A Man’s Place Is in the Home

For as long as the present generations can recall, it has been the norm that a man should leave not only mother and father, but also wife and children, and cleave to his desk.

Gender roles on the farm took a strikingly different shape than the way contemporary society conceives of these issues. Jalsevac explores the history of the idea of dads working “outside the home,” and in Chestertonian fashion, he questions our assumption that the place for a man is at his desk away from home.

 

Long-time readers of this blog know of the debt I owe G. K. Chesterton for the wit and wisdom on display in his writing. I am currently in a years-long process of working my way through all of Chesterton’s collected works. I am also a subscriber to Gilbert!, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society. Every issue contains quotes and essays from Chesterton as well as articles from fellow Chesterton readers.

In the most recent issue, John Jalsevac, managing editor of LifeSiteNews.com, contributed a fantastic article that wrestles with an issue I’ve pondered for several years now. When I lived in a village in Romania, the idea of “stay-at-home mom” and “working dad” weren’t categories that made any sense. Gender roles on the farm took a strikingly different shape than the way contemporary society conceives of these issues. Jalsevac explores the history of the idea of dads working “outside the home,” and in Chestertonian fashion, he questions our assumption that the place for a man is at his desk away from home. Here is his essay in Gilbert!, reprinted here with his permission.

A Man’s Place Is in the Home

But time and again Odysseus turned his face toward the radiant sun, anxious for it to set, yearning now to be gone and home once more. . . . As a man aches for his evening meal when all day long his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare down a fallow field—how welcome the setting sun to him, the going home to supper, yes, though his knees buckle, struggling home at last.
 The Odyssey

G. K. Chesterton’s famous quip—“Ten thousand women marched through the streets shouting, ‘We will not be dictated to,’ and went off and became stenographers.”—has not endeared him to feminists, for whom it smacks of radical sexist reactionaryism. But while I do not question the quip, I do question if it is sufficiently radical. For what, I ask, were those 10,000 men doing, such that they needed those 10,000 stenographers? For as long as the present generations can recall, it has been the norm that a man should leave not only mother and father, but also wife and children, and cleave to his desk. And while the two do not thereby become one flesh, the unity of man and desk at times eclipses that of man and wife. But it was not always so.

In 1820, the earliest date for which I can find reliable statistics, some 2.1 million men in the United States worked in “farm occupations”—a full 72 percent of the work force. It is worth remembering that by 1820 the industrial revolution was in full swing, siphoning men off the land and spitting them into the factories: meaning that were we to possess reliable statistics going even a little further back, we would find a considerably higher percentage of men working the land. A significant percentage of the remainder would have been employed in the trades: blacksmiths, wheel-wrights, butchers, bakers, candle-stick makers. Many of these, especially in the smaller towns, would have worked out of shops attached to their own homes, as was common. And while some of those working in “farm occupations” would have been working as hired labor, most would have been tilling the fields of their own ancestral homesteads.

In other words, until quite recently a huge percentage of men worked—as we now say about a privileged class of telecommuters—“from home.” There are fantastically good arguments in favor of this arrangement. Not least of these are the psychological and spiritual health of the man and the unity and stability of his family. Any man in a happy marriage with children who has had the good fortune (as I have) to work from home will know what I mean: there is a “wholeness” that comes of having the whole of one’s life revolve around that most vital fact of one’s identity—one’s vocation as husband and father. A man working from home is a man with an undivided heart. This is especially true if his spouse is also at home, for there then opens up the possibility of forging an intimate partnership of effort: two souls striving for one goal, united in one mind, one heart, one flesh.

Camille Paglia has recently complained that, because children are no longer taught the rudiments of history, most people are incapable of conceiving that anyone has ever lived any other way than we currently live, or that any other way of living could possibly have anything to recommend itself. Our chronological snobbery is such that our forebears are deemed inferior merely because they did not live precisely as we do, not having, for instance, the cleverness to invent air-conditioning, or advertising, or abortion. History is therefore conceived of as a dauntless march to the pinnacle of human progress—i.e. the present.

Most of us are aware of the sexual revolution and the secondary migration of women from the home which preceded it, but no one considers the  primary migration that preceded both, and which set the stage. Conservatives are fond of pointing out how an autocratic feminism that urged women to join the workforce at pain of being branded traitors to their sex has fragmented the family. But they are not nearly conservative enough. They have forgotten how the mass movement of men from the household, often under coercive external pressure, drove in the first wedge. If the subject ever comes up, it is assumed that it was necessary, unavoidable. But usually we don’t even get that far. Because our historical memory is so short, we cannot conceive that things ever were, or could still be otherwise.

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