a few months ago called “Are you a feminist?”  I was eager to know the answer because in all honesty, I didn’t know if I was one.  I’m a 30-something married woman who strives to be ok in her own skin.  I work part time outside my home, and the rest of the time within my home (no I don’t have a business on the side, I’m a homemaker-without-kids).  I love my husband.  I’m generally not angry, and I’m a practicing Catholic (which may de facto exclude me from flying the feminist colours).   I strongly believe that mothers are profoundly and irreplaceably important to their little ones, and if that wasn’t bad enough, I sometimes wear long skirts (**gasp**) and I don’t wear bikinis. 

So I clicked on the link to the survey – which came up with this:

“Do you believe in the complete equality of men and women?” 
Yes or No.

Of course, I clicked yes and was taken to:

“Congratulations, you’re a feminist.”

 (Incidentally if you click no it takes you to a similar screen that says, “You’re not a feminist. Shame.”)

That’s it?  How disappointing!  How na├»ve.  And how utterly simplistic.  I couldn’t believe that’s all there is to it. 

As it turns out, that’s not all there is.  Webster defines feminism as the “movement for social, political and economic equality of men and women.” goes further.  It adds, “Feminism means women have the right to enough information to make informed choices about their lives.  And because “woman” is an all-encompassing term that includes middle-class white women, rich black lesbians and working class straight Asian women, an organic intertwining with movements for racial and economic equality, as well as gay rights, is inherent to the feminist mandate.  Some sort of allegiance between men and women is also an important component of equality.  After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual.” 

Wait.  What?  I was really struggling to understand what straight Asians and rich black lesbians have to do with the definition of feminism – which (according to the original survey) is simply the equality of men and women.  And that, my friends, is the problem.   Feminism has become this electrified buzzword – a word synonymous with all sorts of different movements, people, feelings, emotions, causes and historical events, some of which are even directly opposed to one another.  Here are just a few things I personally associate with feminism:

The New Age Movement
The Healthy/Crunchy/Local Food Movement
Anything Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender
Gender confusion
Bare-breasted, violent women attacking clergy
Rosie the Riveter
Abortion rights
Women’s studies/rights/issues
Dorothy Day
Simone de Beauvoir
Gloria Steinem

I also surveyed my friends on social media, informally asking them to put down the first thing that comes to mind when they see the word “feminism” or “feminist” and here’s what I got:

The Bechtel Test
Maya Angelou
Bra burning
Edith Stein
Alice von Hildebrand
Men being told to stop being gentlemen
Women being able to vote
Women being forced to work anywhere but in the home
Equality for women, but not for men

Talk about confusion!  But there’s more.

Picture credit
American Feminism has some historical roots in the suffrage movement – the movement that succeeded in gaining the rights for women to vote and be involved in political life.  Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony were at the helm around the turn of the century, encouraging women to begin trade unions and working tirelessly for women’s rights.   They were called First-wave feminists (according to the almighty Wiki).  Then there were Second wavers (those following in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir around 1960) and then Third-wave feminists who surfaced around 1990.  Each wave came about because of the perceived failures of the previous wave.  Then there are various offshoots of each wave.  There is Standpoint Feminism (which asserts that the movement should address specific global issues like female genital mutilation or rape and incest) and Post-feminists who have irreconcilable differences with both second and third wavers.  There is also a group who call themselves New Wave Feminists who ascribe to certain feminist ideals (whatever they might be) but intend to reclaim the feminist label “from those who have corrupted it” and identify with the pro-life movement.  To further complicate matters there are countless other political, materialist, black and postcolonial, social constructionist and cultural ideologies and movements that can overlap with one or all of the waves.   We also can’t forget about the other named facets of feminism out there (according to the University of Alabama website):  Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist and Socialist Feminism, Cultural Feminism and Eco-Feminism – and I’m sure there’s a whole heck of a lot more.  I won’t bother explaining what all those factions are about because a) I don’t really know and b) it would take a doctorate in women’s studies to find out.  And does it actually matter?  Can’t we just agree that it’s all a gloppy quagmire of Mississippi mud - this “feminist” thing – and leave it at that? 

A few months ago I heard Fr Denis Lemieux speak about human beings and their relationship to technology and his main point, the one that he drove home over and over again wasn’t “don’t use it” but rather we must THINK about what we’re doing.  “Don’t let technology take you anywhere you don’t want to go.  Know who you are and what your life is about.  Think and be free.”  I think the same concept applies here.  If you want to identify yourself as a feminist, do so, but think about what you believe, and know what you mean when you say it.  Words are important.  They mean something and we shouldn’t just throw them around like they don’t, most especially when using cultural buzzwords like ‘feminist’.   The danger is publicly claiming association with a group that might idealize values and morals that don’t jive with your own core beliefs.   We have to ask ourselves if we can really say that we’re feminists and Catholics?  What does that even mean? 

Even after my preliminary foray into it, I’m still unsure of what it means to be a feminist, or whether Catholicism and feminism can jive together on some level.  I’m inclined to think that I, personally, am not one.  If I had to identify with one of the feminist ideologies, I would have to say I agree most with the philosophies and goals of the New Wavers or the First Wave Feminists, but even then it seems as if some of the women who could be considered first wavers - like Margaret Sanger - held views which I think are abhorrent.  Don’t get me wrong, I am utterly grateful for the rights and freedoms that Feminism has brought about for women; the right to vote and hold public office, legal rights and freedoms (like the right to be considered a separate entity from ones’ husband or the right to inherit), the right to pay equity and many others.   As with most movements and causes, there are, contained within the philosophy and rhetoric of feminism, nuggets of truth, beauty and goodness that I believe are still worth fighting for.  I strongly believe in the sacredness of every human life, that men and women are equal in dignity and stature and that the basic rights of all men and women should be fiercely guarded and some of these banners are taken up in the name of feminism.  Yet I can’t ignore the package that feminism sometimes wraps around those truths – the man-hating, the gender-bending, the bitterness, violence, confusion and anger and everything in between.  I can’t condone all that and since the packaging is often what I see when I come face to face with feminism, I doubt that I am one.

I am however a Catholic, which is sort of like being a feminist but without all the man-hating and clergy-assault.  Maybe I could call myself a catho-nist or a fem-olic, but I'd still have to explain what that means and what I stand for.  Or I have a better idea.  maybe I'll just call myself Sarah and leave it at that.    

My Summer Reading List

July 9, 2014

Flailing around for a topic for today, my eyes landed on the huge stack of books I have on my desk.  They're all the books I would like to read over the next two months…operative words being "would like to".  I…er...have a lot of books on my desk, so perhaps it's wishful thinking that I'm going to finish them all this summer, but here they are anyways:  

Man and Woman: A Divine Intervention by Alice von Hildebrand
Some friends came and stayed at our house while we were on vacation and were kind enough to leave us a gift card to one of my favourite online bookstores.  (Thanks Nick and Barb!)  This was one of my purchases, and it had been on my wish list for a long time.  I'm hoping I will love it as much as I loved The Privilege of Being a Woman.  I mean if Rhonda Chervin says that it's von Hildebrand's greatest book, it's worth a look, don't you think?

Men, Women and the Mystery of Love by Edward Sri
I attended a conference for Student Life Leaders in May and in talking with a dean from another college, he told me he had studied this book with his students.  He had thought the chapter on friendship was especially good for students these days as Sri addresses a few modern problems that affect friendship - problems like technology teaching students to never make plans - and this was the main reason I bought it.  I hope to get to this one before the summer is out and perhaps have a little study session with it next year.

Spitfire Women of World War II by Giles Whittell
This book looks as if it came out of the $5 Walmart bin, but it grabbed me when I saw it in a box of books at my parents place.  The picture of women on the cover, dressed as pilots makes me think of the adventure and the heartache that must've been theirs during the great war.  I'm really looking forward to cracking this one open (and my new Rosie the Riveter bobble head tells me every day that "I can do it").

Rediscover Catholicism by Matthew Kelly
I went to the University of Steubenville with Matthew Kelly - went out for ice cream with him once while I was in Austria on their semester-long exchange.  Matthew's a great guy and has really made something of himself.  He goes around on speaking circuits winning souls to Christ and energizing and refreshing those within the Church.   I mean, God bless him in his ministry!  I found his book at a book sale and figured I could stand to be refreshed a bit.

Emily Post's Etiquette:  18th Edition by Peggy, Anna and Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning
Oh my.  I can't wait to read this one.  Not so much cover to cover, but rather to open it up when I come across modern problems of etiquette and grace.  I would LOVE to have lessons in etiquette but unfortunately there's nobody up here in the 'wilds of northern Ontario' that teaches them, so the next best thing is going to the guru herself - Emily Post (or any of the Post family who I'm sure have had every lesson in how to be proper and charitable towards others).

The Song at the Scaffold by Gertrud von le Fort
This was one of my box-of-old-books-finds, and I was thrilled - THRILLED - to find it only because von le Fort is one of those saintly gals that had a good handle on femininity, and was a good writer to boot!   I'm looking forward to checking out her storytelling skills.

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith
One of my loves is decorating.  I love doing it.  I love making my home beautiful and comfortable and cozy.  I'm constantly on the lookout for things that will look beautiful in my home, or things that just strike me in a certain way.  So Myquillyn had me at "It doesn't have to be perfect to be beautiful" - her mantra for decorating.  How awesome is that?   Her book, so far, is engaging, funny and chock full of pictures of her own gorgeous-but-not-perfect home and already I've taken some ideas of hers to use in my home.  Looking forward to finishing it off while on vacation and changing up the decor in my home.

Chosing peace, not chaos

July 8, 2014

Peace be with you.

How many times have I heard that said during the Mass? Dozens of hundreds of times if I only count the times I was really paying attention. Because I’d never given it much thought, I’ve always taken it as a greeting, a liturgical “Hey, nice to see you.”

I should have taken more notice of the phrase, because peace is something I want. It’s a word, a promise, a state I long for, so hearing it spoken of ought to alert my consciousness to something desirable, like when I hear chocolate mentioned.

We all long for peace, this I know. We’d like our family life to run smoothly; would prefer reduced stress in the workplace; want fewer personal conflicts; hope for greater certainty about the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Sadly, we tend to get caught up in the hectic moments of everyday life, and absorb the noise and distractions of a world gone mad around us. Has there ever been a time in history with more light, more sound, more activity, more scramble than ours? Scramble and distractions are not conducive to peace, I have learned, which is why every now and then I renew my resolve for the simple life, being deliberate rather than reactive, and unplugging from all the messages that tell me to go faster or else I’ll get left behind. Those message induce anxiety in me, rather than peace.

We equate peace with simplicity, with tranquility, with calm, with order.  We are not simple creatures, though, we humans. We have a knack for complication and confusion. Whether we create the chaos in our own lives, or bear the brunt of the chaos of others. I’d hazard a guess that many of us are dealing with some level of complication in our lives on a regular basis, and the exact level of chaos has a direct correlation to the lack of peace in our lives.

The desire for peace is a good thing, and God-given. We have the desire for it because we need the thing itself – peace – in order to flourish. But God is gracious and generous with us, so we are not given that longing without also having the means for fulfillment of it, which is planted in our heart.

“Man is contemplative both by destiny and by nature” I read in The Hermitage Within. It is our instinct to reach out for the Other, or as St. Teresa of Avila describes it, to seek “him whom my soul loves.” St. Augustine had it right: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”

It is built into us to long for God. And here is where the two longings – for peace and for God - come together: our God is a God of order.  What is peace but “the tranquility of order”? (CCC 2304)  Doesn’t that sound heavenly?  The tranquility of order. I can sink right into the words themselves.

I cannot have both. I cannot have chaos and confusion as well as have peace and order. The having of one over the other is not something that just happens to me – I accede to it, I allow it, I give it permission to take up a place in my life. The noise and distraction will reign unless I turn more deliberately to God, to “seek him whom my soul loves”

It is summertime, a time of year when it is both easier and harder to make resolutions. Regular routines are shaken up, there may be more freedom with the daily schedule, and yet there seem to be more demands on time, more opportunities to delay good intentions. All well and good, but there’s no way around it: in order to have peace, I must spend time in prayer, I must be prayerful throughout my day, I have to give Him myself, and not just the bits I’m comfortable with in the time that suits my schedule. I must choose these things in order to allow God’s peace to replace the chaos so often present in my life.

“Peace be with you” wasn’t a tepid greeting Jesus spoke to his disciples, nor is it an indifferent blessing we passively receive at Mass. It is a prayer, enjoining us to be at peace; live with peace; be peace-full. In order to be at peace, we must be with God, who speaks order into chaos, who calms the storm with a word. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Peace be with you.

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