Chesterton on the timeless battle between man and woman...

On this Mother's Day, David and I dedicate to our mother, Mary Lou Bayly; and to our wives, Cheryl and Mary Lee, this and the following excerpts from Chesterton's, What's Wrong with the World.

From "The Pedant and the Savage"

Some impatient trader, some superficial missionary, walks across an island and sees the squaw digging in the fields while the man is playing a flute; and immediately says that the man is a mere lord of creation and the woman a mere serf. He does not remember that he might see the same thing in half the back gardens in Brixton, merely because women are at once more conscientious and more impatient, while men are at once more quiescent and more greedy for pleasure. It may often be in Hawaii simply as it is in Hoxton. That is, the woman does not work because the man tells her to work and she obeys.

On the contrary, the woman works because she has told the man to work and he hasn't obeyed. I do not affirm that this is the whole truth, but I do affirm that we have too little comprehension of the souls of savages to know how far it is untrue. It is the same with the relations of our hasty and surface science, with the problem of sexual dignity and modesty. Professors find all over the world fragmentary ceremonies in which the bride affects some sort of reluctance, hides from her husband, or runs away from him.

The professor then pompously proclaims that this is a survival of Marriage by Capture. I wonder he never says that the veil thrown over the bride is really a net. I gravely doubt whether women ever were married by capture I think they pretended to be; as they do still.

It is equally obvious that these two necessary sanctities of thrift and dignity are bound to come into collision with the wordiness, the wastefulness, and the perpetual pleasure-seeking of masculine companionship. Wise women allow for the thing; foolish women try to crush it; but all women try to counteract it, and they do well.

In many a home all round us at this moment, we know that the nursery rhyme is reversed. The queen is in the counting-house, counting out the money. The king is in the parlor, eating bread and honey. But it must be strictly understood that the king has captured the honey in some heroic wars.

The quarrel can be found in moldering Gothic carvings and in crabbed Greek manuscripts. In every age, in every land, in every tribe and village, has been waged the great sexual war between the Private House and the Public House. I have seen a collection of mediaeval English poems, divided into sections such as "Religious Carols," "Drinking Songs," and so on; and the section headed, "Poems of Domestic Life" consisted entirely (literally, entirely) of the complaints of husbands who were bullied by their wives. Though the English was archaic, the words were in many cases precisely the same as those which I have heard in the streets and public houses of Battersea, protests on behalf of an extension of time and talk, protests against the nervous impatience and the devouring utilitarianism of the female. Such, I say, is the quarrel; it can never be anything but a quarrel; but the aim of all morals and all society is to keep it a lovers' quarrel.



I can never read those lines about the queen in the counting-house without thinking of my own mother. She was a girl in the Depression, reared in extreme poverty, her father abandoning his ill wife after siring eleven children on her (Mom was No. 2 and with her only older sister an obvious candidate for Surrogate Mom when her father bailed). The essential conservatism of women Chesterton speaks of here issued forth in thoroughly common-sensical habits of poverty in my mother and other women of her generation. For those reared in the poverty my Mother experienced, these habits were correspondingly exaggerated, not always in spiritually healthful directions.

Dad was not the King eating bread and honey, for as a boy he also fell asleep at night, even in the blustery fridgid winters of eastern New Mexico, peering directly at the moon through the gaps in the roof of his bedroom. The "divide" Chesteron speaks of between men and women was visible, however, in the ways the habits of poverty were impressed on them -- much more strongly in Mom than in Dad.

The experiences of youth served them well insofar as those habits of poverty tended to generate wealth (rather than merely conserving meager resources) when the economic environment changed after WWII. It probably hobbled them insofar as it continually presented them with impulses to trust their own devices rather than the Lord. Still, even against the exaggerating impulses of that era, the differences between men and women Chesterton speaks of here can be seen.

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