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Dispatches from the present


Women’s Work


“A genre is hardening,” as James Wood once wrote. The genre in question has been hardening for decades, but has only recently accreted into something new and noxious. Its modal entry is an article explaining that women can’t have it all, but that what they really want is just babies anyway. That reactionaries publish and republish variations on this article is neither new nor surprising. What is novel and nefarious is the canny repackaging of the position in pseudo-progressive terms.

In Compact, nominally the product of a red-brown alliance that grows browner by the day, Pedro Gonzalez (“Why Bosses Love #Girlboss”) and Matthew Schmitz (“Handmaids of Capital”) have suggested that stay-at-home mothering is an act of revolutionary #resistance to corporate hegemony because it represents an affront to the tyranny of work. Last week, Helen Andrews made similar arguments in irresistibly representative address to the Claremont Institute. A woman who forgoes childbearing in her fertile years, Andrews warns, is going to emerge in her mid-thirties without a family or a sense of purpose. All she will have to show for herself is “a laptop job doing corporate busywork.”

Whatever initial appeal this argument has, it owes to the unpleasantness of corporate drudgery in general, not to the predicament of female corporate drudges in particular. Invariably, the job that features in articles like Andrews’s is soul-sucking, pointless and therefore presumed to have been chosen solely for the prestige it confers (although surely some corporate peons are in it for the salaries, not the status). But we do not need to make any mention of children to explain the obvious. It is not mysterious that women feel empty when they devote themselves to empty enterprises.

Andrews’s point—that women will regret spending their twenties working instead of procreating—would have an even thinner veneer of plausibility if her example involved the sort of work that people are typically passionate about. Having children may be more gratifying (for most people, anyway) than entering numbers into a spreadsheet, but is it obviously more gratifying than writing books or discovering new planets? We needn’t go as far as Plato does in the Symposium, where he suggests that the propagation of the species is of a lower order than the propagation of ideas, to see that someone might reasonably prefer many kinds of noncorporate work to child-rearing. What would Andrews have to say to a woman who has forgone family life to sculpt, or to study Augustine, or to teach math to children, or to care for abused animals, or to become a nun?

What would she have to say to me, a woman who writes, thinks and reads for a living? Whether these pursuits amount to a job or a vocation, what I do is “work” in one undeniable sense: it is my source of income. It is also an exercise of ardor, and I would certainly not stop doing it in order to have a child for the simple reason that I love it. If I ultimately opt to become pregnant, no doubt reading and writing throughout, I will be a better mother for having taken the time to cultivate independent interests; if I do not, I will certainly never come to regret having spent my twenties digesting Bernard Williams.

My luck, of course, is almost unheard of. Vanishingly few people are in a position to convince someone to pay them to do what they love. Vanishingly few people have the opportunity to languish in the extravagantly well-compensated roles that Andrews deplores, either. Most people, and by extension most women, take jobs they don’t like and that don’t even pay well, not because liberal feminism has brainwashed them into conformity, but out of economic necessity. It is undoubtedly horrible for a person to wake up each morning and perform futile, unfulfilling tasks under coercive conditions. But it is no more horrible for women than it is for anyone else. The problem is not women working: the problem is work as it is currently configured.

Does this mean that we should strive to eliminate work altogether, as Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, argued in his 1883 polemic, “The Right to be Lazy”? If work is that which we would never undertake voluntarily as a matter of definition, then there is no reason we should not opt out of as much of it as much as possible (if not to have babies, then just to loll around). For Lafargue, work is anathema to pleasure and therefore no sensible case can be made for it. “The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work,” he writes. “Their slaves alone were permitted to labor: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind. And so it was in this era that men like Aristotle, Phidias, Aristophanes moved and breathed among the people.”

But is it right to call Aristotle “lazy”? He founded and taught at a school of philosophy, and it seems to me that we might justly describe his efforts as work, as something difficult and valuable, even if he also enjoyed them. As I wrote on the sign that I carried as I marched in my graduate student union’s picket line, a labor of love is still labor. Or at least, if a labor of love is not labor at a deep metaphysical level, we have every right to insist that it be designated as labor by the powers that remunerate laborers but not lovers. The assumption that work can only ever be hellish—and the corresponding assumption that anything beloved must not qualify—is at best a strategic gaffe and at worst a concession to the capitalistic forces that Compact somewhat unconvincingly purports to oppose.

Why should we suppose that the only options are toil on the one hand and idleness on the other, or that the only options for women are corporate busywork on the one hand and housewifery on the other? Unbelievable as it may be to those at the Claremont Institute, some women are already doing work that matters to them. The next step is to first imagine and then demand a world in which everyone—including mothers, and maybe even Helen Andrews!—has the time and materials to pursue meaningful projects too.