Vera Brittain challenges the idea that wifehood is an occupation – archive, 1929
Perhaps no argument against the combination of marriage and a career is quite so popular as the familiar cliché that wifehood is a profession. “I was always taught that marriage was a career in itself,” disapprovingly remarked a young woman at the close of a recent lecture in which I had maintained that if wives preferred employment outside their homes they should be free to make the choice. Shortly afterwards I opened the pages of Dr. Meyrick Booth’s newly published treatise Woman and Society to find the old confusing argument stated with all the old naive simplicity. “The occupation of wifehood,” remarks the author, “is the largest of all the careers open to the young citizen of our country. And this career is a female monopoly … Being a husband is not an occupation by which a man earns his living. But 5,000,000 women secure their economic existence by being wives.”
The deceptiveness of this contention lies, of course, in its surface appearance of truth. In reality it contains the same kind of fallacy or false analogy as we should use if we were to say: “A boy must be kept busy by training to be a doctor or an engineer, but a girl is sufficiently occupied in contemplating her own womanhood.”
To identify wifehood and motherhood with the work of a household is a simple method of confusing a difficult issue and preventing clearness of thought. In actual fact wifehood and motherhood are not jobs; like husbandhood and fatherhood they are personal relationships which we degrade by using as alternative descriptions of domestic tasks. Such relationships exist quite independently of the economic occupation, whatever this may be, of the person who adopts them.
A wife may enter into an agreement with her husband to work for him as his housekeeper, or to act as nurse to their children, but she may equally well make a contract with an unknown member of Parliament to work for him as his secretary. Because, for instance, I write books and articles which we spend many delightful hours in discussing, I am no less my husband’s wife than I should be it I cooked his meals for him while he was out of the house.
Nor am I less my son’s mother because I am better at planning his education than at putting him to bed. A recently issued American book, The Marriage Crisis by Ernest R. Groves, calls attention to the unfortunate results of this very confusion of thought. For a girl, the writer points out, so-called “preparation for marriage” has been limited to the teaching of cooking and household technique, while omitting the biological and psychological instruction necessary to a relation which is quite independent of a knowledge of domestic economy, and whose success is far more important to happy marriage than the greatest culinary skill in the world.
“As a consequence of over-emphasis (of household technique at the expense of sex-technique) people,” he writes, “have married, highly trained and well-prepared for most of the relationships of life. but utterly destitute of any information given accurately by competent teachers that would function to make their marriage a success and their family life more efficient.”
The domestic side
No doubt this prevalent confusion is still partly due to the Victorian prudishness which never permitted sex relationships to be thought or spoken of except in terms of something quite different. But whatever the reason, the sooner we learn to look upon marriage, not as an occupation in itself, but as a relation which can be equally satisfactory whether the wife is housekeeper, actress, writer, shop assistant, or lady-in-waiting, the better for the simplicity of our sociological controversies.
A yet further valuable consequence of more lucid thought upon this subject may well be the increasing liberation of the housewife from domestic tasks. Not a few wasteful practices have been perpetuated by the illusion that the greater the household drudgery, the better and worthier the wife. Once women in general can set themselves free from the notion that uncongenial domestic toil is a kind of moral obligation demanded of them by some unspecified social authority in return for the privilege of wifehood, they are likely to welcome the simpler living, the standardisation of equipment, and the labour-saving devices which they now view with a “get-thee-behind-me-Satan” suspicion.
Not least grateful is likely to be the husband whose wife, in her determination to regard him as her life’s task and the justification of her existence, has turned his once peaceful home into a domestic hive where the bees of discord buzz from morning till night. Unhappy marriages, after all, are not as a rule found among those couples who, having already each a vocation, decide that congenial companionship will render a rich existence even better worth while. Too often they result from that lack of occupation and purpose which in the past drove so many women to take husbands, not out of the love and respect that seldom flowers in an atmosphere of compulsion, but from the necessity which made marriage the only means of “securing their economic existence”.
[“source=theguardian”]Tags: -, an, archive, Brittain, challenges, idea, is, occupation, That, the, Vera, wifehood