This interview with Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Washington Post, about how "we utterly devalue the importance of caregiving roles in our society," has been getting a bit of buzz recently. And it got me thinking in Dickensian terms (as things often tend to do!). In the interview, Slaughter makes the following point:
"I started thinking my way through the women’s movement and how we had come to define equality—that women are equal to men only as long as they are doing the work that men have traditionally done.
"That’s not a full gender revolution. That’s saying, 'Men were the ones who earned the income, and now women can be men.' When women do that, they’re equal; but women who are caring for others are still very much devalued. If you’re really going to have equality, you’ve got to value both kinds of work."
I think she has a point, and I think the view she's referring to has colored our view of much that we find in literature, often unfairly so. Thus, I think many of Dickens's female characters tend to be devalued -- Agnes Wickfield, for instance, or Lucie Manette, or Lizzie Hexam -- for the nature of the work they do, investing their time and energy in caring for family members and friends rather than in paid work. Or I should say, rather than exclusively in paid work, because I would argue Dickens's many descriptions of women doing that sort of work -- descriptions that in some ways were ahead of their time -- also tend to be overlooked and undervalued! But that's an argument for another day.
There's also an argument to be made that Dickens didn't always gave his heroines strong, well-rounded personalities and that this can get in the way of appreciating the work they do. There's a lot of truth in that argument. But maybe we need to try looking at it the other way around -- if we appreciate the work they do, we may come to appreciate qualities in them that we hadn't cared about or noticed before.
There are, in fact, a lot of aspects to the topic that I don't have time to go into at the moment. For now, I'll just say that I hope Slaughter's ideas catch on and that -- in literary criticism as well as in life -- we can learn to understand the great importance of caregiving and to value those who do it.