Women in the Workplace - and at Home

by G. K. Chesterton


Originally published in The Illustrated London News, 18th December, 1926.

The recent controversy about the professional position of married women was part of a much larger controversy, which is not limited to professional women or even to women. It involves a distinction that controversialists on both sides commonly forget. As it is conducted, it turns largely on the query about whether family life is what is called a "whole-time job" or a "half-time job." But there is also another distinction between a whole job and a half job, or a hundredth part of a job. It has nothing to do with the time that is occupied, but only with the ground that is covered. An industrial expert once actually boasted that it took twenty men to make a pin; and I hope he sat down on the pin. But the man making the twentieth part of the pin did not only work for the twentieth part of an hour. He might perfectly well be working for twelve hours - indeed, he might have been working for twenty-four hours for all the happy industrial expert generally cared. He might work for the whole of a lifetime, but he never made the whole of a pin.

Now, there are lingering still in the world a number of lunatics, among whom I have the honour to count myself, who think it a good thing to preserve as many whole jobs as possible. We congratulate ourselves, in our crazy fashion, whenever we find anybody personally and completely doing anything. We rejoice when we find remaining in the world any cases in which the individual can see the beginning and the end of his own work. We are well aware that this is often incompatible with modern scientific civilization, and the fact has sometimes moved us to say what we think about modern scientific civilization. But anyhow, whether we are right or wrong, that is an important distinction not always remembered; and that is the important distinction that ought to be most remembered, and is least remembered, in this modern debate about the occupation of women.

Probably there must be a certain number of people doing work which they do not complete. Perhaps there must be some people doing work which they do not comprehend. But we do not want to multiply those people indefinitely, and then cover it all by shouting about emancipation and equality. It may be emancipation to allow a woman to make part of a pin, if she really wants to make part of a pin. It may be equality if she is really filled with a furious jealousy of her husband, who has the privilege of making part of a pin. But we question whether it is really a more human achievement to make part of a pin than to make the whole of a pinafore. And we even go further, and question whether it is more human to make the whole of a pinafore than to look after the whole of a child. The point about the "half-time job" of motherhood is that it is at least one of the jobs that can be regarded as a whole, and almost as an end in itself. A human being is in some sense an end in himself. Anything that makes him happy or high-minded is, under God, a thing directed to an ultimate end. It is not, like nearly all the trades and professions, merely a machinery and a means to an end. And it is a thing which can, by the constitution of human nature, be pursued with positive and unpurchased enthusiasm. Whether or no it is a half-time job, it need not be a half-hearted job.

Now, as a matter of fact, there are not so many jobs which normal and ordinary people can pursue with enthusiasm for their own sakes. The position is generally falsified by quoting the exceptional cases of specialists who achieve success. There may be a woman who is so very fond of swimming the Channel that she can go on doing it until she breaks a record. There may be, for that matter, a woman who is so fond of discovering the North Pole that she goes on doing it long after it has been discovered. Such sensational successes naturally bulk big in the newspapers, because they are sensational cases. But they are not the question of whether women are more free in professional or domestic life. To answer that question, we must assume all the sailors on the Channel boats to be women, all the fishermen in the herring fleet to be women, all the whalers in the North Sea to be women, and then consider whether the worst paid and hardest worked of all those workers were really having a happier or a harder life. It will be at once apparent that the vast majority of them must be under orders; and that perhaps a considerable minority of them would be under orders which they did not entirely understand. There could not be a community in which the average woman was in command of a ship. But there can be a community in which the average woman is in command of a house.

To take a hundred women out of a hundred houses and give them a hundred ships would be obviously impossible, unless all the ships were canoes. And that would be carrying to rather fanatical lengths the individualist ideal of people paddling their own canoe. To take the hundred women out of the hundred houses and put them on ten ships, or more probably on two ships, is obviously to increase vastly the number of servants and diminish the number of mistresses. The only ship I remember that was so manned (or perhaps we should say womanned) was the ship in the Bab Ballad commanded by Lieutenant Bellaye: [Note: The lieutenant is the hero of Gilbert's "The Bumboat Woman's Story". He is so loved that numbers of young women disguised as sailors stow away on his ship.] even there it might be said that the young ladies who sailed with him had ultimately rather a domestic than a professional ideal. But that naval commander was not very professional himself, and it will be remembered, excused his sailors from most of their duties and amused himself by firing off his one big gun.

I fear that the experience of most subordinate women in shops and factories is a little more strenuous. I have taken an extremely elementary and crude example, but I am not the first rhetorician who has found it convenient to discuss the State under the bright and original similitude of a ship. But the principle does apply quite as much to a shop as to a ship. It applies with especial exactitude to the modern shop, which is almost larger than the modern ship. A shop or a factory must consist of a very large majority of servants; and one of the few human institutions in which there need be no such enormous majority of servants is the human household. I still think, therefore, that for the lady interested in ships the most supreme and symbolical moment is the moment when her ships come home. And I think there are some sort of symbolical ships that had much better come home and stay there.

I know all about the necessary modifications and compromises produced by the accidental conditions of to-day. I am not unreasonable about them. But what we are discussing is not the suggestion that the ideal should be modified. It is the suggestion that the ideal should be abolished. It is the suggestion that a new test or method of judgment should be applied to the affair, which is not the test of whether the thing is a whole job, in the sense of a self-sufficing and satisfactory job, but of whether it is what is called a half-time job - that is, a thing to be measured by the mechanical calculation of modern employment.

There have been household gods and household saints and household fairies. I am not sure that there have yet been any factory gods or factory saints or factory fairies. I may be wrong, as I am no commercial expert, but I have not heard of them as yet. And we think that the reason lies in the distinction which I made at the beginning of these remarks. The imagination and the religious instinct and the human sense of humour have free play when people are dealing with something which, however small, is rounded and complete like a cosmos.

The place where babies are born, where men die, where the drama of mortal life is acted, is not an office or a shop or a bureau. It is something much smaller in size and much larger in scope. And while nobody would be such a fool as to pretend that it is the only place where people should work, or even the only place where women should work, it has a character of unity and universality that is not found in any of the fragmentary experiences of the division of labour.

(Illustrated London News, December 18, 1926)


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