In Dorothy Sayer’s 1936 novel “Gaudy Night,” a minor character refers to the “question of women’s education.” Famous detective Lord Peter Wimsey responds, “Is it still a question? It ought not to be,” and adds, “You should not imply that I have any right either to approve or disapprove” of what women do.
Most progressives today would agree heartily with the first half of his sentiment. Feminists consider it a settled question that educating women is essential to a humane, egalitarian society. At the same time, however, few are quite so restrained as Lord Peter. Most venture to “approve or disapprove” of women’s choices, especially if what a woman chooses is to follow years of education with life as a stay-at-home mom.
Smart, educated women who decide to end, pause, or part-time their careers are often treated as defective parts in the machinery of egalitarian social justice, or as children who have asked for a plate of food and then thrown it in the garbage. The general argument is that an education, like a treadmill or a bag of flour, is wasted if it is not used (the definition of “used” being, “used to make money”).
The thing is, though, anyone who castigates a woman for failing to cash in on her degree reveals a complete misunderstanding of two things. 1. The nature and purpose of education, and 2. The actual needs of society.
Education Is Not Just a Synonym for Job Training
The American founders argued routinely that ordinary citizens ought to be educated. This was not because literacy would help farmers milk their cows more sensitively or because familiarity with Plato would open up additional career prospects for pioneers, but because it would change what sort of people they were internally.
Education is much bigger than any specific field of work. Career coaches recognize this when they tell students that their choice of college major rarely dictates the field in which they will later find employment. Education helps people do a better job at any task by helping them discover how to think, how to learn, and how to exercise the self-discipline necessary for achievement. Educated people know useful facts, of course; but more importantly, they know how to live.
Unless we want a society in which an elite few rule over the wider peasantry, we must recognize that people—men, women, lawyers, mechanics, stay-at-home moms, everyone—benefit when they pursue the learning and wisdom that make them more fully human. To say that moms “waste” education is to show tremendous disrespect for the actual importance of education.
Education Is Supposed to Open, not Close, Opportunities
We tell our children they can become anything they want. On the other hand, when young people aspire to careers that may or may not be achievable—when she wants to major in art, when he thinks he can open his own restaurant—we encourage them to hedge their bets. We talk about double majors, business minors, and back-up plans.
Likewise, many young women hope to eventually become mothers, and many would prefer to stay at home while their babies are young. They, too, are wise to hedge their bets. What if they never meet the right man? What if they do, and illness or disability keeps him from being able to support a family? What about divorce? Hitting pause on a career may still leave them somewhat vulnerable to later financial challenges, but less so than if they possessed only a high school diploma. For them, a degree is a prudent investment regardless of the outcome. It maintains options.
The inflated cost of modern college is admittedly a complicating factor. A debt load that shackles a woman to a particular career path is probably a bad investment for anyone. We should absolutely encourage young people to think outside of the box when acquiring an education. And, of course, universities are not the only places one can become educated.
Society Should Trust Women
Feminists encourage society to trust women in matters like abortion. Yet feminism distrusts females who want to stay home with their children. Perhaps such critics assume that if a woman’s daily work belongs to the domestic sphere, with no raises to compete for and no performance reviews to hold her accountable, she is likely to lounge around in yoga pants while surfing the Internet. That is, they imagine that outside accountability is inextricably tied to meaningful accomplishments.
Yet the most meaningful human work transcends accountability. As an analogy: the best classroom teachers do wonderful things for students not because they adhere to any checklist, but through who they are. They communicate a love of learning by loving to learn. They inspire compassion by being compassionate. They engage by being engaging, challenging people who care both about truth and about their students.
When school administrators distrust teachers and hold them to overly rigid guidelines or testing schedules, it hampers the efforts of excellent teachers. The best work in all spheres of life is not about accountability, but about the sort of person doing that work (yet one more reason why we should value education for everyone!).
When women make sacrifices to stay home with their own children—the babies for whom they would die—they are likely to be highly motivated to be the sort of people who make a difference in their children’s lives. We need to trust women on this.
Society Also Benefits from People who Do ‘Less’
The current culture delights in volume. Bigger boxes of French fries. More volunteer activities on college applications. Our values make it very easy to see the merit in those high-energy achievers whose packed schedules allow them to accomplish what seems like everything at once. It is often harder for us to admire those who delve more deeply into only one or two things. After all, their list of what they do each day seems short. To people who do not understand, their daily activities might even sound trivial.
Yet society needs deep-focus people as much as it needs multi-talented, multi-tasking people. We need the lab assistants who stare faithfully at computer screens all day. We need the cellists who devote the majority of their lives to practicing. We need the scholars whose years of devotion to mathematics produce a single work upon which others can build. These people do their work just as faithfully as those who juggle a greater variety. In fact, they do it in a unique way that requires sacrificing variety.
Hard as it might be to realize, society benefits when we recognize that there are many ways of being useful members of society, of serving others, and of finding joy in our work. Stay-at-home moms are able to bring a deep focus to the lives of their children and the needs of their community. By sacrificing volume, they are able to serve others in a unique way.
We Can Value SAHMs without Condemning Working Moms
Ultimately, I suspect many women are uncomfortable with arguments in defense of stay-at-home moms because they are concerned about the specter of simplistic consistency. After all, if a woman provides an important benefit to her child by becoming his full-time caretaker, doesn’t that imply that the opposite is also true—that the children of career moms are missing out on an important benefit? And that, therefore, homemakers are better moms?
In reality, life is complicated. No two mothers can provide their children with quite the same good things. Trying to do so is crazy. Every life choice brings both costs and benefits. In fact, it is not always easy even to know whether a given difference is a benefit or a handicap. Living in poverty can prevent a child from gaining access to resources—and can teach resilience and determination. Watching a parent struggle with a disability can teach compassion and grit—and be confusing and depressing.
Being a good parent is not about competing with other women to magically give one’s child everything that seems good. It is about faithfully doing one’s best in all kinds of circumstances. Often that means making a careful, thoughtful choice about how best to put the needs of one’s own children first, whether by remaining in the workforce or taking time off from it.
I remember when a very conservative friend warned my mom not to let us girls pursue career-oriented degrees. This friend was afraid that educated women would be unlikely to stay home with children. Most feminists would decry the idea of trying to “trap” young women into any particular life path. If they are to be consistent, however, feminists—and society at large—need to recognize that education is not a trap, either. It is something that helps all women live their lives in a more fully human manner, no matter what their work may turn out to be. Even if it involves teaching children how to go potty.