Recently, I got into an argument with a friend of mine on the role of women in society. The discussion became quite heated–made worse by the fact that we came from two different angles on the topic. I believe that both traditionalists and moderns sincerely wish to elevate women in society; but, our ideas about which roles are the more elevated differ, because we value the four human spheres of activity differently: economic, vital, aesthetic, and spiritual. What is the proper ordering of these spheres?
Before I begin my arguments on this topic, some might say: “Isn’t there also a political sphere?” The goal of politics is the common good of communities. As such, political offices find their place within the vital sphere like other offices tending to the common good: military, law enforcement, judicial, and infrastructure. Also, the government can’t really produce economic, aesthetic, or spiritual growth, but only create favorable conditions for these to take place.
At any rate, let us examine the modern approach first. What is the highest sphere for the modern? The economic. How does one know this? Because they want economic equality for all. Even politics has its primary purpose in eliminating inequality of wealth, and so the vital sphere serves the interests of the economic. In the case of women, the primary reason feminists aver that women are second class citizens is because they tend to make less money. (Political inequalities have been solved, even if fewer women enter political office.) The great injustice for them to eliminate is the wage gap.
The fact that the vital, aesthetic, and spiritual realms tend not to the production of wealth make them secondary to the economic sphere under the modern vision. What is a nun in this scheme but a pauper? The value of the artist lies not in his ability to elevate the human spirit but in the market value of his art. Lastly, the denizens of the vital sphere (policemen, firemen, teachers, soldiers, housewives, family, and friends) all tend to make less money than those of the economic–with the exception of doctors. (I almost wrote lawyers after doctors, but some activities of lawyers, pro-bono and civil rights cases, fall in the vital sphere, while others, patents, medical malpractice suits, and recovery of monetary damages, often smack more of the economic. And lawyers tending toward the latter class of lawsuits make more money.)
On one hand, I understand why moderns would place the economic sphere above the rest: money equates with power, and power has always held much to do with social standing. The business man has more power than the housewife, who relies upon her husband for access to goods and services. So, the woman of business or the female politician seem higher according to the modern scale.
But, the traditionalist scale is uniquely Christian: “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35). The greatness of the worker or businessman stands on serving the material needs of his family and community, which is located in the vital sphere. The housewife educates and shapes the lives of her children from day to day. Higher than the housewife, the artist hopes to enrich the human mind. And, highest of all, the monk or nun forswears money and pleasure in order to offer penance for the eternal salvation of human souls. The traditional schema of goods from least to greatest is as follows: material goods, life, intellect, and spirit. Sure, the higher spheres cannot exist without the economic, which is why even monks farm or engage in some industry. But though the highest cannot stand secure without the lowest, the highest is still the highest. While we need to work in this life to produce the necessities for living, the economic sphere will disappear in the next life, and those who only worked for the sake of this world’s goods shall have the hardest time at the Last Judgement.
And so, the role of the housewife in shaping the lives of her children is in fact higher than that of the breadwinner, who makes the children’s upbringing possible. “But,” you say, “does not Christianity place the wife under the husband by making the wife obedient to him? So, would not the station of the husband still be higher than the wife’s?” There is a paradox here. Is not also the place of the politician higher than the soldier, because the soldier must obey the orders of the Commander-in-Chief and the will of Congress to go to war? Yet, who tends to hold more honor? The politician or the soldier? Power does not determine the merit of a particular role; instead, this is determined by the goal of that role and what the person sacrifices for it.
The reader may think here that I have done much to diminish the role of husbands and fathers! But, if I have appeared to diminish their roles, it is only so as to manifest the glory of motherhood, which the modern worldview holds inferior. In truth, there is much honor to be had by all. All are not called to monastic life, even though the glory of the monastic’s faith and sacrifices will shine more than any married person’s with the exceptions of St. Mary and St. Joseph. God has created humanity like a gardener a magnificent garden. Roses might be the most beautiful of all flowers, but how boring to have a garden of only roses! And so, God plants the roses of the martyrs, the lilies of the virgins, the violets of the confessors, and a great variety of other flowers with their own beauty. There is no lack of honor for each in his own station, and each serves the glory and perfection of the whole.