Woman and Post-War Reconstruction
Woman and Post-War Reconstruction
By Janet Kalven
A talk given in 1944, after World War II, to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. “We need an education that will give young women a vision of the family as the vital cell of the social organism, and that will inspire them with the great ambition of being queens in the home.”
PUBLISHER & DATE
National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1944
“The problem of the hour is the problem of the land, and the problem of the land is the problem of the woman….”
In these words, Father Vincent McNabb, one of the most penetrating minds of our time, states the essential problem of reconstruction. Agriculture is the vital source of strength in any civilization. We need a new pattern of life on the land as the indispensable foundation on which to build a Christian social order. But, “the problem of the land is the problem of the woman.” No healthy, balanced, sane pattern of rural living is possible without the whole-hearted interest and cooperation of the woman. Agriculture needs the influence and the unique contribution of woman to achieve a human and satisfying way of life on the land. America needs a new type of woman to accept the challenge of our times and to pioneer in working out a full, rich pattern of rural life.
What Type of Woman Do We Need?
Every woman is made to be a mother, to find her center outside herself in other human beings who are dependent upon her loving care. Her motherhood need not be realized physically, but it must be realized spiritually if she is to achieve her fulfillment and her true happiness. Woman is most truly herself when she is utterly forgetful of self, absorbed in the service of those around her, alert to their needs, and spending herself without stint for them. She is made to be the heart of the home, the center of light and warmth, of physical and spiritual well-being in the family. The whole of her nature is adapted to the demands of motherhood, to the manifold tasks involved in the physical and spiritual nourishment of her family. She must care for food and clothing; she is family treasurer, disposing resources wisely and managing with feminine thriftiness to make something out of almost nothing; she maintains peace, order and harmony in the home, uniting the family in the bonds of a radiant and selfless love; she watches over the education of her children, discovering and developing their Godgiven gifts, training them to be thoughtful, responsible, generous men and women, and seeing it as her greatest privilege to raise uncompromising Christians, fellow citizens of the saints and domestics of the household of God. This is woman at her best, realizing to the full her qualities as wife and mother, giving herself joyfully in loving service. This is the type of woman America needs to pioneer in building a new way of life on the land.
Education for Motherhood
We must have an education for motherhood to develop this great womanly type. We need an education that will give young women a vision of the family as the vital cell of the social organism, and that will inspire them with the great ambition of being queens in the home. “A career is what every girl prepares for and hopes not to have,” a discerning young woman remarked. Women need an education that will prepare them for their real career as wives and mothers rather than for temporary business or professional work.
An intimate experience of life on the land is an essential part of education for motherhood, even for girls who will live in the cities. Woman’s nature demands close contact with the beauties of the creation and with growing plants and animals for her fullest physical and spiritual development. She needs the simple, rhythmic life on the land, with its fresh foods and outdoor work, to build abundant health and vitality. She needs contact with young plants and animals to help develop her motherly qualities. Women have always been great agriculturists, mothers of the earth. The mystery of the seed is very close to her, for she bears the seed of new life in her womb and nurtures it with her blood. A rich experience of the cycle of birth and death in plants and animals is in harmony with the deepest tendencies of her nature and develops her womanly talents.
Woman’s education should be practical, and here again the land offers invaluable opportunities for a fascinating variety of activities. The modern girl has lost most of the traditional feminine skills and must be introduced to all the arts of the homemaker from bread baking to bee-keeping. She will need all these skills if she is to be a successful pioneer, but she needs them still more for the mental balance and psychological assurance they give her. Woman learns best through concrete experience, and the practical work of sewing, cooking, canning, and weaving releases her intellectual energies and develops sound judgment. Her greatest intellectual gifts are in the practical realm, and it is only when these are well developed that her study of the liberal arts and the classics will bear fruit. Along with the practical training, permeating it and integrating it, there must be a vivid realization of the dignity of manual labor. Women must learn to see its great value as a visible expression of love for the family, and must come to understand the sacramentality of the work of their hands.
Finally, woman’s education should develop courageous, uncompromising Christians, women of deep convictions and unswerving loyalty to the ideals of full Christian life. Pioneering is never easy, and the women who will cut through the confusion, the materialism, and the economic disorders of our times to discover a new way of life for themselves and their families must be deeply rooted in a dynamic faith. They must understand and live the joy of the cross, always ready to give up any comforts and to face any obstacles to fulfill their mission.
How will woman’s influence affect the agricultural pattern? What form of life on the land will appeal to women and attract them to the rural areas? The new pattern of life on the land must meet the fundamental requirements of woman’s nature if it is to win her enthusiastic interest and active support. It must provide the conditions to family and community. Only then can we have a really healthy and well-balanced rural life.
What are the conditions which woman’s nature requires on the land? First of all, the woman needs the small, diversified, family farm. The homestead, producing primarily for family use and only incidentally for sale should become the basic unit of the new agricultural pattern. The ideal of practical self-sufficiency can be realized on much smaller farms than are customary today, although the exact acreage will vary with local conditions. Because it is family-centered, organized first of all to supply all that the family requires for a full life, the homestead is deeply satisfying to woman’s nature, for she is a universality and a personalist. She is made to be everything to somebody, some person. That is why the large commercial farm with its hundred cows or thousand acres of wheat has little interest in her. These are specialist ventures, which usually make her a specialist in the kitchen just as they make her husband a specialist with milking machines or combines. But the small, diversified farm corresponds completely to her desire for variety and personalized relationships in work. She enjoys the homestead with its few cows to furnish butter, milk and cheese for her family; its few pigs for meat; its few sheep for lamb and wool; its small flock of chickens for really fresh eggs; a few bee hives for honey; perhaps a flock of ducks to add a note of color and humor to the farm yard. She wants to plant an orchard, a vineyard, a berry patch, an herb and flower garden, as well as a plot of vegetables. She is by nature of Jill of all trades, as Chesterton puts it, and finds relaxation in turning from her household tasks to weed the garden or milk the cow. She wants to know the animals individually, to give them names, even to make pets of them. On the family homestead, the birth of every calf is an event anxiously awaited by the entire family. Everyone knows the peculiarities of each animal, and this knowledge itself adds interest to the work. The homestead is on a human scale, giving rich possibilities for satisfying activity for every member of the family. If women think that agriculture means commercial farming with its crushing burden of specialized, impersonal work, they will take no interest in it and want no share in it. But if they see that the rural life movement means the small, diversified, family-centered farm, they will turn toward it enthusiastically and join the ranks of those who are moving forward to the land.
Rural Communities and Rural Culture
Another fundamental requirement of woman’s nature, and one which the rural pattern this country has not met, is the need for a strong community life. Women need the stimulus and companionship of a larger circle than the family. They are not made to be hermits, nor do they have the temperament and qualities to sustain the life of a desert father. They cannot bear the isolation which the farm too often imposes. The fact that women connect farming with loneliness constitutes one of the most formidable psychological barriers to the rural movement, a barrier which can only be broken down by the development of flourishing, closely knit, rural communities. It is a task for the rural apostolate to demonstrate the fullness of Catholic community life on the land by establishing homestead communities which will exemplify concretely the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. From their unity at the altar in the vital bond of Catholic worship, the members of the community will draw strength and inspiration for their common action in all phases of life. They will unite on the economic plane through cooperatives and credit unions, and through common ownership of machinery, pastures, and woodland. They will unite socially and intellectually in the great task of building a genuine rural culture. This phase of the community life is of special importance for women, for they are particularly sensitive to the beauty and grace which a true rural culture would impart to buildings and landscape, furniture and costume, manners and customs. Women have a deep interest in the songs and dances, the drama and literature, which are the normal fruit of Catholic community life. Under the influence of a stable, well-integrated community, inspired by the Catholic vision of life, women will blossom forth and be stimulated to contribute the best of their qualities and talents to the creation of a new social order.
Like Anteus, the mythological hero, modern society must renew its strength by contact with the earth. Women have an essential role to play in that renewal. If they once glimpse the vision of the rich, full Catholic life on the land, they will turn enthusiastically toward the creation of a new pattern of rural living. Like the valiant woman of Scripture, they will “put out their hands to strong things,” and throw themselves wholeheartedly into the fundamental work of reconstruction, the work of building Christian families and Christian communities on the land.
1 Janet Kalven, “Woman and Post-War Reconstruction,” Catholic Rural Life Objectives: A Fourth Series of Papers dealing with Agrarianism with special emphasis on post-war planning (St. Paul, MN: National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1944), 25.