Home Truths: Liberal Education for Mothers

F. Carolyn Graglia

After practicing law for five years, I gave birth to our first child and devoted myself to childrearing and homemaking. When our three daughters were grown, I occasionally did legal consulting and then began to write and speak on feminism and the family, regarding this as community service. I feel privileged to call myself a housewife because my husband, family, and home have given me the greatest satisfactions in my life, which I declined to diminish by returning to the workplace.

Far from wasting my education, I used it to resist the cultural forces steering me back into the workforce and to create an interesting and satisfying life. My marriage of fifty-four years to a law school classmate is my career. I do not need an office to give structure and meaning to my life, I never had to cope with job-related stress,1 and I am never bored. This life was possible because I married an honorable and dependable man who provided me with everything I wanted. Taped on our refrigerator for family enlightenment was Henry George’s musing: “Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whatever he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes a light and a power.” My education provided rich material for contemplation and enabled me to pursue self-directed studies so that I do feel like a light and a power. Integral to our family life was my own musing: “Never hold yourself above the performance of physical labor.”

In my book, Domestic Tranquility, I relate how the realization of impending motherhood prompted my decision to stop working after our baby was born.2 When I first began practicing law, a colleague who was a new father asked me whether I planned to stop working if I had a baby. I replied, quite arrogantly, that he had worked with me long enough to know that I was at least as bright as he, so why would I stop working? I assumed that since I was too smart to enjoy being a housewife, a nanny would raise my children and servants tend my home. But the knowledge that I was pregnant produced a sense of spectacular accomplishment that overshadowed my professional achievements. Caring for my baby became more important than anything I had done or could ever do in the workplace. My baby deserved the best, and as her mother, I was the best.

This decision entailed neither sacrifice nor regrets. It was an easy decision in 1959, because homemaking and childrearing were respected. In the 1960s, however, feminists began attacking homemakers, seeking to disadvantage them socially and economically to drive them into the workplace and gain independence from men. Feminists accomplished the status degradation of the housewife by depicting her as a parasite, an inferior, a dependent child who lacks any real function and lives without using adult capabilities or intelligence, and a waste of a human self (86–146). Many women believe they must work outside the home; they may be single, in families requiring two incomes, or prefer working. My leaving the workplace halved our income, but we could live well enough on that half. I cannot tell anyone else that my choice is right for her, but those women who favor that choice should not face hostile institutions, including today’s academy, which promote career over homemaking.

The academy is hostile because it largely assumes that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the marketplace and is dominated by feminist ideologues, who believe all women should work outside the home while their children are raised by someone else. Some academics, of course, deplore the narrowing of educational purpose to the acquisition of job skills, and under their definition a woman’s absence from the workforce would not denote a wasted education.

The Purpose of Education

Education, says Angus MacDonald, is not “development of a skill,” but “in the broadest sense is an understanding of life, what we can honestly believe, a grip of fundamentals”; it is “the search to find ourselves.”3 Criticizing today’s universities as “research- and vocation-driven,” Russell K. Nieli describes their transformation from institutions with “a civilizing mission” and an “ideal of character-formation” into ones that overemphasize science and business. He recommends adoption of a core curriculum based on former education secretary William Bennett’s description (via Matthew Arnold) of the humanities as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience.”4 Anthony T. Kronman complains that the inquiry into life’s mystery and meaning has been “exiled from the humanities, first as a result of the growing authority of the modern research ideal and then on account of the culture of political correctness.”5

Richard M. Weaver criticized those who see “education only as the means by which a person is transported from one economic plane to a higher one, or in some cases from one cultural level to another that is more highly esteemed.” Education should not be valued simply “as a means of getting ahead in life,” Weaver argues, but as “a process by which the individual is developed into something better than he would have been without it”; its purpose “is to make the human being more human.”6 By leaving legal practice, I foreclosed my family from moving to as high an economic plane as it would have otherwise reached. But education as a process of making someone a better, more human person supported my decision. A passage in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, which I studied in college, says “morals is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness.”7 I knew that in my circumstances, I would find it difficult to feel worthy of happiness if I made another choice.

The famous early proponents of women’s education were not thinking of developing job skills. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft advocated educating women on a par with men to “strengthen the female mind by enlarging it.”8 Wollstonecraft wanted women to be “more knowing than they are” because “it would be as wise to expect corn from tares, or figs from thistles, as that a foolish ignorant woman should be a good mother.”9 Ironically, vindication of women’s right to education to make them good mothers is now stood on its head in our culture, where the better educated the woman the greater the societal expectation that she will devote little time to mothering—a task for paid employees who are often the least educated.

John Stuart Mill believed companionate marriage required education and political rights for women. As domestic life became more important in men’s lives, women’s influence became “greater and more pernicious.” Because a man must look more to his “home and its inmates, for his personal and social pleasures,” said Mill, women must become men’s equals “morally and intellectually.”10 Mill believed marriage was intended to provide “intellectual companionship,” and he had an extravagantly high opinion of his wife’s abilities, acceding to any changes in his writing she suggested, even abandoning fervently held views.11 But it is doubtful he thought Harriet Taylor Mill should exercise her abilities through market labor.

John Ruskin and Beatrice Webb advocated educating women, but not sending them into the workforce. Webb argued that “[i]f women are to compete with men, to struggle to become wealth producers...I believe they will harden and narrow themselves....Surely it is enough to have half the human race straining every nerve to outrun their fellows in the race for subsistence or power?” Questioning the anomaly of educated women choosing to work, Anthony Trollope lamented: “Humanity and chivalry have succeeded after a long struggle in teaching the man to work for the woman; and now the woman rebels against such teaching,—not because she likes the work, but because she desires the influence which attends it.”12

Feminism’s Chokehold on Society

For the past four decades, except for those raised in certain religious communities, children have been constantly bombarded with the feminist message that the sexes are virtually the same and a girl should prepare herself for a life in the workplace devoted to achieving at the highest level possible in some career. As Roger Scruton puts it, “Women’s liberation in our day has, it seems, advocated the liberty of women to be themselves, but not to be women. The ‘self’ that is hidden in every woman, and which the feminists wish to free from its prison, turns out to be a man.”13 Illustrating this ubiquitous message, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times pictures thirty-six boys and girls with a different career written under each; none is a mother or housewife.14

Calling the mainstream media “one of America’s most pro-feminist institutions,” Bernard Goldberg documents media neglect or minimization of any troubling data on daycare and latchkey children: “America’s newsrooms are filled with women who drop their kids off someplace before they go to work or leave them at home with the nanny. These journalists are not just defending working mothers—they’re defending themselves!” At the same time, they give no voice to women who want support for tax cuts and other measures to help them stay home with their children.15 Paul C. Vitz demonstrates that feminist ideology dominates school textbooks, in which no story ever suggests “being a mother or homemaker was a worthy and important role for a woman.”16 McGraw-Hill’s guidelines for textbook illustration continue this effort to strip women of their domestic role by requiring the sexes be shown as fungible.17

Substituting “person,” “he/she,” or “she” for the male pronoun as a general referent promotes the feminist ideological objective of prodding women to abandon the domestic sphere. Using the male pronoun recognizes women’s quintessential role in bearing and nurturing children, while men must do other things to justify their existence. To eliminate this usage devalues women’s unique ability and directs them to act like men (155). Deploring this grammatical travesty, David Gelernter asks how he can teach his students to write decently when ideologues have recast “English into heavy artillery to defend the borders of the New Feminist state” and accomplish “the goal of interchangeable sexes.”18

This goal of interchangeable sexes threatens the woman who wants to be a homemaker and rear children. Contact with almost any feminist advocate will apprise her of the wasteful unworthiness of this choice. Predicated on marriage to a man willing and able to be the family breadwinner, her choice runs afoul of feminist antipathy towards marriage, or at least marriage between heterosexuals.19 Christine Stolba documents almost unvarying criticism of marriage in five of the most popular texts in women’s studies. Nine authors of one text describe marriage “as an instrument of social oppression” and a cause of women’s subordination. Another concludes that men “benefit considerably from marriage, whereas women lose a great deal.” Viewing domestic endeavors as “boring, ugly, tiresome, repetitive, unsatisfying, and lonely work,” the texts portray stay-at-home mothers with “withering criticism.” Because the texts assume that motherhood is “a burden for women” and “something to be overcome,” they encourage women to work outside the home. They also ignore critics of feminist ideology and omit relevant material inconsistent with a feminist agenda.20

Honest discussion of how sex differences may affect the choices men and women make could mitigate these corrosive messages.21 Where are those sympathetic in academia listening to women who feel drawn to childrearing? After my first talk about my book to law school students, a woman told me she had listened in shocked disbelief. She had been thinking about the possibility of motherhood in the same terms that I lived it and thought she must be crazy. Everything I said about marriage and children and being a woman was opposite to what she had been taught and thought her classmates believed. Recently, a female student at a large law school wrote to me about my book, saying her ideas about life choices were similar to mine, but she knew that no one at her law school would sympathize.

I believe women who feel as we do share a relationship like that described in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as complicity based on facts in which no one believes. Yet, standing out against the opinions of others can be difficult, as is evidenced by the famous experiment in which a large number of people stated clearly incorrect opinions about the relative length of two lines when put in a room with others stating that opinion.22 Robert Wright suggests experiments like this explain why Charles Darwin failed for twenty years to publish his theory of natural selection.23

Unfortunately, discussion of sex differences is among the most taboo subjects in academia.24 When Lawrence Summers suggested investigating whether differences in family commitment or aptitude might explain men’s dominance in high-level science and mathematics, he was attacked as symbolizing gender prejudice and lost the presidency of Harvard University. The scientific literature on why men and women enter certain fields is “legitimate, robust, complex and fascinating”—including MRI brain imaging that demonstrates that “male and female brains have strikingly distinct architectures and process information differently.”25 Discussing these differences, Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, notes the well-known fact that while males are “over-represented in the top percentiles on college-level math tests and tend to score higher on mechanics tests,” females “average higher scores than males on tests of emotion recognition, social sensitivity and language ability.” In sum, “males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize.”26

What Young Women Are Entitled to Know

Female college students frequently identify “finding and keeping a loving partner” as the greatest problem women face.27 Women’s studies departments not only devalue this goal, but feminist promotion of female sexual promiscuity as proof of female equality subverts it, because American men rank “faithfulness and sexual loyalty” as the “most highly valued traits” in a wife and “the single best predictor of extramarital sex is premarital sexual permissiveness” (156–63, 250–51).28 Any woman hoping to get and stay married needs a courtship—not a hookup—culture, because marriages preceded by cohabitation have 50 to 100 percent higher divorce rates.29 Married couples have become a minority (49.7 percent) of American households. Today, an increasing number of men refuse to marry the women they impregnate and an increasing number of children are being raised by single parents, despite the fact that, by numerous measures, children “in one-parent families are much worse off than those in two-parent families even when both families have the same earnings.”30

James Q. Wilson’s discussion of the sex ratio—the number of men per one hundred women in a society—is critical for all women who want to marry. Since women usually marry men who are somewhat older and more educated and affluent, and since far fewer men are graduating from college or are employed, the sex ratio has fallen significantly. By the time college educated, unmarried white women reach the age of thirty there are only half as many unmarried men of the same age and educational status, and the ratio for African Americans is even lower.31 These statistics show how misguided it is to revel, as feminists do, in women’s academic outpacing of men. Women now make up 58 percent of enrollees in two- and four-year colleges and, over all, they are the majority in graduate and professional schools. For every fifty women, thirty-seven men earn a bachelor’s degree and thirty-one earn a master’s degree.32 Some analysts try to minimize this disparity by claiming male underachievement is largely confined to black, Hispanic, and low-income white males—as if they don’t matter. But US Department of Education data show that at the end of high school, 23 percent of the white sons of college-educated parents scored “below basic,” as opposed to 7 percent of similarly situated girls.33

Today, 20 percent of women ages forty to forty-four are childless—double the level of thirty years ago—and the women who do have children have an average of 1.9, compared with the median of 3.1 in 1976.34 The sad fact that feminists hid when encouraging women to defer marriage and childbirth is that a woman’s chance of conceiving begins to decline at age twenty-seven; by age forty-two, 90 percent of her eggs are abnormal and she has a 7.8 percent chance of conceiving without using donor eggs.35 Feminist ruthlessness in keeping this information from women is evidenced by the successful efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) to prevent a 2002 advertising campaign by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to advise women of the difficulties of becoming pregnant as they age. NOW particularly objected to an ad that read “Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children” because it “sent a negative message to women who might want to delay or skip childbearing in favor of career pursuits.”36

Women who do marry and bear children are also entitled to know that there is a correlation between a low rate of female employment and fewer divorces. One study shows that women “who have been employed 80 percent of the time since their first child was born are two times more likely to be divorced than nonworking mothers.”37 Traditional families with breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife have the lowest divorce rate.38 Women should know the great harm divorce does to children, which is the same harm done to children born to a single mother, a choice unmarried women are increasingly making.39 Finally, women should learn about taboo subjects: “just how much children need their parents—especially their mothers” and the deficits children experience during our social experiment with maternal exodus from the home.40

To feminists’ dismay, some mothers have begun to leave the workplace and some college women now say they plan to stop working when they have children.41 Gretchen Ritter, director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas, condemns stay-at-home motherhood, depicting it as inferior to and less socially useful than wage labor. “Full-time mothering,” she says, “is also bad for children” because it teaches them that “the world is divided by gender.” Ritter urges mothers to perform wage labor in order to advance the interests of all women in the workplace and alleviate guilt mothers may feel about working. “The more stay-at-home mothers there are,” Ritter argues, the more working mothers “will feel judged for their failure to be in a traditional family and stay home [with] their children.”42 Similarly, Barbara Bergmann of American University opposed extending tax credits to those caring for their children at home because “all women workers have better job opportunities when the custom is for most new mothers to return to work very soon after the birth of a child.”43

Linda Hirshman, who has been a practicing lawyer, as well as the Allen/Berenson Chair in Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University, harshly criticizes mothers for negating the possibility of full human flourishing by leaving the market economy to rear children. These mothers, she claims, are undertaking “the work always associated with the lowest caste: sweeping and cleaning bodily waste,” and thereby they “voluntarily become untouchables.”44 I wonder what experiences in human flourishing make a woman describe caring for one’s own children in such terms. What this member of the credentialed elite calls the role of untouchables I found so delightful that, once undertaken, I could never abandon it.

When changing my babies’ diapers, I was not thinking in terms of bodily waste. I found it very satisfying to pick up an uncomfortable, admittedly dirty, baby and make her clean and comfortable again.45 I realized that having a diaper changed by one who thinks you are the most precious being in the world is different from having it changed by one who does the act for pay. No matter how mundane, a mother’s daily activities are important because they involve the gift of herself—her time and attention—to each child. In performing simple daily acts with love, we mediate a way of life to our children, build relationships with them, and convey to each child that he matters.46 The self I gave to my children did reflect my education because I shared my knowledge of history, philosophy, government, and literature. My husband and I find reading and talking to be among life’s most enjoyable activities. Our children benefited from living in a home surrounded by books, newspapers, and magazines where conversation—not television—was the primary form of entertainment. But the most important benefit of my education was that it helped me understand how needy children are and how vital my presence in the home was to their well-being; then, it enabled me to find happiness constructing a life at home.

In noting that women do take pride in good housekeeping (as examined in Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts), Harvey Mansfield doubts we can be romantic about making beds and cooking meals.47 To the contrary, when done with love, domestic tasks can exceed romantic and become a kind of sacramental ritual, which describes my feelings about daily making the bed in which our three daughters were conceived. The beauty of repetitive ritual is reflected in a woman’s recollection of cleaning the steps as a young Victorian girl: “You sort of had to wash your step, then wet...the sandstone, like you do a pumice stone style, sand it along right on the edge and then you had to get your fingers and go nice and smooth....[I] used to love scouring those steps. It’s a work of art, you know.”48 A century later, another woman writes: “Maintaining a home is a worthwhile and creative pursuit, not just a series of menial tasks best contracted out to a weekly maid service.” “My home is my little kingdom where, on a good day, with a lot of organization and a little bit of elbow grease, things run as smoothly and peacefully as I wish the big outside world did.”49

Capturing this feeling of the home’s sanctity as a repository of love, Virginia Woolf said the happiest moment in one’s life is the moment when one walks in the garden and thinks: “My husband lives in that house, and he loves me.” When Woolf has Clarissa Dalloway acknowledge gratitude to her husband, it is for Clarissa’s happiness within the home: “Nothing could be slow enough; nothing last too long. No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf.”50 The home as sacred space is a recurring theme of Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane. Houses, he says, “are held to be at the Center of the World and, on the microcosmic scale, to reproduce the universe” so that “ordinary life and the ‘little world’ that it implies—the house with its utensils, the daily routine with its acts and gestures, and so on—can be valorized on the religious and metaphysical plane.”51 For a woman viewing her home life in this way, sacrifice lies in leaving it for the workplace.

My homemaking role, including housework and yard work (my husband mows and edges), also lessens my participation in the class structure. I believe it is socially desirable for an educated woman (and man) to be seen happily doing the physical labor that feminists and others in the upper class usually consign to servants. Since the cognitive elite usually intermarries, we now have a large overclass of well-educated, two-income families (75–76). This strengthening class structure is one result of the increased number of married women in high-paying jobs as mothers choose careers over childrearing. As long as the best educated, most affluent citizens conduct lives that require a servant class, that class will continue to exist.

I find my attitude toward contact with the physical dimensions of daily existence reflected in William Butler Yeats’s “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (1937): “All that we did, all that we said or sang/Must come from contact with the soil.” Working in my home, I feel a kinship with those ancestors who emigrated from Ireland to be domestic servants. I know that my attention to the particularities of daily life gives me a grip of fundamentals and expands my humanity, while making a small breach in the class structure.

What Nature Tells Us

There are many descriptions of traditional sex roles. One Ivy League graduate explained that: “He’s the CEO and I’m the CFO. He sees to it that the money rolls in and I decide how to spend it.” Janet Evanovich’s character Stephanie Plum says one secret to her parents’ marital success is “the deal that my father made money and my mother made meatloaf.”52 My favorite is a Texas lawyer’s statement that “I earn the living and she makes the living worthwhile.” Any woman attracted to this traditional sex role can find validation in the literature on sex differences and evolutionary biology and psychology.

It is the role most consistent with nature’s scheme. In Ian Hacking’s words, a living being is an “organism that so regulates itself that it tends (a) to go on existing and (b) to generate other creatures much like itself.”53 Emphasis on career achievement results in childlessness or fewer children for many women because high status helps men, but hinders women, in the reproductive race. As Bobbi Low notes, the striving for status and resources that increases the male’s fertility may lower the female’s and also cause a conflict between what women “can gain from getting resources versus investing in offspring.” The important sex differences in “competitiveness and striving,” observed from the earliest ages, suggest that these patterns “have led to reproductive success for each sex.”54 Women’s shift from maternal patterns to market employment is a major factor in the stunning decline of birthrates in the Western world, a source of great concern that has proved unresponsive to government efforts (305–7).55

That a woman does not waste her education by leaving the workplace follows from the teaching of evolutionary psychology that our magnificent minds developed through sexual selection to be fitness indicators in mate selection. Her mind begins to serve its purpose when the woman acquires a mate and reproduces. Its further purpose is to help her retain the mate’s interest so that he will stay with her and make paternal investment in the children. Her mind can enable the woman to seek her own resources, but doing so must diminish her investment in children and marriage. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller develops this theory in The Mating Mind, proposing that our minds evolved as courtship machines. The peacock’s tail evolved because peahens preferred larger, more colorful tails, even though peacocks would survive better with shorter, lighter, drabber tails. “The human mind’s most impressive abilities,” says Miller, “are like the peacock’s tail: they are courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners.” Miller describes our minds as “clusters of fitness indicators: persuasive salesmen like art, music, and humor that do their best work in courtship, where the most important deals are made.”56

Language, says Miller, evolved for verbal courtship and “couples in long-term relationships tend to have vocabularies of similar sizes.” In response to women’s complaint that mates do not talk enough, Miller speculates that once a male’s courtship efforts have succeeded he feels no need to be “verbally energetic, interesting, and self-disclosing.” Females continue verbal courtship to maintain the male’s sexual commitment and paternal investment. Miller concludes that evidence, demonstrating how sex differences resulted from sexual selection, destroys “the credibility of claims that human sexuality and sex differences are purely a product of culture and socialization.”57

These sex differences are the major obstacle to making men as nurturing as women and women as eager for workplace achievement as men. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the nurturing hormone oxytocin surges through the mother, promoting “bonding and a calm, relaxed emotional state.” Women have more neural receptors for oxytocin than men and this number increases during pregnancy. Affecting women’s personalities in ways that make them better mothers, these hormones make routine more tolerable. Calling oxytocin “the kindest of natural opiates,” Sarah Hrdy observes: “Once nursing begins, bondage is a perfectly good description for the ensuing chain of events. The mother is endocrinologically, sensually, as well as neurologically transformed in ways likely to serve the infant’s needs.”58 Fathers, of course, must engage in childcare unassisted by the transformative effects of this neurological high.

At the same time, most mothers in the workplace mind separation from their children much more than fathers do and, far more than fathers, mothers cannot stop worrying about their children.59 Kingsley Browne demonstrates that “the division of labor by sex” is “a product of human nature.” Many female characteristics can make workplaces—especially highly competitive ones, as in law or business—uncongenial and stressful for the average woman. From a very young age, males exhibit more aggressive and assertive behavior. Competition “seems to come more easily to males than females and to be a more unalloyed positive experience for males,” significantly increasing men’s motivation, but not women’s. From childhood on, males are greater risk takers, engaging in riskier behaviors and performing the same activity as females in a more risky manner. “Men, on average, get greater satisfaction out of achieving power and status than women do.”60

Some women do want to achieve power and status, and they often have no children or bear separation from them well. “Females who perform at their highest level against males,” says Browne, “tend to be those characterized by masculine or androgynous temperaments.”61 For the average woman, however, many of the attributes, wired into females in the era of evolutionary adaptation, make her well-suited to motherhood and domesticity and less suited to a competitive and stressful workplace. An academy that supports open discussion of sex differences would greatly benefit the women who may feel drawn to home, while being hectored by feminists to enter and remain in the workforce.

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