Chesterton’s critique of feminism

(From chapter IV of What’s Wrong with the World)

Chesterton does not critique feminism as a desire for female equality or justice for women or even as a movement to extend the voting franchise (though this last point is made problematic by his referring to feminists as “suffragettes”) but so far as it treats domestic life and motherhood as a second-class or failed life. His actual critique will take me two paragraphs of set-up, so wait for it.

Human excellence is finite and so involves trade-offs and the need to compensate one excellence with another. One basic division in human excellence is between the specialized and the integrated. Some minds specialize in certain tasks. This allows them to deepen and sharpen skills, but only at the cost of isolating a skill from a larger whole and so losing its context. Those who integrate have a very broad knowledge of things, but this comes at the expense of depth in any field. The first sort of excellence treats human perfection like a 20-square foot area that is twenty feet deep but only one foot wide, the second treats it as an area that is twenty feet wide but only one foot deep. The first sort of excellence is taught in grad schools and vocational schools, the second kind is taught in liberal arts schools. The liberal arts are continually critiqued as “Not preparing students for (insert specialized task here)” while grad schools and tracked-curricula of themselves produce persons who (at best) stare at anything outside their field with bovine incomprehension or (at worst) scoff out an arrogant dismissal.

Three great domains of the integrated life are the liberal arts, domestic life, and religion, and each is critiqued (correctly but inappropriately) for not being specialized. Religions, for example, teach a little cosmology, a little ethics, a bit of law, a bit of pleasant story-telling, poetry, and myth, a bit of philosophy, etc. but they often don’t achieve anywhere near the depth or precision that one can achieve when he isolates each of these things into its own discourse. Nevertheless, this isolation comes at a cost. Outside of religion, law loses its transcendent or cosmological dimension, ethics loses the dimension of depth that myth can contribute, poetry ceases to be a vehicle of the divine speech, and philosophy becomes purely academic formal discourse. Our discourses get deeper and sharper only by becoming narrower. This desire to shove all human excellence into specialization is a desire that Chesterton always critiques as leading to madness – his classic statement of the thesis is Chapter II of Orthodoxy that describes the madman as trapped in the infinitely narrow scope of a single overly-developed idea.

And it is in this context that Chesterton sees feminism as part of a larger contemporary error that sees excellence only in specialization. The domestic life with children requires a certain ability to diagnose diseases, but not one that is as specialized as the doctor’s; it requires some ability to scare up meals, but not an ability as specialized as the chef; it requires an ability to entertain and teach, but not a professional-grade ability, etc. Each of these traits is in some way underdeveloped, but only as a side-effect of the perfection it has from broad integration. One of my married friends used to joke that her husband couldn’t afford not to get married: it was the only way he ever got fed, cleaned up, civilized, put on a decent schedule, made healthy, had any order put to his finances, became a home-owner, etc. These are all virtues of domestic life, and they can’t be imposed by an army of specialists but only by one benevolent dictator.

Chesterton explicitly denies that the division of male and female gender roles is required by nature, but he is (again) against any critique of the domestic life that treats it as second-class or a failure to develop bona fide human perfection. There is certainly a good deal of feminism to promote outside of this critique, even if it is not always easy for us non-specialists in women’s studies to identify a feminism that is not beholden to it.

1 Comment

  1. A Small Sam said,

    February 24, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Have you read anything by Nancy Fraser? (I link an interview if that’s okay:

    She seems to have a parallel position to Chesterton: Chesterton – specialisation is mistakenly thought greater than what is unspecialised but still necessary and good; Fraser – labour that produces capital is mistakenly thought greater than labour that cares, reproduces, produces social goods that aren’t capital. The positions don’t just seem to pull together but the one seems to support the other.

    Basically, there is good work being done in feminism in harmony with these criticisms, and I hold out hope for their becoming more significant with time.

    (Also – what strikes me as one interesting feature of both these accounts is that they justify or valorise the man who does unspecialised, caring social-reproduction type things, to the point of maintaining that men are missing out of genuine goods when they are not concerned with them, just as women were missing out on goods by not being able to engage in politics; so this position may end up maintaining a fairer division of laour as it were in both directions. Having read some of Chesterton’s writing on gender I doubt he would be a huge fan of a full development of this line of thought.)

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