reflections on feminism, Emily Davison’s 1911 “Women’s Work,” and Joe Biden

[originally posted at my old blog on 16 October 2008]

In one of her letters to the editor of the London Times, militant suffragist Emily Davison makes a critique and a plea that continue to resonate very much for me today (“Women’s Work,” 22 April 1911, 6G). A student in one of my writing courses came across this piece while researching Davison, and of course I was fascinated. The letter is interesting enough that I’ve transcribed it in full (with my musings after the text):

Sir–Will you allow me to add a contribution to the correspondence going on in your columns headed “Women’s Work”? The mistake which is being made by your correspondent who adopts the nom de plume of “A Woman” is that of arbitrarily labelling certain kinds of work as “women’s work,” and others as “men’s work.” She also throws a saddening sidelight on the poor opinion women anti-suffragists entertain of their own sex when she says the phrase “women’s work” confers a stigma of inferiority. The real meaning of the women’s movement of to-day is that such artificial delimitations are to be swept away. “Woman,” for example, asserts that “woman’s work means the nurture of the race, the domestic arts, and those other offices which naturally fall to women.” But most of us are acquainted with men who take up these so-called feminine pursuits and carry them out as well as, often better than, most women. We know of extremely efficient and highly-paid men cook and chefs; men excel highly in the sartorial art, from the tailor down to the “handy man,” who is often a beautiful sewer and knitter; some of the gentlest and best nurses are men, especially in hot climes [?].

On the other hand, we also know of women who excel in so-called masculine callings. Miss Trill, your former correspondent, gave three striking examples in Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria, and Josephine Butler. Queen Victoria adopted the affectation of the day in attributing to the men what she really did herself. Her statesmen, however, all bore testimony to her marvellous statesmanship and close attention to business. No single document did she sign unread! No single appointment was made without her careful consideration and approval. She spent the most busy arduous days for her country, and the state of her country at the beginning and at the end of her reign proved it. Queen Victoria was no mere figure-head, and she trained up her successors in the same school. We might add to these notable women the long list of lady doctors, Mme. Curie, Mrs. Garrett Anderson, Mrs. Hertha Ayrton, and many another woman who has engaged in man’s work. Modern philosophers teach us that in every man there is something of the woman, and in every woman something of the man. The amount happily varies.

The real truth of the matter is that all these absurd restrictions must cease. You have no more right to force a woman into the one sphere of motherhood than you have to force a man to become a soldier. The evil results in each case are manifest. What is needed is a fair field and no favour for both sexes. Let each man and woman have the right to develop his or her own separate individuality in the way for which that individuality is best fitted. Only so can evolution go forward. Only so can the nation rise and progress. It really is a modern parallel to the old ecclesiastical discussion as to whether a woman had a soul. The question was once hotly debated, and it is being debated to-day again in a new form. This is the whole doctrine underlying Olive Schreiner‘s epoch-making work “Woman and Labour.” Is woman to remain a parasite or a slave, or is she to seize the right to be in very truth the comrade, the helpmeet of man? In the process of evolution she must rise to full and perfect liberty, or only then, and not till then, will it be possibles [sic] to say that “Britons never will be slaves,” only when they are no longer sons of the bondwoman, but of the free.

Okay, so first let’s all acknowledge the disturbing nationalist, racist, and imperialist aspects, and its weird social darwinism. Not good, I know. I’m going to set that big mess aside for the time being, though. This document’s central point makes me so excited that then I get sad … because my enthusiasm for the simple idea that men can nurture and women don’t have to indicates that, nearly a century later, Davison’s good ideas still seem a little radical. Women can vote now, and that’s awesome. But the more fundamental stuff–”a fair field and no favour for both sexes” in terms of overt and subtle social pressures, not just in terms of the law (which is in fact still inadequate)–has absolutely not taken place. Look at advertising, especially the crap aimed at children (oh, I’m sorry: at little girls and little boys, almost always quite separately). Look at the rhetoric that has surrounded, in very different but equally sexist ways, the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin–and then look harder at the rhetoric of masculinity that surrounds the candidacies of male politicians. Look at the pressure exerted upon young women to marry and reproduce, or at the very least to want to marry and reproduce (‘Oh, you may think you don’t want babies, but you’ll change your mind …’). Look at all the young women who hedge potentially feminist-sounding statements with “I mean, I’m not, like, a feminist,” and at all the young men who don’t even conceptualize the possibility of being feminists or of feminism benefitting them (because they are rarely invited to perceive the truth: that treating socially-constructed gender roles as natural hurts men and boys too).

I’m a fan of the equally shared parenting movement not because I think it’s the right model for every family (that would be silly) but because it protests our culture’s assumption that mothers are and naturally ought to be children’s primary caregivers–that nurturing children is fundamentally “women’s work,” and that men are inadequate to it. That’s insulting to fathers (whether equally-sharing or not), and it puts an insane burden of responsibility on mothers. Regardless of our politics, we should all be able to recognize that Joe Biden’s comments on his parenting experiences in the recent vice presidential debate exist in the context of this idea that only mothers understand parenting and domestic challenges:

Look, I understand what it’s like to be a single parent. When my wife and daughter died and my two sons were gravely injured, I understand what it’s like as a parent to wonder what it’s like if your kid’s going to make it.

[...] I understand what it’s like. I’m much better off than almost all Americans now. I get a good salary with the United States Senate. I live in a beautiful house that’s my total investment that I have. So I — I am much better off now.

But the notion that somehow, because I’m a man, I don’t know what it’s like to raise two kids alone, I don’t know what it’s like to have a child you’re not sure is going to — is going to make it — I understand.

I understand, as well as, with all due respect, the governor or anybody else, what it’s like for those people sitting around that kitchen table. And guess what? They’re looking for help. They’re looking for help. They’re not looking for more of the same.

His need to claim that fathers are parents too indicates a social context in which fathers are often discounted as parents. The sitcom model of competent mom and playmate dad is very powerful (and not at all divorced from Palin’s constant “Joe six pack” and “hockey mom” dichotomy), as is the idea that birth control, safe sex, prenatal care, etc. are solely women’s responsibilities and concerns. And Biden’s assertion that men have meaningful emotions too is equally telling.

Okay; this post is looong. In brief: I’m bummed that men’s ability to parent and nurture, and women’s ability to be happy doing things other than parenting and nurturing, are still so absent from (and surprising in) popular discourse!

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One Comment

  1. Posted 25 February 2011 at 6:21 PM | Permalink

    I second the motion.

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