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The Menace of the Leisured Woman

January 27, 1927 — A public debate with G.K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw presiding, Kingsway Hall, London, England; also broadcast by the BBC


[Resolved: That the existence of the leisured woman is a menace to civilization.]

I am here to put forward a simple proposition: That the existence of the leisured woman constitutes a grave menace to civilization. If anyone thinks that is a n overstatement of my case I can only say I felt that that was an understatement, and for that reason I hesitated to put it in that form. If it seems an exaggeration to anyone I would suggest that it is because in his heart he feels that anything that women can do could scarcely affect so large and important a thing as civilization. It is just another instance of the inferiority complex.

I don’t know when Mr. Shaw wrote his preface to “Heartbreak House” how far he himself realized that for that society which he descried so graphically women were responsible. But I imagine that he probably did, because I find that in one sentence he refers to the inhabitants of Heartbreak House as “pretty and amiable voluptuaries.” For some reason “pretty and amiable” are adjectives which are almost always supplied to women rather than to men. But, after all, we have only to look at the world, we have only to open our eyes, to realize what the life of the leisured woman is, and what effect it has had on society as a whole. Nobody denies that idleness is the root of all evil.

You may be saying to yourselves that it is perfectly true that idleness has its effects, but you do not believe that the leisured woman in fact exists. You think she is a myth, that you have not met a leisured woman. Women are mostly occupied. I would point out, in the first place, that it is very easy to be both leisured and occupied; that most people see to it that they have an occupation, because, at least in the cultured countries, we prefer having an occupation to doing nothing. But that does not mean that in point of fact we are not, in the sense that I am using the word, leisured. You may tell me that you have scarcely ever met a leisured woman, that the unmarried women or women who have no children are doing good work in their neighborhoods or in their local political organization, and that the ones who have children have a full-time job.

Consideration for the Child

Mr. Chesterton told me in Time and Tide last autumn that looking after one child is a full-time job. He said, as far as I remember, that if any household contained even one child and the mother does not find looking after that child a whole-time job then the job is not being properly done. But that depends on many things — primarily, perhaps, on the age of the child; secondarily on whether the child has a nurse, and how many maids are kept in the house. But ought we not to consider the point of view of the child? Do you honestly think it is fair of anyone to make that a whole-time job for any other person?

Lastly, if you really think that the leisured woman does not exist, how do you account for the fact that results of her exist? How do you account, for instance, for the high heel — that symbol of all inefficiency? Do you think that the high heel would ever be in use by woman to-day if it were not that it is invented for a leisured class, which does not have to work? I know that it is used by many a woman who goes to work everyday of her life. But that is just the trouble with clothes, invented — you only have to look at them — for  leisured class that does not have to work, that has most of its time to play with; and it wears flimsy clothes that need constant renewal and don’t last any time to speak of. They are worn by the rest of us because we do not like being different from other people.

I am not making an attack on the individual leisured woman. Nothing would be more unfair than to attack her for the place that she happens to have been born into. It is no more her fault that we have organized society on the basis of having a class of idle women that it is the fault of any other section of society. If I have seemed at all to attack the leisured woman of to-day, it is not because she is responsible for the present state of affairs, but because she is the only person who can set it right.

I find myself in the comfortable position of fundamentally disagreeing with Mr. Chesterton. As I see his description of life, he would suggest that the homes of the country are the only oases left of liberty and happiness, and that the ideal life for every person in the world is to sit, like a modest violent or shrinking snail, tight in their home, and not look out of the windows, but to have the blinds down, because they may see capitalistic society outside. As an ideal for the human race, I find that inadequate in a variety of ways.

Babies and Hammers

What he suggest is that we should all sit down, have the largest families possible, and bring them up to regard it as their ideal in turn to have the largest possible families, and so on, always avoiding doing anything during the present generation, and always thinking only of bringing up the next generation. That seems to be about as satisfactory as if every hammer in the country decided that its only duty was to produce more hammers, never to do anything as hammers except to product other hammers. I cannot feel that that is a satisfactory ideal.

As to that question of birth control which Mr. Chesterton brought up, I express no views on that subject whatsoever, as to whether we should have large or small families. That seems to me a matter entirely for the individual to decide. I accept life as I see it around me. Among the ordinary well-to-do people I find that they do not wish to have a family larger than three or perhaps four children. It may be, as Mr. Chesterton contents, that they ought to have twelve children. They do not; and I do not think that, in spite of what they have been urged to do to-night, they are going back to the plan of having twelve children. But I do say, when you have a small family of two or three or even four children, there comes a period fairly soon in the life of the mother of those children when she is not fully occupied, and when, to my thinking, on the whole, so far as the children are concerned, she ought not to be fully occupied.

Mr. Chesterton suggests that it would be a terrible thing for the ordinary woman to turn her attention to philanthropy. Well, I never cared for philanthropy much myself, but I believe in the liberty of the individual. Mr. Chesterton is very severe about the ordinary woman in the suburbs who goes out and does what she happens to think is the right thing in the way of philanthropy. We have all got our own schemes for reforming the world. Mr. Chesterton has got his, I have mine. Mr. Chesterton has the very excellent paper called G.K.’s Weekly, and he runs it largely, I suppose, because he hopes to reform the world by it. I have something to do with Time and Tide, no doubt with the hope of reforming the world by that.

Finally, Mr. Chesterton said he supposed that I believed in the civilization which I find here to-day. Well, I am a business woman, I am in commerce, and I would not be anywhere else. I believe that business is the most important thing. It is the fundamental trade of a country, the fundamental profession, if you like, of a country; for all the other professions are parasites on that one profession of getting food, housing, clothing, material well-being, if you like, for the people of the country. But I do not believe that our civilization to-day is perfect. I no more want women to withdraw into the home and pull the blinds down, and say this system is not good enough for us to touch, than I want men to do that. If it is not good enough for them to touch, they had better get out and alter it. If it is good enough for them to touch, then let them work in it. And, if the trades and professions are good enough for men, then I think they are good enough for women. 



Source: Modern Eloquence, Vol. XV, ed. Ashley H. Thorndike, (New York: Modern Eloquence Corp.) 1928,  pp. 160-163.