Privilege and Pym: The Feminist Ruination of Help

Privilege and Pym: The Feminist Ruination of Help April 5, 2016

Part of my fantastical week of rest (that was just a little joke) included rereading Barabara Pym’s Excellent Women instead of facing down the pile of sensible new books which are meant to make me a better, cleverer person. I love everything that Pym has ever written, even Quartet in Autumn, which I still have to finish, and so love it on faith, even though everyone says I won’t love it by the time I finish it. But Excellent Women rises like a glorious cream to the top of an already soothing cup of Ovaltine. It’s a marvelous book.

And I would say, even though the world thinks it moves along at an ever improving upward clip, that the book is timeless. That is, the delineating lines of sex and gender so wonderfully and sarcastically laid down by Pym, haven’t really moved at all. If anything, everything over the intervening years since the novel came out in the 1950s, everything has become more hardened and a lot less fun and interesting.

Miss Lathbury is the primordial Excellent Woman. The church depends on her constancy and sense, her selfless going out and coming in, her face saving wit and tireless service for the good of others. And yet, all the men are probably ready to quickly pass over her in favor of the Fascinating Woman. Pym draws out this little trouble that has plagued mankind from the dawn of time with cutting humor. Men don’t want to marry someone who knows and enjoys the domestic arts, who will make their lives comfortable and be a real help to them. They want someone fascinating and troublesome who can’t do the laundry or boil water. But then, having married the fascinating one, they have to learn to do the washing up themselves and are therefore unhappy, or just don’t do it. I have a lot more to say about this, but there is a more pressing point that I wish to draw from the book.

And that is that Miss Lathbury, who worked mornings in an office and had her afternoons entirely free, and only herself to take care of, nevertheless had a woman come in and “do” for her. She had “help”. She paid another woman to come in and do some of her cleaning. Some of her Excellent Woman-ness was born of her being able to keep house herself–she makes vats of tea in every crisis and non crisis, she is equal to every tin and chop, she washes clothes and cleans the bathroom–but she also pays someone to come and clean.

Somehow, and I have no idea how this happened, the modern ideal of an Excellent Woman (and this, I believe, is why no one can find her) is that the excellent woman will also be the fascinating woman and the two of them, conjoined irresponsibly by the culture, Will Not Ever Have Help. If a woman who is keeping her house and managing a lot of children and maybe even going out to work, has someone to come in and clean for her, if she lets other people know this, she has to apologize a lot for it. Somehow, the fact of her paying for “help” which she really does need, amounts to the modern shame which we all like to call Privilege. When really, it should be called Sense and Sanity.

Where did this idea come from that the woman should do it all and make it perfect? It’s not the competence and grace breathed out of every line of every Pym novel. It’s not real. Keep a perfect house. Homeschool. Run a home business while you homeschool. Have a lot of kids and maybe put them in school but then make sure to have every perfect Pinterest project ready for every moment of their precious lives. Shouldn’t everyone who is working hard in whatever capacity also have a few hours of “help”. But it’s too expense and shameful and privileged.

Having said that, I don’t have “help”. I have a husband who is learning the domestic arts while I try to be less fascinating and more reliable in the laundry. My fervent prayer is that this very day he will try his hand at concocting a pork pie so that I won’t have to. But the two of us, and all our children, struggle against the barrage of stuff and dirt that infiltrate even the most ordered and gracious day. In a sane world, we would have someone come in to “do” for us a few mornings or afternoons a week. And for the women and families who do have the blessing of help, they shouldn’t count it as Privilege, or even as a first world richness that nobody in the so called developing world can enjoy. It’s actually the other way around. Where I grew up, even a very poor family might pay a tiny amount to have a young girl come in and “help”.

I know I keep putting the word “help” in scare quotes. It’s because I don’t think we even really know what the word means. We are so independent and the standards of competency are so high, we can’t have help and we don’t really know how to help. I’m generalizing wildly, obviously. But part of the brokenness of the feminist ideal is the impossible standard it imposes on ordinary women.

And on that note, I am going to go over to church for a few minutes to scrub something. Pip Pip.


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