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Women: To Work or Not to Work?

There is no going back to the pre-Industrial Revolution age, but we can and should think more carefully about the nature of work and what it means to women and families.

"The Angelus" ("El Ángelus", 1857-1859) by Jean-François Millet [WikiArt.org]

Since the 1960s, women have been encouraged to throw off the shackles of home and dive into careers.

The regnant wisdom has been that a career is far more satisfying than homemaking. As I’ve outlined in my book The Anti-Mary Exposed, five decades later the ramifications of this rush to work are being felt deeply throughout the culture. The absence of women as the heart of the family has led to a sharp decline in personal happiness among men, women, and children, while abuse, neglect, suicide, divorce, consumerism, and narcissism have increased.

In reaction to this, many Catholics are suggesting an opposing view that women shouldn’t do any sort of work outside the home, conjuring up memories of June and Ward Cleaver as the model Catholic family.

As Aristotle pointed out over two millennia ago, however, the human mind is comfortable oscillating between extremes, but the extremes are generally not the right answer.

A closer look at the historical Catholic family looks a lot more like Jean-François Millet’s famous mid-19th-century painting The Angelus, which depicts a man and his wife, who have been working together in the field, stopping to pray when the church bells ring. Or like St. Zelie and Louise Martin and their at-home lace company that kept the family of St. Thérèse of Lisieux living comfortably. Or like the widowed St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who became a teacher to support her six young children.

In my own family, my father died leaving my mother with four children to care for and raise. Although she had been a stay-at-home-mom, she knew how his business worked so she was able to take it over after his death.

What all these examples have in common are how work, survival, and family were cobbled together as best could be done under often challenging circumstances. Even convents point to consecrated women selling products outside the convent to live sustainably. Truly, these religious balance ora et labora, prayer and work.

Significant familial changes took place when industrialization first took husbands from the home. Industrialization also mechanized the basic skills that women used to find deep satisfaction in: gardening, sewing, canning, knitting, cooking, and so on. Lost to women were the kinds of work that philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls “practices”. Practices are real crafts producing real products—but they have the added bonus of edifying the one practicing the craft. Practices aren’t just rote mundane tasks, such as sorting darks and lights, but real skills, such as St. Zelie’s lace, which often helped the family finances.

Today’s rote activities—minus the practices of old—coupled with the isolation of stay-at-home moms and cultural stigma against homemaking, leave many women deeply dissatisfied and unsupported.

There is no going back to the pre-Industrial Revolution age, but we can and should think more carefully about the nature of work and what it means to women and families instead of adjudicating with an absolute “Yes” or “No”. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has shown that the happiest women are those who are home with their children, but who also have some type of work outside the home, however small. The internet has provided opportunities for women (and men) to try to break out of the nine-to-five rut to reduce a homemaker’s isolation.

One of the downfalls of the last fifty years has been that instead of women demanding that their work be family friendly, they have adjusted their families to the work. The internet is changing that with new opportunities for work with shorter or more flexible hours than were previously available.

When considering women’s work, the whole household must be brought into the focus and a broader look at what Catholic womanhood looks like. We must ask how we help women use their remarkable gifts to serve both their families and the greater good, instead of choosing one or the other. There will not be a one-size-fits-all answer for every family but looking at how to serve the needs of the entire family will serve everyone better than simply grasping at extremes.


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About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 52 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor at the Catholic Women's online magazine Theology of Home. She is the author of several books including The Anti-Mary Exposed and, most recently, Theology of Home.

24 Comments

  1. [There is no going back to the pre-Industrial Revolution age]

    Infinite growth is impossible. We are entering an era in which cheap energy will no longer be available.

    [The internet has provided opportunities for women (and men) to try to break out of the nine-to-five rut to reduce a homemaker’s isolation.]

    The Internet exists only because of cheap energy.

    • I have Mennonite friends and have been a guest on an Amish farm.
      Some people don’t need to go back to pre-industrial revolution times because they never actually left.
      🙂
      And it works well for them.

    • AMEN!! I’VE BEEN ON MY SOAPBOX TALKING ABOUT THIS FOR YEARS!! I WAS A STAY AT HOME MOM FOR 19 YEARS AS I RAISED MY CHILDREN. I WOULD DO IT AGAIN!!!!

  2. I’ve used the same language myself but I wish there was a better way of describing women’s “work ” because women work very hard at home, too.

    • I’m in the opposite situation as a stay-at-home dad. It IS work, & I respect not only women, but also men who are in a situation similar to mine. I am perfectly happy & fulfilled being the primary caregiver for my children, while my wife finds satisfaction in her high-end work outside our home. Different situations dictate different approaches. Indeed, in my field – telecom & computer tech – jobs have become a commodity, even though I was making good money years ago. True, more education would have benefited me, but due to circumstances beyond my control at the time, I was unable to pursue higher education. My wife, meanwhile, has the education & experience in her chosen field to command an excellent salary & benefits. This arrangement works for us, as I am able to raise our children with a very strong Catholic Faith, which my wife is not able to do. I feel that I was actually called by God to do this work at home with my children, despite being ridiculed at times, even by my own extended family. No matter, it works for us, & I would not change it for any money.

  3. The one commodity not produced better today is education. Working mothers have allowed government schools to fester into indoctrinating centers producing dumbed down results because hey it’s free.

    Were government schools to be means tested, or seen like soup kitchens, only for the needy, working mothers would make better choices and many more would homeschool, freeing up much tax money, and also releasing jobs and better salaries to sole breadwinner families.

    Those who can, homeschool!

    • Amen to homeschooling, but back in my parents’ day even quite poor children could attend Catholic schools, including my mother who had a working mom herself. My grandfather died at the age of 30 in the midst of the Depression & my grandma had to find a way to support her family.
      With fewer religious vocations & less large families we’ve lost candidates for the teaching orders that allowed parochial schools to function at a reasonable cost.
      One solution besides homeschooling is a parish stewardship program that allows families to tithe a percentage of their total annual income-be it 5K or 500K-and if other requirements are met(Mass attendance, volunteer hours, etc) their children may attend the parish school at no expense.

      An example is St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School in Augusta, GA:

      https://stmaryssaints.org/admissions/tuition

    • I happen to agree with Susan, however, homeschooling isn’t always realized or actualized by everyone. I wish there was more understanding and information about it, but I think there is quite a lot of stigma around it also.
      I attempted it only to find myself frustrated and angry and unsupported by my husband who feels the strain and stress of being the only breadwinner in the family. So in order to make him happy we decided to send our two school age kids to catholic school, with much help from our priest and scholarships available, it seems to be a good choice for now. I don’t think we should forget about our Catholic schools. Carrie’s article rings very true and she brings up great points. Everyone’s situation is different. We shouldn’t be gravitating toward extremes.
      Thank you Carrie for your work. I look forward to seeing the “Theology of Home” in my inbox.

  4. I begin by saying I have no answers, but simply observations. No mother in my or my spouses families has worked outside the home, except for very limited school connected work (classroom aide or volunteer activities) at the schools their children attended.

    In our case, I worked in supermarkets for forty years, not in management, but just as a common clerk. In those days, fifties through nineties, I was able to support our family, buy a modest home, a new car every ten years or so, and always travel on vacations. In fairness, I must say we only had two children, but, we were also able to help them with college expenses.

    If I had the same job these days, I would have one-half the buying power I had in those days, for exactly the same work. My feeling is that the two income family has allowed employers to bring wages down by exerting their to resist raises which would have kept families to get by wiTh one breadwinner. Our company, a giant corporation, even forced us to take a 16% pay cut at one point so the could “remodel the stores”! In the single income days, the unions would have been able to maintain reasonable compensation levels, because it would have been much more difficult to get a group of single bread winners to gIve up so easily.

    With all that said, who is raising the children these days? Do we want to have the energy to instill OUR values in them, or would we rather let the WORLD raise them, imprinting upon them all sorts of damaging data into their brains? This is where the stay-at-home mom in her minivan comes in. To me, mom is still the best nurturing force on the planet and she must have the energy to do that task every day🙏.

    • A big problem is that real estate is now priced with the assumption of the two income household. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to marry so I chose an interesting field that could eventually provide a high income so I had more flexibility in terms of charitable giving, etc.

  5. Why are stay at home Moms isolated? Probably because they live in suburbia and are not part of any close community. Women used to spend time in voluntary work for the parish and other useful occupations. Build communities and they won’t fell isolated. Also, the elderly who are retired can volunteer their skills for good purposes and also contribute to community building. Isn’t the Church a community’

  6. There is no “one size fits all” for today’s women. Women are much less wimpy and more heavy lifters. This article fashions a stereotype woman that diminishes her abilities. There are women who defer their childbearing until in their 30s and beyond. Women who object to the “glass ceiling” are finally being heard.

    God bless our wonderful women!

    • “This article fashions a stereotype woman that diminishes her abilities. There are women who defer their childbearing until in their 30s and beyond…”

      ***********

      Thank you for bringing that up.
      If natural child bearing is an “ability” why defer that until a woman’s fertility is waning? That sounds like a diminishment to me. And certainly a loss of opportunity.
      A large fertility industry has grown & profited in part from women believing the sales pitch that they can outwit Nature.

      It seems one more cost women have suffered after buying into the ideology that everyone needs to be out of the home, off the farm. A compliant consumer & exchangeable cog in the workforce.
      And in the end, it’s not just women who pay the cost but their families & society. The family & the Church are the last two things standing in the way of an all powerful, secular state.

  7. I homeschooled my children and lived in an old rental prewar apartment inBrooklyn. We had one income from my husband who taught in the NYC public schools. We felt incredibly rich, even though we did not own a home, had one old car, and rarely went on a vacation or out to eat. What a wonderful time we all had. My husband just retired. I would not trade one luxury for the family time we had together. It was truly a joy.

  8. I was a stay at home mom until my oldest of 3 children turned 18. When he was born, I resigned as a government attorney in DC. Women I worked with had care arrangements for their kids, so I was making an unusual choice for that community. There were no other stay at home moms in my neighborhood. We’d take daily walks around the neighborhood and never see another soul. As my kids got older, there was plenty of stimulation for me. I became involved in challenging homework; was one of the few moms who could help at school; had time to keep my home life and my kids’ schedules running smoothly, and my kids had quantity time with me. Women today have renounced this beautiful nurturing role that used to be considered ours exclusively. It’s a terrible trick advanced by those who want us to recognize no difference between male and female.

    • Absolutely, Michele.
      Even if a mother must seek employment outside the home, motherhood is still her primary vocation. But ideally, that vocation could be lived out at home.
      Really, being a parent should be a father’s first vocation too.

  9. Dear Ms Gress,
    Thank you for a thoughtful and well-balanced post. The examples you gave and the insight you provide is thought-provoking and engaging. Perhaps, in future posts, you might want to consider the following two questions:

    1. Is work equally valuable for men and women from a salvation standpoint? I am thinking about the curses that God pronounced after Adam and Eve committed original sin. To Eve he said: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen 2:16). But to Adam, he said, “‘ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

    The medicinal curses that God imposes on Adam and Eve are not interchangeable: they are specific. Therefore, a woman’s path to redemption is through motherhood and the healing of the relationship between man and woman. The way to heaven for a man is through toil, suffering, and the conquering of pride, where he is asked to die to himself and set his family first.

    God leaves it to each family to figure the right way to do what he has asked. Thus working mothers, stay-at-home fathers are all matter of practical reason and do not have a one size fits all answer, as you rightly pointed out. Nevertheless, it seems to me that their implication on our final destiny is not interchangeable nor carry equal weight.

    2. If women were to design a corporation, would they design it the way we have it today? The structure of the work environment since the industrial revolution has been shaped by men for men. We have since, asked women to enter this framework without adapting it so it may be more satisfying and supportive of the women’s needs. As you said so yourself, this environment is asking women to conform themselves in the image of men. Words such as empowerment, breaking the glass ceiling, etc, without explaining how these things will contribute to women’s happiness.

  10. I would never have swapped my career as a stay-at mother for anything! Being there for my babies and young children – introducing them to all that is true and beautiful and at the same time learning so much more myself. Whoever would swap the world of dancing to Bach and Vivaldi, stories of Peter and the Wolf, Narnia, Charlotte’s Web, slides and swings in the park for any career,

  11. Best thing I ever did was quit my job to raise my kids! I never regretted it one minute and it was the hardest job I ever had because I cared so much about the outcome.

  12. I am a child of the 60’s and 70’s, my mother worked out till i was almost 2, we lived on the farm with my paternal grandma and she watched me, Mom had quit the Telephone Switchboard, remember those, they offered her double pay to work one more year since they were going to auto dial and didn’t want to train anyone new. After that she stayed home and worked on the farm with Dad. A farm wife is quite employed, Mom helped milk, did most of it when crops were ready, I was the oldest of 6, we all helped, I fed calve by the age of 5, was driving a tractor in the 4th grade and now farm the home place. Mom grew a huge garden, just like her mother, and canned and froze food all summer and fall for the 8 of us, grandma right beside her peeling and cutting produce. All of us kids hoed weeds, picked beans and dug potatoes, fed calves and milked cows, We all worked.
    Mon didn’t go back to work full time ever, after all of us kids were grown she wrote for the local paper and then worked at the Farm service agency part time. She is now 84 and a widow, still says the best time of her life was when we were all at home
    My maternal grandmother once said “I was liberated” long before those silly bats even knew what it meant, she ran the farm while the men were off to war.
    you talk about work and family life!

  13. My point that working mothers have unfairly depressed wages for all families goes unrebutted. The living wage rerum novarum stipulated is a myth now that two spouses are double dipping wages. The taxpayer as third party payor to the circus called public schooling is hemmorhaging money with few results. And yet mom needs to work to pay back student loans. Here’s a unifying idea: forgive student loans of moms who homeschool. Yes it will let some air out of the government school tire. High time.

    • “My point that working mothers have unfairly depressed wages for all families goes unrebutted. ”

      To be fair, that point wasn’t what I got from your previous post, but in any even I don’t dispute it. If you’ve pretty much doubled the available labor pool, naturally salaries are going to go down.

      There’s also the fact that while the earlier “women’s rights” folks insisted that women who were unhappy working only in the home should have the right to work outside it. Notice how that has changed to the point that women who work in the home have to justify themselves and are often denigrated by women who claim to be “freeing” women to live as they wish.

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