Friday, 9 August 2013

Part LI - Emancipation from Privilege and Futility

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

Veblen talks a lot about women in this chapter. The requirement of withdrawal from all useful employment applies most rigorously to upper-class women. Women in general are supposed to lead a life of vicarious leisure in the service of their master, but this is doubly the case for members of the leisure class.  Veblen has previously stated that women have more instinct than do men for workmanship, which he defines as abhorrence of waste or futility, the urge to be useful.  Of course many people today would see a life of vicarious leisure such as he describes as an entirely wasted and futile way to live. 

That very idea of futility is beginning to take root in the wider consciousness of society at the time of Veblen’s writing.  Indeed, in 1899 women have been pushing for the vote for nearly 50 years.  It is still thought a fairly outrageous concept. However, with the economic development of society women can see how they could make a more meaningful contribution than they are presently allowed, by either 'decent' custom or by law.  The issue of women’s suffrage was not just about the right to vote but would potentially impact on how women might be allowed to conduct themselves in leading their own lives. Veblen refers to this as “the woman question”. 

He points out that because a woman’s life is still vicarious, her actions reflect upon ‘the man whose woman she is’.  On the other hand, ‘relatively little discredit attaches to a woman through the evil deeds of the man with whom her life is associated.’  Does this still hold true?  I kind of think it does.  Anyhow, because of this way of thinking, Veblen explains that with respect to civil rights or suffrage, the woman should ‘in the body politic and before the law’ be represented not by herself but through the head of the household to which she belongs.  It is unfeminine to aspire to a self-directing, self-centred life.  'The social relations of the sexes are fixed by nature. Our entire civilization — that is whatever is good in it — is based on the home.' The 'home' is the household with a male head.   He says women of sense share this view, being highly sensitive to what is right and proper.  Sadly, some smug, conservative men today still maintain this concept to hold true…

However, Veblen says there is the growing sentiment that
“that this whole arrangement of tutelage and vicarious life and imputation of merit and demerit is somehow a mistake.  Or, at least, that even if it may be a natural growth and a good arrangement in its time and place, and in spite of its patent aesthetic value, still it does not adequately serve the more everyday ends of life in a modern industrial community.”

Modern women, who ‘by force of youth, education or temperament’ are less manageable and out of touch with the traditions of status of the barbarian culture, they have ‘a sense of grievance too vivid to leave them at rest.’  Even the well-bred upper and middle class, traditional, matronly (apparently that used to be a complimentary term?) woman, even the conservative woman finds ‘some slight discrepancy in detail between things as they are and things as they should be in this respect.’
Looking at ‘the woman question’ from an economic standpoint he identifies the concepts of “Emancipation” and “Work.”  Surprisingly he notes that the demand for ‘emancipation from all relation of status, tutelage, of vicarious life’ comes especially from the upper class women, those living a vicarious life, those ‘excluded by the canons of good repute from all effectual work’, those women ‘closely reserved for a life of leisure and conspicuous consumption’. 

The privileged life of these women wanting emancipation is a sore point by some observers who scoff:
“She is petted by her husband, the most devoted and hard-working of husbands in the world. ... She is the superior of her husband in education, and in almost every respect. She is surrounded by the most numerous and delicate attentions. Yet she is not satisfied …. The Anglo-Saxon ‘new woman’ is the most ridiculous production of modern times, and destined to be the most ghastly failure of the century.”

Veblen  points out that although this woman is petted and permitted – even required – to consume largely and conspicuously, vicariously for her husband or guardian,
“These offices are the conventional marks of the un-free, at the same time that they are incompatible with the human impulse to purposeful activity.”

He explains why this is an upper- and middle-class phenomenon.  He says that

“So long as the woman’s place is consistently that of a drudge, she is, in the average of cases, fairly contented with her lot. She not only has something tangible and purposeful to do, but she has also no time or thought to spare for a rebellious assertion of such human propensity to self-direction as she has inherited.”

In times past the sense of status and of maintaining the hierarchy seemingly entertained women sufficiently that they were content with a vicarious life.   The economic changes in society that accompany the industrial revolution has caused the scheme of status, hierarchy and personal subservience to no longer seem the natural order of human relations among men – or women.

I did always wonder why it was the wealthier women who led the suffrage movement.  Yet again, Veblen offers a plausible explanation.

1 comment:

Gam Kau said...

I also have wondered why it was the wealthy women who led the change.