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WOMEN/ A mother’s work is never done! (3)

MARGARET HARPER McCARTHY, The Catholic University of America, examines in depth the issue of women and work, particularly as to mothers and the “work-family balance”. Third of three parts

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Third of three parts; here the first and the second part. First appeared in Humanum.

III. Opening up the Horizon

Naturally, women have always worked and always will. The question then is not about whether or not they work, but whether or not the work specific to them counts for work, and whether or not that work has any relation to whatever work they do beyond that. This is the crucial question. It is clear enough that the Badinters, the Sandbergs, and their like answer the question in the negative. Is the discussion over, then? Perhaps the thousands of visceral reactions to Lean In by ex-feminist ladder climbers enjoying life with their children (finally!) suggests otherwise.

One of the greatest friends of women in the last century was the Slavic pope, John Paul II, who spoke frequently of the “genius of women.” With that term he pointed to the work specific to women, that of “being entrusted with the human being in a special way.” By virtue of her concrete femininity, the woman, he said, has “a sensitivity for what is essentially human” (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 30). She welcomes the child, gives it room, enables it to grow, lets it be. She is a “humanizing force” (Letter to Women, n. 4); she is a “guardian,” as it were, of that most basic activity - that work - of recognizing what is essentially human, especially in a world which tends to see only things that are useful.

This is why he urged societies not to stigmatize or penalize financially women who do have children, if they spend most of their time caring for them, and to ensure that women who do engage in other work have a work schedule that doesn’t force them to choose between “relinquishing their family life or enduring continual stress, with negative consequences for one’s own equilibrium and the harmony of the family” (On the Collaboration of Men and Women).

The “genius of women,” moreover, said John Paul II, was true for women whether or not they were physical mothers. It belonged to women as such, and gave form to all of their activity. For this reason he urged women who engaged in other work to do so from the point of their motherhood (physical or spiritual) and “humanize structures” (Letter to Women, n. 2).

We might call to mind here the many women of the “maternalist movement” - all in the Democrat party - many of whom entered public life and assumed positions of responsibility in the government of FDR. These women promoted things that had as their horizon, not androgynous individuals, but men and women as actual or potential fathers and mothers, together in a home with children. Pushing back against the industrialist tendencies to flatten these distinctions in the meat-grinder of “equality” (of sameness), they saw in the distinct needs and responsibilities of men and woman a bond to be strengthened, not relaxed. To that end they proposed changes to tax and labor law - including the family wage and “mother’s pensions” for widows - and established countless institutions and campaigns that promoted motherhood and home life.