Victorians wrote love stories about work.  Labor was the answer to almost every question.

Carlyle’s hero in Sartor Resartus cries, “Produce!  Produce! […] Work while it is called To-day; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”

For Victorian authors and artists, work is either placed on a pedestal as an emblem of progress, or its face is dirtied like a troublesome rogue in texts like Gaskell’s Mary Barton and even Trollope’s The Claverings.

Yet, this, too, is a love story — perhaps more so.

In a historical moment of such monumental change in which every voice bleated the ultimate rebel yell of “FORWARD!” labor seemed the vessel of progress.  Sometimes the only vessel.

I think back to my childhood and my earliest perceptions about work, especially for women.

I always wanted my mother to work rather than to stay home with me and my sisters.  This was most likely because I sensed that my mother, too, wanted to work (despite the fact that she loved being a mother).

Yet she was crammed into the small shoe of motherhood.

Tight, white on the outside and red on the inner label that no one can see, I always imagined that my mother was tired of her motherhood shoes. Not that she didn’t want to be a mother.  And not that motherhood is not a form of labor.  Indeed, motherhood is the ultimate form of labor: the original labor.

What I mean is that on the inside I always felt that my mother was a business woman, or maybe a politician.  That all she really needed was some avenue through which she could use her motherhood shoes to stomp on some shit.

She’d be one hell of a shit-stomper.

Today, I ask myself if we — women of the twenty-first century — continue to feel, like the Victorians, that work is a saving grace.  THE saving grace.

Florence Nightingale is my muse for this inquiry.  In her novella Cassandra (British, 1852) she reads my mind.  From her place in mid-nineteenth-century England, this writer/nurse tapped into my twentieth-century politics.  Below, I have included some of my favorite quotes from Cassandra:

  • The position of a single woman of thirty in the middle classes is horrible.  Her cares are to be properly dressed, to drive or walk or pay calls with Mama; to work miracles or embroidery – but for what?  What we want is something to do, something to live for.
  • In the conventional society, which men have made for women, and women have accepted, they must have none, they must act the face of hypocrisy, with the lie that they are without passion.
  •  Dreaming always – never accomplishing; thus women live – too much ashamed of their dreams. […] Women dream until they have no longer the strength to dream.
  •  Give us back our suffering, we cry to Heaven in our hearts – suffering rather than indifference; for out of nothing comes nothing.  But out of suffering may come the cure.  Better have pain than paralysis!
  • Women often long to enter some man’s profession where they would find direction, competition (or rather opportunity for measuring intellect with others, and, above all, time [for thought].
  • Women never have half an hour in their lives […] that they can call their own, without fear of offending or of hurting someone.
  • Men are afraid that their houses will not be comfortable, that their wives will make themselves ‘remarkable’ – women, that they will make themselves distasteful to men; they write books (and very wisely) to teach themselves to dramatize ‘little things’ to persuade themselves that ‘domestic life is their sphere’ and to idealize the ‘sacred hearth.’

Phew.  Nightingale.  I mean, she’s on to something about the twenty first century, don’t you think?

On the other hand, many of my friends or colleagues — all who work well-paying and labor-intensive jobs — often tell me that they fantasize about staying home and raising their children.  Such a desire makes sense in many ways: if I were a parent (obviously I’m not a parent) then I would want to stay home for the sake of teaching and cuddling my children, and not missing out on any development.

At the same time, however, I relate women who do not work outside the home (farming, personal business, home-schooling and other obviously labor-centered activities don’t count) to my ultimate nightmare.  Women without jobs are often –sometimes mistakenly — attributed with a lack of passion and ambition.  Moreover, they are — sometimes unjustly — viewed as scared of the outside world.

Certain women — or men — who fit these categories have always seemed to me, trapped.  Indoors.  Inside themselves.  Lacking the drive for labor that has seemed — perhaps problematically so — the fulcrum of society.

I wonder if my friends and colleagues were to actually achieve their dream of not working outside the home, if they would be happy.  Women have worked SO hard to fight for women working beyond the confines of the home, that I doubt I could ever go back.

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