When we speak of the 'Independent Woman' the image of a classy woman, dressed for business, directing, leading, and holding her own as an executive comes to mind. In this modern age, there are more women in University than men. We see women holding positions at all levels of society and in all sorts of careers and doing so very well.
The question I want to ask is: Is the modern independent woman independent? I was inspired by this same question posed by GK Chesterton in the early 1900's and felt it was worth asking a century later.
First of all, we must understand what the modern world means by the word 'independent'. The 'independent woman' is a woman that is independent of the home, of the domestic duties that bind her to the household so that she can pursue a career. In the 21st century, it also means that she is autonomous, in control of her fertility, independent of commitment, independent of traditional moral norms if she chooses to be, sexually independent, is free to abort or adopt, and to birth in convenience without pain. The 21st century woman is iconic. Mary and Child no longer inspire.
BUT, is the 21st century woman really independent? Does being independent of the home, of sexual roles and norms, of children really equate to independence?
Chesterton asked this question. He answers thus: "She is only independent of the home - and not of the workshop of the world ... the whole of the rest of the world in which she lives, whether for good or evil, is one network of necessitarian dependence." In other words, she has walked out of the home where she is master of her domain, her schedule and can be as creative as she deems, into a world where she is dependent on others to get paid, dependent on others for recognition, dependent on another's schedule and so on and so forth.
I happened to overhear a conversation between two women at a Christmas function this past year. Both were business women, dressed smart and standing tall. They talked casually about the men they had relations with and the unexpected miscarriage in the bathtub. Their language was crude by my standards, but acceptable to those around her. The two were and had succeeded in becoming the ‘Independent Woman.’
In the same season I was able to hear a conversation between two women who chose their ‘career’ to be in building a family and a home together with her husband. There were no stories of ‘sexual encounters’ (Mom’s don’t generally tell brag stories about the intimacy between her and her husband), but rather stories of children. There was debate and discussion on the best the way to discipline, educate, and provide nutrition. There was laughter that was heart-felt and deep as both connected over shared experiences.
Now, I’m not condemning any woman that wants to use her gifts in the wide world to make a difference. Women are brilliant, tenacious, strong and profoundly talented in taming the barbarous male. It is no surprise to anyone that they would succeed exceedingly in the career fields.
Then there is the further scenario that comes up in the 21st century that Chesterton wasn’t dealing with, to wit, the woman that has only a couple children and whom are both now in school. Should this woman not be working and gaining a career, improving her skills, getting to be ‘independent’? I dare suggest, that is the case with most families these days, as with the advent of birth control, most couples opt for small families. Yet, even in this case, is the woman, who now has substantially less responsibility at home since both children are in school, now needing to seek independence? That is independence outside of the home?
Do I dare delve further? Why are they seeking for independence? Woman, by nature are called to the vocation of motherhood (natural or spiritual) as is obvious from the physical constitution, their brilliance, their abilities to teach, handle high stress, manage unworthy husbands, and their susceptibility to holiness. Is it that they need independence (freedom) from husbands that are irresponsible? Is it the pressure from outside forces, media and otherwise, demanding she not be a ‘stay-at-home’ mom? Is it that in western society the sky is the limit as far as opportunities are concerned? Is it materialism, the striving for more and more stuff?
What is it that the 21st century woman finds outside the home that she isn't finding in the home?
The questions stand and I don’t presume to have an answer. I find the discussion interesting and find my wife, a stay-at-home mom of six not only to be brilliant in her role as a mom, but creative, thoughtful and strong. She is constantly finding time for professional development in areas of family health, Catholic education, growing in virtue and whichever topic she chooses. She designs the home, works to create her vision for the company (family), budgets and spends the company's money as she sees fit, and further develops a schedule according to her design within which the rest of the family fits into. If the 21st century woman is the icon of independence, then perhaps my wife needs to be woman on the front cover.
See GK Chesterton: On Dependence and Independence, as published in Brave New Family.