I listened to a podcast the other day on the topic of women’s work and how many of our ideas about men’s vs. women’s work are a holdover from the Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution began in Europe. I think every woman with children has felt at some point that she had to make a choice between a career and raising her kids. It’s as if we have to choose between the two and, no matter which one we choose, we’re made to feel as if we’re failing at the other. It’s not a conundrum that men have to face. The rules are simpler for men, and we can thank the Victorians and their Industrial Revolution for that.
The reign of Queen Victoria in England, from 1837 to 1901, coincides with the changes happening in Europe that we call the Industrial Revolution. This was when we as a culture switched from making things by hand to making things with machines in factories.
We hear that “traditionally” women were in the home, but that’s only half the story. From the dawn of history until the 1800’s, men worked in the home too. All of life centered around the home. It wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the men (along with poor women and children) were transferred to the factories.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home was a center of production. Most people lived agrarian lifestyles, on land where they produced almost everything they needed for themselves. They grew their own food, built their own homes, raised livestock, made their own clothing and lived very close to the land and in cooperation with their neighbors. Husbands and wives worked alongside each other and their children because everyone’s labor was necessary to survive. It wasn’t utopia. In Europe before the IR, hunger was a problem and life expectancies were low.
The Industrial Revolution created wealth never before seen in Europe and the U.S. This is one of those subjects that could be debated endlessly as to whether the IR and the dawn of capitalism were forces for good or evil, but one thing we know for sure is that along with that wealth came changing ideas about gender roles.
The Victorian ideal placed the wealthy woman at home, but took her work away from her. Cooking and cleaning were done by an army of servants while the wife would sit still and look pretty. Work that had been done for centuries by every woman was now only suitable for the lower classes and garnered no respect.
The IR eventually (and tragically if you ask me), changed homes from centers of production to centers of consumption. People bought what they needed at stores instead of making or growing it themselves. The culmination of this was 1960’s America with the advent of convenience products, everything from TV dinners to microwaves to washing machines. Skills that women used to have, such as preparing a meal from scratch or sewing clothing, were no longer needed. All the things we used to make could be bought. In fact, making a meal from scratch or sewing your own clothes became a mark of the lower class. Only people who couldn’t afford to buy things would make them instead.
Add to this the women’s liberation movement that encouraged women to leave home and have a career, even if they wanted to stay home, and you can see how, as a culture, we are a bit confused about where a woman “belongs.” Nowadays, I feel like women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we have a career, someone will tell us we’re neglecting our kids, and if we stay home, we’re told that we’re wasting our potential. The legacy of the Industrial Revolution is a Catch-22 for women.
What does homeschooling have to do with this? Well, homeschooling is a massive disrupter of this paradigm. In the past 20 years, the number of women who stay home to educate their kids has skyrocketed. Homeschool has become a quiet revolution where women are taking back power from the state and the naysayers. They’re essentially telling the larger culture to shove off, that staying home IS a career. Homeschool moms have statistics to back up our claims that what we’re doing is worthwhile. Homeschoolers are outperforming public schoolers in every academic metric, regardless of their mothers’ level of education.
The reasons families homeschool are varied, but in each case, someone in the family, and it’s usually the mother, said, “I can do better than the system.” That’s a bold statement. That is a battle cry of women saying to the experts, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Homeschool says that parents, and it’s usually the mother, are most qualified to direct their children’s curriculum and educational experience, regardless of their own level of education. That is another bold statement. Homeschool mamas are telling the curriculum “experts” at the state and federal levels to back off, essentially. You have women with G.E.D.’s challenging men with Ph.D.’s, and the statistics show that the homeschooling mamas are winning. Since much of what goes on in elementary schools is contrary to everything we’ve learned about child development, I side with the mothers.
Women who go off and get an expensive education only to stay home with their children are told that they wasted their time and money since they aren’t pursuing a career. Education for everyone, men and women alike, should be an end in itself but, with the cost of college skyrocketing, people feel the need to justify the money they spent on their education. A woman who homeschools is putting that education to good use by running her own school inside her home.
I did go off and get an education. I have a Master’s in Theological Studies from a very expensive, fancy pants university, but I never worked in my field. I didn’t get a Ph.D. so that I could teach at university level and, believe it or not, theology isn’t a degree that opens up a lot of other options in the job market. I ended up managing medical practices, which I didn’t need a degree for at all. Now I work part time, so that I can still be home with my kids enough to feel like I’m the one raising them.
If you homeschool, inevitably someone will imply that you are not qualified to teach your children, either because you didn’t go to college or because you didn’t get a teaching degree. It cracks me up when people try and act like I’m not qualified to teach my children. Those people are standing around the water cooler at work talking about Game of Thrones and the football score while my children and I are at home discussing Alfred the Great and the Viking invasion of England. I would bet that 98% of Americans have no idea who Alfred the Great was, but yeah, I’m unqualified to teach my kids. Insert eye roll here.
Homeschool has been incredibly empowering for me. It has introduced me to the community of classical homeschoolers. For a nerd at heart like me, these people are my tribe. I want to discuss literature, art and philosophy, and otherwise I would have no outlet for that. Most women my age in the suburbs aren’t interested in talking about Plato and Aristotle. I don’t get cocktails with the girls and talk about Marxism and the dialectic. But with the homeschooling community, I can!
I felt for years that I was in an academic desert. I read books on my own but didn’t have anyone to talk about them with (other than on the phone with my mom), and quite frankly didn’t have a lot of friends because I’m just not interested in what other women my age are interested in. Only when I started homeschooling did I discover a whole community of women who are into the same nerdy stuff as me.
In addition to the academic aspect, many homeschool moms are re-claiming skills that were stolen from us in the age of convenience. Not all women are into the heady, academic stuff like I am, but they are into home-making as a vocation.
They don’t want their kids eating crappy, processed food so they’re cooking from scratch. They’re planting gardens and keeping chickens, baking bread and cleaning their own houses. Some of us actually enjoy being home and caring for a household. These are not bored, desperate housewife types. These are women who are running things, making things, producing things. These women are creating podcasts, writing and publishing books, making things and selling them on Etsy, and reclaiming their homes as centers of production. Homeschool allows for that, because it places value on the home, not as a center of consumption and a display of wealth, but as a place to gain skills and showcase talent.
No matter how you look at it, homeschool is subversive. It gives primacy to the home, not the workplace. Home is where the meaningful work is done, more so than the factory. It provides an alternative space to the post-Industrial, consumptive American household. For women who find meaning in homemaking, homeschool is a dream come true.