In yesterday’s article, I explained how conservative politicians have gotten into such a delicate position regarding “women’s issues.” Today, I examine two common solutions to the competing demands that family and career make on women, before putting forth what I believe to be a more fruitful approach.
The Tolstoyan Compromise
At the heart of the work-family quandary is a problem of over-commitment. It is difficult to enlist women wholeheartedly in the project of raising families if they are simultaneously pursuing demanding professional goals. The most obvious way to solve such a dilemma is through the diversification of labor, and ideally, that diversification should play to everyone’s strengths. This leads us to what I term “the Tolstoyan Compromise.” Because conservatives tend to be strong believers in gender complementarity, they are often attracted to a strict gender-role-based resolution to the work-family problem.
The key to this solution lies in the claim that the sexes have different talents and are attracted to different sorts of goods. I coined the term “Tolstoyan Compromise” because the novels of Leo Tolstoy show roughly the pattern that most conservatives would like this gender differentiation to take. Tolstoy lost his mother at a young age, and for him, true feminine fulfillment is always found in maternity.
In War and Peace, Natasha Rostov marks her transition from girlhood to womanhood by a loss of physical beauty and the abandonment of her musical talents; these youthful pursuits are mere preliminaries to her true and proper role as a mother. The same theme is made still more explicit in the short story Family Happiness, in which the female protagonist learns to eschew participation in civil society (which was once a source of real pleasure to her) through the realization that real feminine happiness is found in the family. Tolstoy’s male characters find their bliss in the perfection of rationality, through philosophy and art and the attainment of broad understanding. For women, nurturing is always the true calling.
Not many, perhaps, would paint a picture of gender complementarity quite so stark as Tolstoy’s. Slightly softened versions can be found, for example, in the works of G.K. Chesterton. Angela Miceli’s recent Public Discourse essay might also be read as trending in this direction, albeit in a much more tentative way.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to realize, when I made my own transition into motherhood, how potent this ideal still is, even in a fairly rigid form. When my eldest child was a few months old, I began teaching a single university course in the capacity of an adjunct professor. The campus was mere blocks from our home, and I was away not more than ten hours per week, during which time my husband was able to stay with our son. I found it to be a rejuvenating break from that seemingly endless treadmill of rocking and nursing and diapering, which I, like most new mothers, found overwhelming at the start. But when I confessed this to fellow religious conservatives (both men and women), I was startled and somewhat bemused to find that many were obviously displeased. They wanted me to affirm a definite preference for domestic activities over professional ones, and felt that even this small departure from full-time domesticity ought properly to be a source of pain to me.
There is of course some truth to the Tolstoyan ideal, insofar as men and women often do find fulfillment in different things. I appreciate why some wish to reinforce these differences by urging women to channel their talents in a domestic vein, and many do take real delight in the culinary arts, decorating, sewing, and so forth. We should, by all means, appreciate those accomplishments. Nevertheless, I think it both impolitic and unfair to ask all women to limit themselves to those activities and ambitions that naturally complement the maternal role. The range of opportunities available in the domestic sphere is so much more limited than those found in the professional world, and women, like men, should be permitted to aspire to the cultivation of the talents they actually have.
The most unfortunate element of the Tolstoyan Compromise is also the thing that would make it most toxic in the political sphere. If we stipulate that a woman’s true bliss is found only in maternity, it would seem to follow that girls who aspire to anything else are disordered. And, looking at the lives of talented women who give up ambitious goals for the sake of their families, it becomes natural to see this just as a salutary learning experience for the woman herself, and not as a real sacrifice. My anecdotal experience would suggest that some religious conservatives do see the world that way, but quite obviously, Republicans will not endear themselves to women if they start making claims of this kind.
The Tragic Choice
Elizabeth Corey, in her 2013 First Things essay “No Happy Harmony,” outlined another thought-provoking position on the work-family divide. Her essay is worth discussing, if for no other reason than because it offers a clarifying consistency.
Corey argues that women are indeed suited for, and able to benefit from, the pursuit of rarefied excellence. This, she believes, we have learned from the legacy of feminism. However, that pursuit is starkly incompatible with a real commitment to nurturing maturing souls. Thus, it is impossible to reconcile these two admittedly very great goods. Women simply have to choose.
Unlike the proponents of the Tolstoyan Compromise, Corey sympathizes with the pain women feel in giving up other serious pursuits. This is one of the strengths of her essay. She describes tortured late-night conversations with a female friend who passed up the opportunity to develop her considerable intellectual potential for the sake of raising a family. Years later, this friend still bitterly resents the way in which her husband’s colleagues see only her domestic maternal persona, not noticing that she also possesses a mind. Corey wants to tell her friend that it’s not too late, but she doesn’t, knowing that this would be a lie.
The dichotomy Corey presents is stark, but there is some justification for that. After all, it really is the case that motherhood, at least in the early years, can make it all but impossible to pursue personal excellence. This sounds grim, and yet it must be understood that the blessings of maternity are mostly found in the space that is opened by a radical redrawing of priorities.
The whole object of parenting is to take immature, undisciplined souls and gradually transform them into capable adults. Instead of fitting her children into her own perfected household system, a mother must attend to their needs, accepting that it is inevitable and appropriate for them to go through developmental stages that fall well short of adult excellence.
Childless adults love to look at the struggles of their parenting friends and tell themselves that they could manage things much better if they had children. Their houses would still be spotless and their pot roasts cooked to a perfect state of tenderness. They would not allow the furniture to be spoiled, or permit themselves to be seen in public with spaghetti sauce on their pants. But the reality (if and when the children come) never lives up to those resolutions. Indeed, it would be disquieting if it did. No child wants to grow up under the totalitarian rule of a parent who values her pristine clothes and living room arrangement above her children’s need for exploration. And in fact, messy houses and overcooked dinners are probably among the easiest of the compromises that will be required if mothers are to find the patience and serenity that equip them for nurturing maturing souls.
Obviously, Republicans cannot win ground by declaring to women forthrightly that they must choose between work and family. Nevertheless, there is something valuable to be taken from Corey’s essay, because many women find it a relief to realize at some point in their lives that the agonizing trade-offs they face really are a reflection of the world, and not of their own laziness or poor planning. It can be liberating to realize that there was never a single “right choice” that would have yielded every sort of advantage. Giving women permission not to have it all cannot represent the whole Republican message, but it might be a good place to start.
Republicans for Choice
Republican politicians should not try to tell women what they or their families need. The best way to defuse the work-family problem is by sympathetically acknowledging its reality, and then focusing again on a favorite Republican talking point: increasing opportunity. Republicans should promise women that they will work to open a wider variety of educational and professional alternatives, thus enabling them to capture as many of the relevant goods as possible.
In fact, there is much more that could be done along these lines. Liberals, in their enthusiasm to urge girls on to high achievement, often ignore the fact that most married women are willing to make professional sacrifices for family. Further, those who do so tend to be happier with their lives. About half of married mothers say they would prefer to work part-time, while another fifth would prefer not to work at all.
Republicans can assure women: we respect all of these choices, and will work to build the sort of economy that will expand your available alternatives. Casting the Democrats as a party of Sheryl Sandberg-like “lean in” zealots might be a good strategy. Women do often resent the implication that they should be high-powered lawyers like Hillary Clinton or professorial activists like Elizabeth Warren, when most mothers can’t realistically pursue such demanding professional goals.
At the same time, women might enjoy being reminded that even if they can’t have it all, a healthy economy and supportive social structure might enable them to have much more than generations past. Maternity may require us to relinquish our pursuit of excellence for a time, but eventually children grow up, and no longer need to be the sole focus of our attention and energy. Even when they are young, it should be possible to leave some small corner of our lives in which we can develop personal talents. Corey suggests that truly ambitious women “don’t want to do anything halfway,” but this seems silly. Nobody’s resources are infinite, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can.
Fortunately, medicine and technology are on our side. People can now raise children and still be left with decades of good health in which to pursue rarefied excellence. Meanwhile, technology opens innumerable new avenues for networking and retraining. Republican politicians should be talking about the many ways in which a more fluid and less regulated labor market could open doors to more flexible career opportunities, or to late careers. Online education and employer-developed examinations might enable older women to shake the stigma of having left the workforce, proving that their willingness to make maternal sacrifices does not show them to be soft or untalented.
Not every woman will want to work outside the home, and that is perfectly fine. On a cultural level, conservatives can improve their appeal by making it clear that they value female excellence in many forms, and that they recognize the legitimacy of women’s desires to pursue it. This can be hard, for reasons already mentioned. Many people take comfort in the belief that domesticity is the appropriate outlet for female ambition. In the end, though, almost everyone can see the appeal of a society in which a woman can devote herself to family without relinquishing all hope of developing and being recognized for her personal talents.
A thriving society is built from two key ingredients: a healthy economy and a healthy civil society based on healthy families. Republicans have consistently stressed the importance of both, and now they simply need to extend that message to women in a more targeted way. Ensure mothers that their sacrifices are appreciated, while also convincing women of all ages that their talents are needed and valued.
At the core of the work-life problem is a thirst both for love and for personal excellence, and both of these desires should be encouraged. A good-faith effort to ease the tensions between domestic and non-domestic pursuits might yield happy fruit of all kinds.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.