The question of whether women should work outside the home confuses a lot of people. A recent twitter conversation made this clear. A friend put this question to me and seemed to expect a simple yes or no, the kind of response suited to a 140-character medium. But, simple answers to questions that already inspire confusion rarely do more than increase people’s perplexity.
To answer this question well, we first have to look at what kind of question it is. The “should” causes all the trouble. The problem is that “should” can indicate two kinds of queries: questions of morality and questions of prudence. The first category relates to questions about what kinds of actions fit within the set of moral injunctions that embody our sense of justice, of dignity, of compassion and so on, and which actions violate these.
So, the question, “Should we murder the mailman for fun?” is asking whether the wanton taking of a human life comports with the moral values most human beings intuit, and which our traditions have handed down. Any reasonable person can easily answer “no, we should not murder the mailman” and, in doing so, be a comfort to postal workers everywhere.
“Should” can also indicate questions of prudence. Questions of morality have answers that are binding and absolute. Questions of prudence have answers that change depending on circumstance. Questions of prudence all have an assumed, if unspoken, opening that goes something like, “given the current set of circumstances, should…” Circumstances are irrelevant to questions of morality, but crucial to questions of prudence.
The question of whether wives and mothers should work outside the home is a question of prudence. Because it is a question of prudence, it can’t be answered without some detailed explanation. Failure to distinguish what kind of question this one is has been one source of the confusion that surrounds it.
A second, not unrelated, source of tension has been the tendency on the part of those who offer answers to assume too little freedom or too much. In a society where feminism has made relations between the sexes a battleground, the tendency on both sides has been to dig in and act as if the answer here is clearer than it is.
One side assumes too little flexibility in the way families run. People who think that women’s working outside the home somehow violates a moral law fail to rightly discern the difference between issues of morality and issues of prudence. No doubt, this is often motivated by a punishing anxiety about making mistakes that could damage the family. Yet, confusing these two kinds of questions creates as much or more havoc in the home than a working wife or mother. Just look at Homeschoolers Anonymous for evidence of this.
More people make the opposite mistake. They assume there are no boundaries, that men and women are interchangeable. Feminism has taught people that, if this question should even be considered, anything short of an immediate and enthusiastic “yes” must be regarded with suspicion.
The truth is that our natures create boundaries prudent people heed. The relationship between the sexes is not infinitely flexible. Most women, by their nature, do not want the burden of supporting the family financially. Her working creates complications in the marriage, especially if she outearns her husband. Most women want a husband who leads and earns the lion’s share of the income. In spite of all the shouting to the contrary, most couples are happiest in what Athol Kay calls a “Captain and First Officer” arrangement. In seeking to answer whether the wife should work outside the home, prudent people don’t ignore the given realities of male and female natures.
The context also has to be considered when answering this question. Wives working outside the home is mostly a tragedy. Of course, husbands working outside the home is mostly a tragedy too. Ideally, the family would work together at home to generate its income. Prior to the industrial revolution, this was the default set up for a lot of people, each member of the family pitching in on the farm to keep things in the black.
With the advent of industrialism, came the new pattern of one or both adults leaving the home all day to labor in other places of employment. When we ask if women should work outside the home, we are really asking to what degree should wives and mothers be subjected to the tragedy inherent in the modern economy.
Given these factors, the only blanket answer we can give to the question of whether wives and mothers should work outside the home is “maybe.” In some situations, like when the husband is ill or otherwise incapacitated, the answer is a definite yes. In others, it’s a clear no. If a family is so wealthy a woman does not need to earn an income, there are many more valuable things she should be doing.
Most cases fall in the middle. The middle demands wisdom. Wisdom demands knowing one’s priorities and a commitment to living them out as best as possible in an imperfect world. Families must be honest about the factors involved: their budgets, their expectations of one another, and their motivations. This way no matter who works where, the emphasis remains where it belongs, not on the world outside, but on the one at home.
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