Are Women in the Workplace a Good Thing?

Any critique of gender equality triggers not just “woke” activists but many conservatives, too. But should Catholics view the role of women in society differently?

American conservatism has certainly come a long way since the days of Richard Weaver, the Southern philosopher who identified “contempt for natural order” as the underlying ailment of the modern mind. Back in the 1960s, when he was known and celebrated as a conservative intellectual icon, Weaver saw “the foolish and destructive notion of the ‘equality’ of the sexes” as a prime example of said contempt. Today, Weaver’s critique of gender equality would trigger not just “woke” activists but many Republicans, too:

What but a profound blacking-out of our conception of nature and purpose could have borne this fantasy? Here is a distinction of so basic a character that one might suppose the most frenetic modern would regard it as part of the donnée to be respected. What God hath made distinct, let not man confuse! But no, profound differences of this kind seem only a challenge to the busy renovators of nature. The rage for equality has so blinded the last hundred years that every effort has been made to obliterate the divergence in role, conduct, and in dress.

Weaver concluded that there is no surer way to make women miserable than to treat them as if they were indistinguishable from men. He also had some especially sharp comments about would-be “slavers” of Big Business, believed by him to have promoted women in the workforce as a means of lowering wages. To say that Weaver’s conservatism is alien to that of Fox News is an understatement.

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It is also an understatement to say that counter-feminism is not solely confined to Protestants such as Weaver. There is a tremendous quantity of Catholic commentary about relations between the sexes. Yet at some parishes we would not know this from paying attention at Mass, as awkward Scripture such as Ephesians 5:21—“Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord”—are simply censored out of the liturgy in some cases.  

So, needless to say, few American Catholics are familiar with Pope Leo XIII’s extended remarks on the nature of the family:  

The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties.

Even John Paul II leaned on “sexist” assumptions when critiquing global capitalism, as when he declared that “a workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children.” The point here is not to make any claim about whether or how these teachings might be applied to modern life, nor to claim that these few quotes represent the last word regarding family authority or women in the workplace. No, the point is the extent to which many centuries’ worth of Catholic commentary about sex differences has simply been filtered out as if it were nothing. It is almost as if those responsible for handing down Catholic tradition would just as soon jettison whatever parts of said tradition happen to jar with modern sensibilities. 

Indeed, a certain kind of unbeliever is more likely to take phrases like male and female He created them far more seriously than do some Church spokesmen. For instance, the sociologist Steven Goldberg has long insisted that feminist ideology has distorted the science of sociology and that sex differences are ultimately grounded in nature rather than in upbringing or oppressive stereotypes.  

Writing that “psychophysiological differences between males and females engender in males a more-easily-released tendency for dominance behavior,” Goldberg goes on to explain that “as a result, all societies, without exception, exhibit patriarchy, male status attainment, and male dominance.” Revealingly, Margaret Mead—sometimes touted as an authority in support of the very feminist position Goldberg refutes—described Goldberg’s The Inevitability of Patriarchy as “persuasive and accurate.”   

A similarly secular response to feminism can be found in Darwinism Today—a series devoted to popularizing evolutionary psychology. In Divided Labours: The Evolutionary View of Women at Work, Kingsley Browne disputes the claim that female careerism is being held back by a “glass ceiling” of sex discrimination. According to Browne, the undisputed fact that men on average receive higher pay reflects not discrimination but nature, as women are, for the most part, more inclined to devote their energies to homemaking: “Evolutionary theory predicts that men will exhibit greater status-seeking, competitiveness, and risk-taking than women, and that women will exhibit more nurturing behaviour. These predictions are borne out in every known human society.”  

Lest his critics construct a strawman, Browne adds that he does not believe that every last man and woman can be tidily fit into such statistics. Yet this concession only affords him the opportunity to demolish the myth of the unfair gender gap. “It cannot be emphasized too strongly,” he explains,

that the differences are statistical, in the sense that they are generalizations that do not hold true for all individuals. There are women who are highly competitive and aggressive, just as there are men averse to competition and more interested in spending time with their children than in ascending hierarchies. But the fact that the predictions are true as generalizations is none the less important. After all, the glass ceiling and the gender gap in compensation are themselves merely group generalizations; many individual women earn more than the average man, and many women ascend higher in the executive ranks than most men. If one wants to say that average temperamental differences are not important because they do not hold true for all individuals, one should also be prepared to say that average economic differences between the sexes are not important for the same reason.

In light of such candid, evolution-informed responses to feminism, there is something deeply ironic about the scorn heaped onto creationists by egalitarians who claim to “follow the science.”  If evolution is true, why on earth should we assume that millions upon millions of years of it have failed to differentiate human males from human females in fundamental, politically-inconvenient ways?  

Again, none of this is to argue for a tidy, narrow theory of patriarchy—a mirror-image of feminism. As Aristotle notes, humans are not geometric figures, so the inclination to straitjacket men and women into a one-size-fits-all algorithm is itself part of the problem. Indeed, in the increasingly surreal 21st-century context, it is sometimes difficult even to imagine what Leo XIII’s “obedient companion” and “loving chief” is supposed to look like.  

So let us grant that a dysfunctional, feminized family life might be preferable to the quarrels or even divorces that could result from husbands too inflexibly insisting upon their patriarchal rights. Let us also recognize that in some instances it may be appropriate—albeit not normative—for a mother of small children to work outside the home, whether to make ends meet or to cultivate some indispensable talent. If assertiveness and strong leadership are distinctive elements of the masculine inheritance, so too are patience, prudence, restraint, and realism. What is called for at this moment is not the formulation of a new ideology but simply the jettisoning of an old one.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Jerry D. Salyer

    Jerry D. Salyer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautics from Miami University and a Master of Arts from the Great Books Program of St. John’s College, Annapolis. A veteran of the US Navy, Mr. Salyer now works as an educator and as a freelance writer.

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