3/2/15

Chesterton, the "notorious anti-feminist"

From Chesterton, Belloc, Baring (1936)
By Raymond Las Vergnas

IF MARRIAGE is merely a contract, then the union between two spouses falls back into being a capricious, because commercial, alliance. The moment incompatibility becomes evident, divorce flings wide the prison-gates. The Family is disintegrated; the children are distributed according to the legality of the claims. Such is the disastrous effect of the Contract-theory. On the other hand, let divorce be forbidden, let the heroic nobility of the Oath be rediscovered, and Marriage will become again what it should never have ceased to be—an act of Faith and a Sacrament.

In that happy country which Chesterton, by studying the past, could project into the future, in that blessed Family where parents and children are as one, a high place is reserved for the Woman. But in no ‘feminist’ sense. Few writers more than Chesterton have scoffed at the attempts of the modern woman to be no more a woman. The ‘suffragette’ tends to be but a hybrid, halfway between wife and husband, and inspired him with none but the most vivacious jests. Not that he was at all blind to the heavy burden bound by a pro-masculine society on the weaker sex, which was, indeed too often sacrificed. But his argument moves us precisely because of its paradoxical justness. Woman is wrong, he considers, to try to adapt herself to society by making a man of herself. The contrary should come about—Society should adapt itself to womanhood by becoming gentler. To Feminists, he acknowledges that women undergo a revolting tyranny in factories; but he wanted to destroy the factories, while they, he felt, were content with destroying womanhood.

The return of Woman to her original condition—tending her home and bringing up her children, was not imposed upon Chesterton by any vague contempt for the intellectual or practical potentialities of a wife. Domestic life, in the noblest sense of the word, seemed to him the best possible adornment for the mind and the perfection of the heart’s virtues. What praise for the very nature of woman is the comparison between her and the Church of God—that ‘everlasting Handmaid’! A wife is, too, a modest working-woman, and there exists no vocation ‘more generous, more perilous, and more romantic.’ This romance of humility, this adventurousness of the humdrum, are characteristic of the way in which the essayist thinks of the Family. When he prays that Society shall allow the wife to be not only the soul but the very body of the Home, he is, in reality, rendering the highest homage to the Mistress of the House—a desire, not for superiority, nor even equality, but simply for being there. He recognises the helplessness of the husband, the moment he is reduced to being alone. He declares that he is at all points dependent on his ‘help-meet.’ He owns that what is best in man is the reflection of his ante-natal life in his mother’s womb: and this notorious anti-feminist could write these subtle lines to the glory of Woman:
“Every man is womanized, merely by being born. They talk of the masculine woman; but every man is a feminized man.” (Orthodoxy)
The virtues of the Family and Home, due to free choice and limitation, form the basic cell of the social organism. Banish the spirit of Home, and you suppress the very possibility of a sanely constituted society.

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Source: Excerpt from Chesterton, Belloc, Baring by Raymond Las Vergnas. Sheed & Ward, New York; 1936. The three studies contained in this book originally appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The studies were slightly amplified and translated by C.C. Martindale, S.J., for publication in a single volume.