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On the traditional roles of men and women in Industrial Society

I have found that I and people I know are increasingly working longer and longer hours. And this with ever increasing demands on the job, as the demands for perfection increase, and the support to achieve it decreases. Especially the large organisations in which we are working appear as despotic, in that one has no say over what happens or what might happen, but instead is faced with a stream of orders and new demands being delivered constantly, yet randomly, through the impersonal medium of email. There is no discussing with this new invisible master - often the sender is not even a person with whom you can engage in conversation, but some impersonal departmental (i.e do-not-reply) email address. Then one finds that travel to anywhere is time consuming, and extremely stressful, as conditions are crowded and arrival on time is far less than certain - whether it be by train or car. With people arriving home late, exhausted we must prepare meals, often reply to a few still-unanswered work emails. All of which leaves us little spare time - and in such a state of mental exhaustion that we could not enjoy it anyway. Necessarily our weekends are often consumed with the other chores of life, maintaining houses, shopping, and preparing food and clothing for the next hectic week. This sad condition of modern people led me to reflect as to how we got into this state, and what has changed to make modern life so difficult. I wondered how we used to cope, and I recall as a child how the weekends were quiet, the shops were closed after midday Saturday, and there was hardly any traffic. Now, the busiest traffic times are on weekends, as is the busiest trading. And a major reason, I think is the fact that now both partners work, there is no-one with time to do shopping in the day, prepare meals for 6.00 pm (we often eat much later, even if we feed the children earlier, either my wife or I may find it is 9.00 pm before we have time for dinner). So why is modern life so crazy?

Chesterton, it appears, is someone who also reflected on and addressed many of our modern problems - that fact that he did this 100 years ago seems to make little difference to the relevance of what he had to say in his book What is Wrong with the World. Not suprisingly the issue of gender roles is one he addresses at length. But what is surprising, and in a sense enlightening, is that he argues that the traditional roles of men and women were not established to trap women, but rather to free them from the madness of industrial society. According to Chesterton, the gender arrangements in early industralism insulated women from the commercial pressures of having to be competitive at work - which Chesterton argues makes one a 'monomaniac'; necessarily too-focussed on work and its demands for specialisation to become a complete person. The traditional arrangements, Chesterton argues, were to keep some part of humanity free from these inhuman demands. To allow at least one half of humanity to be whole people, to allow them to develop as complete, to become good at many useful things rather than an expert at mostly one thing. To allow them to focus on and contemplate the broader issues and tasks that are so necessary to a sane and on-going human existence. This half of humanity, to be spared from the inhumanity of industrialism was, women. He explains this division was made because the natural role of women in relation to birth and child-rearing, but they need not be child-rearers to benefit from these freedoms. I guess with the freedom also came the ability to pursue study and careers if they wished - certainly many women did - C.S Lewis's mother was a Mathematics university graduate in the 1800's and Dr Maria Montessori a science graduate not long after that, and I am sure there were many others. Clearly they could also have careers if they chose; Florence Nightingale is an example here. Maybe this education and these roles were harder to get, but when you consider that they were up against people - mostly men - whose livelihood depended on them succeeding and devoting their all in the narrow specialisations demanded for most jobs, then it is perhaps no surprise that such positions were hotly contested and no more so by those who had the most to lose or gain from them i.e men who desperately needed a way to earn a living.

So then we come to the criticism of this 'patriarchal system' we are presented with the image of the despotic man, who because he is the breadwinner (and perhaps also because he himself is fully aware of his suffering from the absence of any real freedom, having to subject himself to the demands of an employer for the working week) demands that he has more rights and privileges in the household. Now there are at least two ways to see this: one as though the system is wrong and two, as though the man is wrong. The modern argument seems to commonly be that the system is wrong - that we should grant women equal power and opportunity. But this comes with two great risks. The first is that women lose their protection from the commercial world and are now subjected to the same evil forces of competition that men are. Secondly, there is an assumption that some, perhaps many, will not succumb to the same demand of special rights and privileges as men were accused of doing: becoming equal despots with the worst of men. Such a situation is rife for conflict with each party demanding special privileges and rights (i.e rights to disregard the rights of others) as a result of their sacrifices and as due their power and authority. And this is leaving aside all the problems that arise when humanity loses its generalist and all the benefits that came with this - more on this later perhaps.

The other view is that there is nothing wrong with the general family system, but rather there is something wrong with some individual men. Good men, endowed with such authority and whatever power comes from being the breadwinner, should endure the associated suffering with tolerance and kindness and not seek to be overbearing but rather be generous and as kindly as possible under the circumstances. Development of such magnanimity requires a good raising of boys to understand their roles, responsibilities and passing on the ideal of a 'good man' as having these attributes.

Unfortunately, with women and men now desperately caught in the worldly competitive fray that sucks nearly all their energy, thought and time, it is unlikely that many men, or women, will be taught and developed in such a way. So it seems we all degenerate into dog-eat-dog competitiveness and bickering over who has what rights and privileges. The situation is complicated by the fact that despite modern developments in the workplace, the old role expectations are still in place. Even though you may say that men can help with the housework, and perhaps even be stay-at-home dads, men still feel the expectation that if it comes to the crunch, they are the ones who must provide an income, so they carry the stress and burden of having to be on top of their game, as well as doing new chores that traditionally men did not. Even if ostensibly a man is a stay-at-home-dad if anything happens to their wife's position they must return to work, and that with the added difficulty of having been out of the workplace for a period. On the women's side, they appear to still feel the traditional obligation to maintain certain standards around the household, on top of their new duties. So on both sides there persist these stresses that are likely to lead to senses of injustice and the potential break out of arguments.

On top of this are all the additional modern stressors I mentioned above. Traditionally men had to give their all to their jobs for 8 - 10 hours a day maybe 5 and a half days a week. But at least back then the work stopped after hours. And married men didn't need to also shop for food, cook their own meals, clean the house, etc (just as many married women did not need to work in commercial ventures). Now the demands of work are increasingly, all day everyday, with many people working 60 hours or more, and that is not counting time spent answering emails after hours or contemplating work problems during the night or on weekends. Add to this the enormous amounts of time many spend travelling - another modern phenomena - and a significant stress for men and women.

I am sorry but I do not have any solutions to these problems, I can merely state the situation as it appears to me. But I can summarise this situation as being a kind of dilemma whereby we need to find a way to retain in people that magnanimity that I mentioned above - that the sense of sacrifice men probably mostly felt by being locked into mindless or demanding jobs, from which there was, and perhaps for many still is, no realistic escape - that this should be seen as a sacrifice of love and an opportunity for generosity of spirit. And it seems, given the modern situation of women, that many women perhaps also could take this view of the demands that they see as placed on them. Perhaps women have traditionally done this on the whole, but if so the need now for such an attitude is as a great as ever.

If you are interested in a summary of Chesterton's writings, there is one in The Guardian

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Bit of a mouthful there Matthew, let's try and dissect your problems as best we can. Before we go any further I must inform you that I haven't heard of Chesterton let alone read him. Keith Reid and Gary Booker on the other hand did inform me that life was like a bean stalk, so I guess we'll just have to suck it and see.

As a young bloke I was brought up in the more or less traditional family home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Dad was a works overseer for a local council which while giving him the benefit of a vehicle, he was on call 24/7 unless on holidays. Mum, who wasn't licensed to drive, ran the household raising 8 kids and while it was a struggle we all managed comfortably enough. My parents ability to manage our day to day lives by working diligently, careful planning financially and strategically, was a lesson we children learnt at a young age.

As you describe my family were patriarchal like most families of the day. You mention that Chesterton believed that this was shield women with the advent of industrialism to protect them from the demands of work or was it an opportunistic grab for power by industrialists, essentially men, with the sanction of the various religious sects. The repugnant sexist comments: "barefoot and pregnant" and "a woman's place is in the home" ring in my ears to this day! Left overs from a bitter past when women were and still are today, discriminated against courtesy of their gender.

Your rant against the modern day work place is pathetic to say the least. Obviously you have never been self-employed, been in a position of responsibility or even worked shift work. The demented idea that we all should have jobs working 9 til 5 and be able to go home and party is a fairy tale that the '50s American economy dreamed up for TV. Life is tough and this type of surrealism doesn't wash, there is more to life outside of paid work and it's called family, community and last of all leisure.

For their part employers (read capitalists) have one goal above all others and that is to improve profits. With advent of large corporations (shareholdings) this emphasis on profits was raised to a new level and raised again and again as these companies became national, transnational &c. During this process employees have been marginalised into units of labour, unionism discredited, menial tasks moved off-shore and low paid labour imported from countries that can least afford it.

In the meantime, we the electorate, have stood idly by an accepted what has been dished up to us. The middle and lower classes in Australia have been bought off, sucked in, pampered and ripped off until now there is bugger all left. We have no rights, we have no dignity, we have no soul - we've sold the lot!

Rather than reading Chesterton Matthew I suggest that read the book "Going for Broke" by Peter North. You may then understand the enormity of what we, as Australians, and the world are facing in the next couple of years. I suggest you stop worrying about the day to day stuff and start looking at the big picture - it ain't pretty!!

Thanks John,

I understand your point - but your assumptions about my work history I think you will find are quite wrong, not that I think my work history is at all relevant to what I am saying.

I am not saying that women were not treated poorly in the past. I am just saying that the current situation is incredibly difficult for many of us, and it is going to take a lot of digging deep for us to manage in this stressful environment without exploding at each other occassionally. Chesterson also does not say that women have not been oppressed, but what he says is that they are probably more oppressed when expected to compete with men in the work place and also do all the other duties expected of women - and which realistically someone has to do (someone has to raise children, feed them dinner, wash their clothes etc).

As for the situation of women in our recent past. I believe both men and women have been treated abmominably in different ways. Men's lives for most of industrial history were treated as disposable - both in war in peace.

The truth is - and I think we may agree on this - the system is fundamentally unsustainable, but I believe it is harder now than it was when I was a boy. I am fully aware of the 'Big Picture' but in the meanwhile we all have to live from day-to-day until this system collapses - as it seems is already happening, and that will not make life more pleasant either - so again we will need a great degree of forebearance with each other to ride this out. That is my essential message here. Take it or leave it.


My apologies

I too got a point horribly wrong Matthew (read egg on face) - the book by Peter North is titled "Growing for Broke" not as I alluded "Going for Broke"!!