In Chesterton’s Emancipation of Domesticity, he states that “there must be in every center of humanity one human being upon a larger plan; one who does not “give her best,” but gives her all.” What exactly did he mean by that, and how does it apply to our lives today?
Chesterton clearly saw the home as the institution for which all the others exist. It was not an afterthought or of less importance than the outside world, but the most important place which had the most important people in the society – the children. Children, in Chesterton’s worldview, are the future, and the education and formation of those children, the most important function of society.
Chesterton saw women as uniquely suited to the task of educating and forming children in many ways. There are obvious biological reasons women are designed to care for infants – giving birth, breastfeeding – of course. Beyond that, the capacity of woman to be broad – to be generalists, is one of the most important reasons that women are well suited to the task of this larger plan.
Men tend to be specialists – to focus on a task or individual mission – Chesterton called them “monomaniacs.” Women, on the other hand, have a capacity to be much broader. They see the large picture and can work to ensure that the needs of a whole human being are being met. In fact, she is so broad that she has the ability to tend to the needs of a whole set of human beings, the family.
This power of broadness is a strength when applied to the family – it is also a strength in the workplace. Chesterton, however, would argue that while a woman can be incredibly good at office work, her talents are meant for a larger purpose – that of the home and family. If this causes you some consternation, consider where you may have developed the idea that the workplace was more important than the home, and then reconsider whether you truly agree with that notion.
The idea that work in the home – unpaid work – could be more valuable than that which requires credentials and earns a paycheck is counter cultural, but is it correct? Is it possible that Chesterton was correct? That the industrial revolution has brought men and now women out of the home, leaving the domestic sphere neglected despite its supreme importance? Do we believe the home is the most important sphere any more? If so, do we act like it?
We all know the struggle that women who work outside the home have. Chesterton describes it this way: “I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time.” Over a hundred years ago, Chesterton saw the struggle that modern women were facing – one that is amplified today, yet many of us cannot even see the root cause.
There is the idea of the Chestertonian fence. He says, essentially, that if you come upon a fence, you must first discover the original purpose for the fence before you go tearing it down, lest you have unforeseen consequences. We are living in a “post fence” world with regard to women and the home. The expectation now is that, by default, women will prepare and then work outside the home – and the majority of American women do just that. With notable exceptions, staying home with the children is a temporary state – a pause in the career of the woman – and one which causes much consternation. Our economic situation is such that many women don’t even feel that staying home with her children is a possibility. And a housewife without children in the home is almost unheard of.
What has our society lost by moving women out of the home and into the workforce? Increased labor supply certainly has placed downward pressure on wages – who benefits from that? (hint: not the family) Child care costs consume much of the second income. Other, less measurable costs are relevant as well. Our families are breaking apart. Children are frequently disconnected from humanity and “plugged in” to technology. This societal disconnection infiltrates every aspect of our existence. It is clear that government interventions, largely through our overtaxed school systems, are inadequate to meet the fundamental need of our children for true connection.
So what is the solution? First, we must focus small. How can we order our lives so that the most important unit of society – the family- takes precedence? It might be a reduction in hours, or, after much prayer and discernment, a leap of faith leading to the mother, and -dare we hope- father, back in the home. Second, we have to confront our bias towards credentials and titles. Some of the most intelligent people I know are autodidacts. The state of our educational system is abhorrent – and much education today is actually miseducation. We must learn to look beyond labels and categories and see the person. Formal education (and its accompanying indebtedness and indoctrination) may not be the way forward for one who wants to embrace the domestic sphere as the most important in society. Finally, we must embrace a worldview where people are more important than possessions. We must reject outside appraisals of success – credentials, paychecks, human respect- and rely on our intrinsic motivation of the welfare of those God has entrusted to our care.
At the end of the day – and the end of our lives, all of the outside approval, pay and recognition mean nothing. We are left with our families – the ordinary sacredness and beauty of that which is in our own homes. Chesterton saw the danger of leaving this home unguarded. He knew that the job inside the home was very large and it required the focus of a person capable of doing the most important role in society. The path forward is simple, but difficult – once the fence is removed, it is difficult to replace. One family at a time, and one decision at a time, we would do well to consider Chesterton’s thought as we move towards a more well ordered and well functioning society. Critical to our success is acknowledgment of the importance and indispensability of “one human being upon a larger plan.”