Friday 7 August 2020

Married Women who Work Outside the House

I came to the "Tim Gordon on Married Women Working" controversy a year after it happened, and I hope this post does not rekindle the conflagration. Tim lost his job as a well-respected Catholic school teacher because he criticised the Marxist BLM, and I don't want to pile on him months after most people have probably forgotten about his controversial interview.

As a matter of fact, I have heard denunciations of Married Women Working since I was 18 years old, and before then I read countless books that presented Married Women Working as objects of pity or scorn. My father's mother  worked as a full time bookkeeper or accountant, but I had it in my head that this was to pay her sons' Catholic boarding school fees. My mother's mother, who lived in the era of the family wage (and good public education where she was), worked a bit for amusement and pin money. My mother had five children and so didn't have time for work until I was deep in my twenties, and then she got a job that paid for her younger son's private school fees.

About ten years ago, someone gave me a book from the 1940s or 1950s about Catholic Etiquette and there was a section about Married Women Working. The book stressed that a Catholic woman's primary obligations were to her husband, children, and house, and that she did no wrong by working outside that house as long as she did not neglect her sacred duties.  At the same time, though, the book saw her needing to work as a calamity and counselled her husband and children to lighten her burden by taking part in the housework, etc.

This reminds me, by the way, of a priest who very much annoyed my mother in the 1970s when he preached about the messy state he found his parishioners' houses in when he paid calls. Can you imagine? Well, I can, for my father has a store of funny or alarming stories about the autocratic priests of his 1940s/1950s youth. But I digress.

Or do I? One of the characteristics of men of the so-called Greatest Generation is that many of them objected to their wives working for reasons that made sense to them. Some of them make sense to me, too. For example, working women were sexually harassed an awful lot. If homosexuality were not illegal for so long, I bet working men would have been sexually harassed an awful lot, too. But this sexual harassment was real, and the father of a former flame of mine once complained to him that things had come to such a pass that you couldn't tell a woman at work that she had nice breasts anymore.

Another characteristic of Greatest Generation men was that they thought Women Working suggested that their husbands were not Good Providers. Being thought a Good Provider was a big, fat deal for Greatest Generation men. And the fascinating thing is that, if employed, most of them really could provide for their families. Some of my favourite stories about life in post-war Edinburgh are told by the son of a union organiser.  His father was also a builder of some description, and he managed to support his wife and children on his wages. If he stayed too long at the pub, his wife would bring his dinner and bang it down on the counter in front of him.

Unfortunately, millions of men in the West are no longer assured of a wage that will keep them, their wives and their children housed, fed and shod. I don't pretend to know why that is, exactly, and although as a child I thought we must be poor, I now realise we were very well off in ways that did not include designer clothes or ponies, my twin obsessions when I was 12. One of the ways we were rich was that my father had a career he enjoyed instead of a job or jobs, which is the lot of most people today, and another was that we had a proper house with gardens, front and back.

One of my most enduring memories is of my mother hanging out the washing on the ingenious twisted-metal line in the sunny back yard. The line worked on pulleys, and so I could see my young mother's impressive arm muscles working as she pinned up a piece of laundry and then pulled the line along to put up the next piece. My mother's arms were a testament to all the housework and child-lugging she did, and when she was in a good humour she was the most fun mum in the world.

However, my mother was not always in a good humour because she also had a first class, university medal-winning mind, and if you have such a mind, housework and childminding are terribly boring, especially when you are under thirty in the 1970s. My mother's mother yakked to the woman next door over the fence, and her eldest daughter now yaks to the woman downstairs over the fence, but the woman next door to my mother worked all day, and so there was no-one to yak to. It was frustrating. Also, my mother was both behind and before her times. Being a housewife was suddenly incredibly unfashionable, and there was no online community of mommy bloggers to encourage her because the internet had not yet been invented.

Therefore, women longing for paid employment simply because they are bored, lonely and unhappy to be at home all day with children have an advocate in me. And happily for primary obligations to husband, children and house, quite a lot of paid employment can be done from within the home, if necessary, especially now that the coronavirus lockdown has proved that. I recently read an hand-twisting essay by a man worrying about the Demise of the Office.

Naturally, this is not the only reason why married women work. One of the thing traditional Catholic women really need to understand about the traditional Catholic men they seek to be married to is that they are highly fragile. They are men, so they get sick. When I survey my family history, I come across all the calamitous early deaths of my ancestors or their siblings and--guess what? Those who die before 60 are disproportionately male. Most of the women seem to live well into their 80s.

You may laugh, but I have noticed that my friends' husbands aren't necessary blooming with health, and there is evidence that Benedict Ambrose's brain tumour was quietly, slowly and secretly growing even before I met him. Before B.A. got sick, I was a relatively lazy freelancer (although, you must admit, a very committed blogger). After B.A. got sick, I grabbed the first full-time job I thought I could get.

This turned out well: now I write for a living, and for a company that does not fire its employees for saying surgery and hormones do not turn men into women, etc. My job is more stable than my husband's job, not just because of the current epidemic of Woke but because the lockdown caused by the other epidemic has ripped the guts out of his industry. He has been at home for months now, atoning for the government-backed pay-cheques babes yet unborn will have to cover by working day and night to save his union members' jobs.

Just like male illness, male unemployment is a thing. It's a very terrible thing--apparently they suffer more than we do when they're unemployed, and there are various theories for why this is. If young men were at all likely to listen to me, I would tell them all to work and save as much as they can before they marry, fitting in university/college classes around their paid work, socking everything into an investment portfolio. Oh, what it is to know at 40-something what I should have learned by 18. Woe.

My pin-money earning grandmother told my mother c. 1965 that her B.A. would be something to fall back on if she didn't get married. Naturally I hyperventilated in feminist horror when I heard that in the 1980s. Now that I move in hyper-trad circles (although I must point out that the staunchly family-friendly company I work for employs many young mums who work with babies on their laps), I would say that professional or vocational training is something to fall back on if your full-time stay-at-home-mum dreams don't come true.

Important advice there, I think, is that if your one dream is to marry at 22 and become a full-time stay-at-home-mum, for heaven's sake, don't take on hundreds of thousands of dollars/pounds of educational debt. I'm a bit nervous about this advice, though, as I have just looked up the tuition for a Newman Guide approved American university, and yikes. Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, in Ontario, is nowhere near as expensive, though.

I'm a fan of both women's higher education/training and women marrying young enough to have children in the only manner God intended, and this is further complicated by my honestly acquired horror of debt. I'm also a huge fan of love marriages because I really don't believe western marriages can work without a golden, shiny founding myth to sustain the spouses as they get fat and cranky. Like me, my reader is likely to fall in love with a clever, funny, amiable man without either a job-for-life or an independent income. Oh, in what an age we live. Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Domine ad adjuvandum me festina. 


  1. In my experience, a lot of men want their wives to stay at home because they're convinced that that's the only way in today's world for their kids to turn out well. They're afraid of the way that daycare might influence them. They often want the kids to be homeschooled.

    To make matters worse is that there's a mentality with a lot of young people that college is the time to have fun and party instead of preparing for their future. They indulge in doing what their parents wouldn't let them get away with. I'm not saying you can't ever enjoy yourself, but making getting drunk a priority is not the way to go.

  2. The thing that really bothered me about Timothy Gordon's infamous talk is that he claimed, repeatedly, that it was a mortal sin for women to work outside the home. Just to double check, I asked my (very traditional) priest if that were the case and he said absolutely not, as long as one's primary duties were not being neglected. He also said that it is important for a woman's mental health to have the intellectual stimulation that work can provide, if that is what she needs. Not everyone is cut out to be a SAHM.
    I'd be very interested to see an article addressing the theological points that Gordon claims back up his argument.
    Incidentally, now that he has been sacked and is having to rely on handouts from sympathetic benefactors, I wonder if he will have the humility to rethink his position. He wouldn't be in such a dire situation if his wife had an income too.

    1. To be fair, though, I believe they have six small children, and one of the children has recently had brain surgery. Whereas I strongly doubt it is a mortal sin for a married woman to work outside the house, there are families where it really is best for the mother (or one parent) not to work outside the house.

  3. Apparently I've written too much, so I'll post this in two parts.
    Part I
    This topic always makes be a little angry because of the perceived ‘tradition’ of SAHM. Now, there is certainly truth that most women did indeed stay home. But this idea of women staying home to prepare and keep the household for husband and children is really a nostalgic backwards-projecting fantasy. If we get out of this 1950s-bubble thinking, where women were pressured to stay home and work, but were often so miserable that they were put on anti-depressants, and adjust our gaze just a bit further historically, I think our thinking may change a bit. First of all, this 1950s view is very idealistic. It was based in middle-class ideals, which for the most part also originated in the Victorian era. The Victorians wanted women to become the guardian of the home (and society), and in order to do this they needed to be able to NOT work. Which means many women were working before. It was only in families where men were able to earn enough that would allow for their wives not to work. The subsequent world wars sort of blasted that apart, and further pushed by the large numbers of single women who lived alone or outside their families in the 1920s and earned wages (although women working as domestic servants had been occurring for a couple centuries).

    What we know about the 1950s is that there were still a number of women who still had to work. Thus you get two-car families. (And also, the idea that everyone was devout and moral in the 1950s is a laugh. There is a few-year high of church attendance just after the end of the WWII and peaks in 1955 before crashing – particularly among Protestants. If anything, regular church attendance was a Catholic thing, not a Christian phenomenon in North America). We also know that many women worked, not for pin money, but as the main support income. Italian women in Toronto were known for paying a significant portion of the household expenses from their incomes, and it was their husband’s salaries that went to extras and savings.

  4. Part II
    Looking further back, we see numerous examples of women being essential to the household income and actually not taking care of families as intensively as we might think. Again, this ideal of having women being the sort of hovering-guardian of her household was a middle-class ideal, no doubt coming from some terrible situations of neglect and abuse of families. If we look to a Catholic example, look at St. Therese’s parents, the Martins (both canonized now too). Louis was a watchmaker, and Zelie a lace-maker. Louis ended up quitting his work to manage his wife’s business because she was making more money. She earned enough to support a good household, and education for her daughters. But they also had a nanny/governess. Zelie oversaw the household but that does not mean she was doing all the household tasks.
    If we look farther back, to the early modern era, we find many of the French middling-classes where the wife’s labour was considered so important that families were willing to spend a significant part of family income to send children off to wet nurses to allow the wife to keep working (up to 50% of merchants, artisans, etc). The children come back when they could contribute to the household. There were some religious concerns about this, but in the most part it was not about the woman shirking her duty, but rather concern that they choose morally-sound wet nurses. We can find similar examples throughout history further back. Women worked and earned incomes that were vital to household success. To argue against it is a naïve rejection of history and idealistic middle-class thinking that is nearly impossible to achieve in this day with so few proper-paying, job-for-life positions available.

    Finally, there is certainly merit to past concerns about women working outside the house because of safety. Of course, there were women who always went to sell goods at markets, etc. It was the case of being accompanied, being in socially acceptable spaces, etc. To use similar arguments today is a bit ridiculous. The rates of violence and crime have so significantly decreased in the past centuries, it’s incredible. It’s relative – the news makes every case seem to significant and threatening, and because there are fewer, they can actually be reported on more. And it gives people the false perception that more crime is happening. (Now certainly, there are specific places and situations that are incredibly dangerous, but I’m not addressing those). What we should be focusing on is ensuring our society follows morals and virtues – easier said than done. But we should not be restricting women based on the vices of men.

    1. Excellent! I think that my Catholic Etiquette book really must have been of its time--narrowly of its time, too. You bring out something that I didn't: only rich or "comfortable" married women didn't have to work until "working men's" wages significantly increased.

  5. THIS. Also, this is a very good article which also shows that the 1950s were a societal blip. (It's not pasting but Google "trad wives" in Unherd.

    1. Is the article you're referring to "Why tradwives aren't trad enough" by Mary Harrington on Unherd?

    2. I've been pretty open-minded about what other women want to do while raising a family, and I've even assumed that some have Queen Esther-like callings to use God given gifts for pro-life work, brain surgery, holding political office, or other good causes.

      However, if you follow American politics at all, you will see the sad, sad story of pro-life hero Kellyanne Conway's teenage daughter going off the deep end. Both Kellyanne and husband have both left their jobs now to deal with this very sad situation of their estranged 14 year old (!) Daughter. It made me question my assumption in the first paragraph that some women have special gifts which make them good candidates for working outside the home. She was one of the prime examples.

  6. I don’t even know who Tim Gordon is and certainly don’t think any women who is working outside the house is sinning. I also quite agree that the stay at home housewife is a Victorian era/1950’s myth- for most of history both men and women worked closer to home.
    HOWEVER. Though the French and others used wet nurses, I do think that breastfeeding shows us that the norm is for babies to be close to their mothers all day. I’m not saying that everyone can breastfed- Zélie Martin certainly had problems, etc- but if we are serious about the theology of the body we have to see that god’s design is for babies to be with their mother’s.
    As for using first class minds: a few things from my experience. 1. Running a household and caring for children well takes a good bit of creativity and intelligence. Maybe that’s because most of my generation was not taught to do this work so it’s less routine, but any time you are teaching and caring for children, your mind has to be very attentive and sharp. 2. All jobs have some drudgery. 3. There are ways to use one’s mind on out of the house things while at-home- reading, writing, painting, etc. I’ve written one article for pay since my youngest was born a year ago but I’m writing things I enjoy even more and certainly read.

    Homeschooling in earnest (my oldest is in first grade) has definitely been something more challenging intellectually- especially since at our co-op I help the rhetoric students. But just teaching kids to swim, read, etc requires a good deal of thought and attention.
    Again, this is not to say that all women must stay home. Some certainly have special vocations as drs etc.