Saturday, June 11, 2016

Milton and the Female Workplace

It’s a fascinating moment when Milton’s Eve decides to go do the housework.  The angel Raphael has come to call—not an everyday event, even in pre-lapsarian Eden—and is telling the humans all about the angelic fall, etc.  Adam is rapt; Eve apparently has more important things to do.  She

Rose, and went forth among her fruits and flowers,
To visit how they prospered, bud and bloom,
Her nursery; they at her coming sprung,
And, touched by her fair tendance, gladlier grew.
Yet went she not, as not with such discourse
Delighted, or not capable her ear
Of what was high: such pleasure she reserved,
Adam relating, she sole auditress;
Her husband the relater she preferred
Before the Angel, and of him to ask
Chose rather; he, she knew, would intermix
Grateful digressions, and solve high dispute
With conjugal caresses: from his lip
Not words alone pleased her. O! when meet now
Such pairs, in love and mutual honour joined?  (8.44-58)

What is stressed here by Milton is that Eve is neither incapable of nor disinterested in grasping the epic political history of heaven that Raphael is about to unfold: she can understand this “men’s business” and she does care about it—but she prefers to hear the story from her husband.  Doubtless Milton would have considered such a preference “seemly”; but that is not how he explains it here: he says simply that Eve prefers things this way.

It may be tempting to dismiss Milton’s image of the “perfect marriage” as “patriarchal”; to suggest that his imagination of Eve coyly tripping off to trim the garden is mere wishful thinking rooted in notions peculiar to his time, rather than something that a real woman would feel, then, now, or anywhere.  And if indeed some wives preferred to tiptoe off when the cigars came out and the men started going off about the Prime Ministers battle over the Trade Bill, was that not evidence of some deep sense of inferiority (denied by Milton, of course; but we can see how it is).

Women, know your limits!

In fact, however, this is one place at least where Milton gets his psychology right.  The preference to hear the business from one’s own husband is real; I would submit myself as exhibit A.

Personally, my limit is two drinks—the same as Richard Nixon’s.

I would honestly rather hear philosophy from my husband than study it myself.  This is not to say that I don’t care for philosophy—I’ve taken courses in it, at both the graduate and undergraduate level—and enjoyed every minute of them; it’s simply that I like working with literature more.  After all, literature, one woman told me wisely when I was considering my choices several years ago, is philosophy in color.  But the fact that I’ve chosen to spend my time with Shakespeare, Donne, and Sidney doesn’t mean that I’m uninterested in the latest academic conversations on Aquinas, Pascal, and von Hildebrand.  It’s just that I would prefer these academic conversations to be intermixed with grateful digressions and conjugal caresses, rather than pipe smoke and stout.

On the other hand, stout with Shakespeare …
or conjugal caresses with Donne …
I need to go home and rethink my life.

And I don’t think that most people would have a doubt as to the honesty of this asserted preference on my part.  Nor would most people take issue with a female biologist who professed a mild interest in music, but left composing it to her husband; with a female architect who did well at math, but stayed away from her spouse’s actuarial tables; or with (mirabile dictu!) a female car mechanic who kicked back in the evenings by engaging with her other half’s theological musings.

None of these scenarios would strike the post-modern ear as offensive.  It is only when the woman’s preferred occupation is “traditionally feminine” that suspicion is ignited and hackles are aroused—if, for example, the woman prefers to go into the garden or the kitchen or the nursery, in preference to joining in intellectual group talk.  These tendencies are viewed somehow as evidence of a male-favored bias, as if we still had a Victorian father or a godly Milton leaning over young women’s shoulders and telling them to behave themselves—when all our schooling, and much of our governance and arts is giving the opposite message; namely, that women ought to be attracted to the prospect of being scientists and CEOs;  if women do not find this attractive, there must be something wrong … Not, hastens the advocate of female hegemony? equality? superiority? homogeneity? ... not, with the woman; she is being held back by male biases—even perhaps unconsciously, she chooses what she chooses because she has been conditioned to prefer it.

Which last is itself a supposition demeaning to women …
but I digress.

And there are, to be sure, particular cases were a woman’s progress in a field is held back by male biases.  But that does not explain why women themselves choose fields and career paths which are distinctly feminine—why, for example, there are more female nursing students and fewer female business students, or why the predominantly male graduate students of Philosophy Departments must perennially poach their universities’ English Department for girlfriends.

But criminitly (says the female advocate), this just shows that women choose these fields because they have been conditioned to think them appropriate (and they can’t help it any more than a man could, if we conditioned him to like braggadocio and fisticuffs! for both sexes are equally suggestible).

But once again I return to the point about twenty-first century America.  I’ve taught college students; the women are not worried about finding a “female” profession; they’re worried about making the Dean’s List and doing well in Lacrosse and Accounting and Macro Economics.  And the men aren’t worried about the women impinging on “their” domains; they’re worried about whether they should alternate their pronouns between “he” and “she”, go for the (infamous) “s/he” as a compromise, or just use “she” as the default to keep everything super safe.

And yet … and yet … many of those female lacrosse players are taking nursing classes; and nationally, women still tend towards occupations that nurture, that emphasize interpersonal relations, and that put less primacy on surpassing others than on helping others.  I suppose if you’re Marx or Machiavelli this sounds like women are in a parlous state.  To me, it just sounds like women are generally nicer than men—no offense to the latter sex, who do not (as far as I can tell) put much of a premium on being nice.

You did notice, didn’t you, that Marx and Machiavelli are men?
I mean, that's not much of a beard, but ...
Also Nietzsche and Foucault … something about that obsession with power …

This naturally brings me back to a point that I have made before: that your post-modern suggests that something is wrong with the world because women don’t want to be welders, what they are really suggesting is that there is something wrong with women.

But I will concede this much.  Let us say that an implicit conditioning bias remains on average (that it remains in certain specific sectors of our culture is certain), and let us say that this bias encourages women to take traditionally “womanly” occupations.  (I make this concession without much pain, since it could hardly be that one blog post could solve a controversy impervious to whole armies of researchers and pollsters.)  I am still bound to ask: What’s wrong with that?  Let’s admit (for the sake of the argument) that men are encouraged to play with power tools and women with dolls, and that this leads to men who grow up to play with cancer cells and go out fracking and gamble on Wall Street, while the women are more inclined to change bed pans and teach the three Rs.

If so—if so—what’s the harm in that?  Why do we assume that being on Wall Street is inherently superior to being in a third grade classroom, or (oh cover your flaming ears for shame) staying at home with the children?  It isn’t better; we just act that way.  Indeed, the more serious male bias is not the (admittedly sometimes real) bias that hinders women from working on Wall Street, but the one which suggests that they are better off there than in the garden with Eve.

The proof of their brainwashing lies in the fact
that no sane man would assert such a thing!

I have, of course, said nothing here that Chesterton has not said better elsewhere—indeed, said nothing also that a certain flavor of feminist have also said.  But even the oldest ideas bear repeating on occasion; and Milton was on my desk, and the rhetoric of the election beating about the back of my head.

Besides, my other choices were talking about politics or gorillas.
This is the better part.

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