Monday, July 17, 2006

Now We Can Begin...Eighty-Six Years Later

It never ceases to amaze me when something written generations ago seems as fresh and relevant today as it was for our grandmothers. I've added the bold emphasis, for passages I think are relevant to current debates.

What, then, is "the matter with women"? What is the problem of women's freedom? It seems to me to be this: how to arrange the world so that women can be human beings, with a chance to exercise their infinitely varied gifts in infinitely varied ways, instead of being destined by the accident of their sex to one field of activity - housework and child-raising.

And second, if and when they choose housework and child-raising, to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man.

...It must be womanly as well as manly to earn your own living, to stand on your own feet. And it must be manly as well as womanly to know how to cook and sew and clean and take care of yourself in the ordinary exigencies of life. I need not add that the second part of this revolution will be more passionately resisted than the first. Men will not give up their privilege of helplessness without a struggle. The average man has a carefully cultivated ignorance about household matters -- from what to do with the crumbs to the grocer's telephone number -- a sort of cheerful inefficiency which protects him better than the reputation for having a violent temper. It was his mother's fault in the beginning, but even as a boy he was quick to see how a general reputation for being "no good around the house" would serve him throughout life, and half-consciously he began to cultivate that helplessness until today it is the despair of feminist wives.

...Cooperative schemes and electrical devices will simplify the business of homemaking, but they will not get rid of it entirely. As far as we can see ahead people will always want homes, and a happy home cannot be had without a certain amount of rather monotonous work and responsibility. How can we change the nature of man so that he will honorably share that work and responsibility and thus make the homemaking enterprise a song instead of a burden? Most assuredly not by laws or revolutionary decrees. Perhaps we must cultivate or simulate a little of that highly prized helplessness ourselves. But fundamentally it is a problem of education, of early training -- we must bring up feminist sons.

...If the feminist program goes to pieces on the arrival of the first baby, it is false and useless. For ninety-nine out of every hundred women want children, and seventy-five out of every hundred want to take care of their own children, or at any rate so closely superintend their care as to make any other full-time occupation impossible for at least ten or fifteen years. Is there any such thing then as freedom of choice in occupation for women? And is not the family the inevitable economic unit and woman's individual economic independence, at least during that period, out of the question?

...But is there any way of insuring a woman's economic independence while child-raising is her chosen occupation? Or must she sink into that dependent state from which, as we all know, it is so hard to rise again? That brings us to the fourth feature of our program -- motherhood endowment. It seems that the only way we can keep mothers free, at least in a capitalist society, is by the establishment of a principle that the occupation of raising children is peculiarly and directly a service to society, and that the mother upon whom the necessity and privilege of performing this service naturally falls is entitled to an adequate economic reward from the political government. It is idle to talk of real economic independence for women unless this principle is accepted. But with a generous endowment of motherhood provided by legislation, with all laws against voluntary motherhood and education in its methods repealed*, with the feminist ideal of education accepted in home and school, and with all special barriers removed in every field of human activity, there is no reason why woman should not become almost a human thing.
~ Crystal Eastman, shown above, writing in 1920, in The Liberator, (read the complete text of "Now We Can Begin" here).

The second wave of feminism made some amazing progress in the 60's and the 70's, but it is also more than a little shocking to realize how clearly some of feminism's basic challenges were articulated long before that, and how little real progress has been made in these areas.

*when she speaks of "voluntary motherhood and education in its method", Eastman is referring to birth control - involuntary motherhood being what happens without access or educated use of contraception. Considering that I recently read that about a quarter of all pregnancies are unplanned, we haven't come such a long way here, either.


Margaret said...

Thanks for posting this. I've never seen it before and you're right--it could have been written this morning.
When I read the writings of feminists who came before, I never know whether to laugh or cry. We've come so far. If you read the Seneca Falls Declaration, most of those grievances have been addressed. We can own and manage our own property and wages, we can go to college and enter the professions. But at home, there's still so much to be done. Okay, we've made headway on the most abuses in marriage, like wife-beating or marital rape, but when I think about it, I don't know anyone with a truly egalitarian marriage--correction, I don't know anyone with children who has an egalitarian marriage. Hmmm....

rebel said...

scary to realize this :(

natasha said...

This is fascinating - thank you for putting it up (and for pointing me towards it!).

What's most striking for me is that it really captures the manly-resistance to housework perfectly: the 'carefully cultivated ignorance', the 'cheerful inefficiency', the half-conscious cultivation of 'a general reputation for being "no good around the house"'. I can see my Dad in those words, and my brothers. But like many women, I'd never have got away with that myself as a girl!

Ann D said...

What a fabulous post. I just finished writing about Dinosaurs vs. Mothers in my blog. We must all be taking a historical slant these days in trying to make sense of some of the stuff we're seeing in the present!