Women’s Work

I’ve been wondering if the reason that we have so many great men explaining the inner workings of the human soul and mind is that the great women were off cleaning the great men’s houses and raising their children. Of course today women can and do perform any job that men can (in theory, in much of the world, for a fraction of the salary.) But traditionally, throughout history, for most women the work available was unpaid or poorly-paid labor–taking care of men and children. In our society we assign worth based on cost and price, and for centuries we have thought of women’s work as having very little value.

For years, as a symptom of this lack of respect for their work, women were given little or no education. They were taught no craft or skills or knowledge. And the artworks of female painters, writers, musicians, were similarly dismissed, if they even found the time or the means to make them. As Virginia Woolf writes, “She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband.” Artists such as Grandma Moses or Elizabeth Cotten showed interest in drawing or making music as children, but set it aside to raise their own children or the children of others, to work as nannies and maids. They only rediscovered their art after decades, as older women. And thank goodness they did, but think of the millions and millions of women throughout history with creativity bursting out of them, too tired or busy to express it, too overlooked to share it.

As any mother will tell you, it’s hard to complete a sentence, let alone a major work of philosophical importance, when you can’t let the children you’re caring for out of your sight, when you have to deal with their constant neediness. It’s hard to remember all the brilliant thoughts you might have had, when you can’t sit still and write them down until you’ve mopped a few floors and scrubbed a few toilets. For centuries, women haven’t had a voice, because their thoughts weren’t deemed worth hearing. It’s hard to fight against that sort of prejudice and shout, “This is what I know to be true,” when you’re tired out from all your chores and your children won’t eat or sleep the way they’re supposed to. It’s hard to think beyond the tangled present, the cluttered day-to-day.

Which I think is a shame, because I believe it’s impossible to really figure anything out, to understand the workings of our hearts and souls and minds or to contemplate our place in the universe, if you haven’t spent some time struggling through the humbling sameness of our days. It’s hard to understand how humanity works if you haven’t spent some time raising or cleaning up after humans. It’s hard to understand our place in the world if you shut yourself off from everything real in that world. Caring for other people–feeding them, nurturing them, healing them, cleaning up after them–changes your perception of everything forever. It opens doors inside of you, and gives you a glimpse into the pure heart of our place in the universe. It gives you a real feeling of being an animal, full of elemental needs and wants, but it also teaches you about the transcendent quality of love, which connects you to everything else on some indefinable spiritual level.

The jobs that are traditionally considered “women’s jobs,”–teaching, nursing, nannying–are not only arguably the most important jobs, they are also the jobs that give you the clearest insight into all of the complicated ways that our minds and bodies grow and work. It’s all very fine to lock yourself in your study and collect your serious thoughts and your beautiful words, but don’t forget the messy, teeming life outside that door. Don’t forget the children screaming at each other in the kitchen, because they understand a lot of things you’ve forgotten. Don’t forget the world outside your window that’s slowly and inevitably rolling and growing and dying and growing and dying and growing again, whether we understand it or not.

And perhaps that is why those great men, with the door closed to the tangled cluttered present and to the needs and cares of others, often got it so very very wrong.

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