In an election year we hear candidates tell us how they want to make the “American Dream” available to everyone. By this they usually mean a good education that leads to a job with upward mobility, which includes salary raises and promotions, retirement accounts, and of course home ownership. The American Dream is well known around the world. It is a driving force for immigrants legal and illegal. In America (theoretically, anyway), education and work are available to anyone who really wants it: man and woman, young and old, rich and poor.
But the American Dream has become of late a source of division among people of different classes in our society—seen as a zero-sum and pitting people against one another. Whether it’s objectively true or not, our society acts like the American Dream is a commodity and there’s not enough to go around. Like the peasants gathered around Marie-Antoinette’s palace shouting for bread, we gather around our politicians demanding a piece of the American Dream.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the American Dream is not a job and a house, although those can be its consequences. The American Dream is not an education, but it can include that. No. The American Dream is a singular idea expressed succinctly: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This, and the entirety of the Declaration of Independence, is the hermeneutic by which we read the Constitution, and by which we are to understand our history, and therefore our future. It is also how we should understand our present subject matter—the American Dream.
The American Dream is a call to create a society with the space to pursue what in history was known as God’s cultural mandate to male and female alike: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” The laws of nature and of nature’s God call humanity to work hard, to strive for the basic goods (e.g., the transcendent/God, knowledge, life/health, friendship, etc.) with excellence, and to pursue what Aristotle called Eudaimonia—flourishing by practicing virtue—the happiness of friendship with God.
When we see it that way, it is no longer the “American Dream.” Yet it is fitting that we call it the American Dream, because in the providence of history, it is here in America where this unprecedented space was created for the flourishing of a people to pursue humanity’s calling by the aid of a self-constrained government.
The Goodness of Work for Women
From the dawn of civilization women, just like men, have worked—because, frankly, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. The primary causation between working and eating was fairly direct, and thick. Plant seeds, care for crops, harvest, grind wheat, bake bread, eat bread. Keep animal, slaughter animal, cook and eat animal. Hard work—everyone did it, and the slothful were known by the fruit (or lack of) in their field.
To feed everyone, some families had to hire out their children as servants to wealthier families. Work was a good: it brought food to the belly; when it increased under certain circumstances it brought wealth. Wealth built up households, communities, villages, and nations.
Labor is good, elevating mankind and bringing forth creativity. When women devalue it in any way, for example, by thinking only work outside the home is valuable, or by the opposite extreme of thinking only the at-home woman is performing the truly valuable work, we end up denigrating both. Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard has an excellent article on how devaluing work has contributed to our current political problems.
So the human person, whether male or female, is created and called unto a work—a vocation—not as a class, but as persons. (I am not here including a woman’s natural vocation to motherhood and domesticity.) Just like not all men were created to be engineers, not all women were created to do the same work. The Declaration’s assertion of natural equality does not negate natural differences; rather, it protects them.
If we understand the American Dream as the space within our society which the Founders established so men and women can pursue the cultural mandate toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, inevitably this will mean that man will pursue it according to his nature, while woman will pursue it according to hers. Grateful are we that one of our great Founding Fathers, James Madison, anticipated and accounted for “different and unequal faculties,” and founded a government whose “first object” is the “protection of these faculties.”
There is also what German philosopher and Catholic Carmelite nun Edith Stein called the feminine singularity, which women as women carry with them in all areas of life. Stein was a Jew who converted to Catholicism and was killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942. She believed that “solid objective work” exercised with temperance and always kept in check by the priority of a woman’s natural vocation (motherhood—physical or otherwise), was a good, elevating women out of their fallen nature. In a sense, you could say she advocated for the “American Dream”—that space in society where women can pursue God’s calling upon them.
In her essay “Are Women Human?” Dorothy Sayers writes about a woman’s individual vocation:
At one time, for instance, men had a monopoly of classical education. When the pioneers of university training for women demanded that women should be admitted to the universities, the cry went up at once: ‘Why should women want to know about Aristotle?’ The answer is NOT that all women would be the better for knowing about Aristotle—still less, as Lord Tennyson seemed to think, that they would be more companionable wives for their husbands if they did know about Aristotle—but simply: ‘What women want as a class is irrelevant. I want to know about Aristotle. It is true that most women care nothing about him, and a great many male undergraduates turn pale and faint at the thought of him—but I, eccentric individual that I am, do want to know about Aristotle, and I submit that there is nothing in my shape or bodily functions which need prevent my knowing about him.’
To this Stein adds, “no woman is only woman; like a man, each has her individual specialty and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.”
We see then, that the laws of nature and of nature’s God tell us that men and women are created individually and uniquely for a vocation, and they maintain a reciprocity, a complementarity of maleness and femaleness—they are not interchangeable. The “American Dream” in the way I have defined it above, creates a societal space for both men and women, according to both their natural differences and to their individual uniqueness, to fulfill their collateral callings.
Fundamentally, then, the cultural mandate means we pursue what we were created to be without fear. This goes beyond the question of work and talent. It begins by becoming seekers of wisdom and lovers of knowledge. Women at peace with being women.
The American Dream Takes a Village
As an immigrant, I sought the American Dream ever since my parents first tried to explain to eight-year-old me what it was, back when I was a refugee living in Greece praying, “Dear God please accept us to go to America grigora grigora.” Grigora means “quickly” in Greek.
With the idea that the American Dream meant education, a job, a nice car, and a house, most immigrants set out to achieve this American Dream. Through grit and guts they do. Although many go into business, most immigrant parents in my Iraqi Christian community push their kids to be either a doctor, dentist, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer. I chuckled reading Norman Podhoretz’ similar story in “My Love Affair with America.” How I related!
In some respects I am a failure by my immigrant community standards. I’m not a doctor, dentist, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer. This came home to me not too long ago during a visit to my parents’ house. When it came time to say goodbye to some guests, a man mistook me for my sister, who is a nephrologist. He said in Arabic while excitedly shaking my hand, “Goodbye, doctor!” After I told him that I was not a doctor, and that he had mistaken me for my sister, his hand dropped, his eyes looked down as he walked away feeling sorry for any attention he had bestowed upon me.
I thought I had gotten used to the “you’re-the-stay-at-home-mom-who-never-amounted-to-anything” look, but it stung very unexpectedly this time. After thinking it through, I realized that it stung precisely because I am working so hard to raise my voice for the immigrant, to write about the immigrant situation, and to fight with my pen for the soul of this country and the idea of the American Dream. I do, or at least I am trying to do, something that is outside the categories my immigrant community understands—I am fighting for the founding principles of our country; the very principles that make it possible for them to live in a society where all can pursue the cultural mandate.
What makes it possible for many immigrants to pursue and at times outperform natural-born Americans for the “American Dream” is family bonds. Most immigrants continue to either live with family after they get married, bring in an older relative to live with them, or even sometimes leave a child with relatives as they stabilize in their profession. Rarely if ever does an immigrant family use daycare—only those very few that don’t have family around. Most importantly, the mother who takes a job outside the home never does so from an autonomous self-actualization philosophy.
The pursuit of the American Dream for women is not about putting self first to climb a ladder to get ahead. It is about seeing every opportunity as a chance to live fruitfully and with excellence—whether it’s keeping a home, taking an outside-the-home job, or writing essays while sitting on the front porch watching your children play. It means women must control their desires, and choose wisely for themselves and their families.
So how do we modern American women pursue the American Dream? If we see the American Dream the way I have described above, then every act born out of wisdom on our part becomes the American Dream. Every breath taken as a free citizen of this republic becomes the American Dream. Every chance to practice our religion without constraint, the ability to form communities to help our fellow man and to be helped by them, working with other family members when possible for the benefit of all, even the opportunity for some to start little businesses from home—all these and more become instantiations of the American Dream. The American Dream is all around us.
But for how long?
The American Dream on the Verge of Unraveling
Our broken families create a void that scales upward culturally. In “Love and Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village,” Jennifer Roback Morse writes, “Our new problem is that the family bonds that earlier generations of political theorists could take for granted have become so weakened that the very fabric of social life is threatened.”
“There are souls at stake,” Mary Eberstadt said in an essay titled “Offense, Defense, and the Catholic Woman Thing” in “Promise and Challenge,” a book of essays edited by Mary Rice Hasson. But she ends that essay on a note which I have been trying to hit: “Woman today are being called upon to do nothing less than to change reality itself—to replay it through the higher keys of a feminine heart and mind.”
From time immemorial women were known to be the keepers—guardians—of the hearth. We must now become keepers of America’s founding principles. I call now on all women, young and old, rich and poor, married and not, no matter the education you have. I ask you to change the reality around you by reaching for the American Dream that is at your fingertips, no matter if it’s changing a diaper or heading foreign policy studies.
We have a country to rebuild. We change the reality around us by recovering that space in our society for people to pursue again humanity’s calling. This can only be done through the faithful exercise of our own individual calling as women.