When the next generation of Marxist social historians (think Hobsbawm and Milliband pere) sit down to reminisce romantically about Western society in the early 21st Century (likely just before a scimitar slices their naive but utterly undeserving throats), it seems possible they will comment upon the remarkable rise of the singularly selfish woman.
For millennia, almost all women had giving, unselfish roles thrust upon them. And they took these up with alacrity, despite great personal tolls. Child rearing (unmitigated by modern contraception) from an early age, and home making (when a home had to be made and kept by hard labour), consumed the vast majority of women’s time. Many died young (mostly of the complications of childbirth or infectious disease), so post-menopausal grandmothers were both rare and highly revered. It is only with the emergence of sanitation and modern obstetrics in the 20th Century that the average woman has come to live longer than the average man.
In the meantime, women have become “liberated” — allowed to work outside the home, to own property, to vote, to pursue secondary and then higher education, and to choose with whom and how often they have children. In non-Western societies, of course, some or all of these achievements may still be pipe dreams. The result, quite understandably, is that Western women have become more selfish — selfish in the way that men have always been.
Adam Smith pointed out the great advantage of free-enterprise capitalism, that it enabled the selfish desires of individuals (to acquire property and wealth) to be channeled (via labour, collaboration and investment) into the betterment of living conditions for all. (Note that the “trickle down” theory of capitalist benefit to the lower classes, so often ridiculed by the Left, was not part of Smith’s tenets. Instead, he realised that free trade, division of labour and especially competition enabled new markets and modes of employment to open up, and prices of goods to come down, so that the working classes could afford better lives.)
However, Smith may not have realised, in the male-dominated public society of his day, what implications the rise of the selfish woman might have for the economic model he championed. Nevertheless, that capitalist economic model helped bring us the rapid rise in living standards and life expectancy that most of the world — with exceptions in Africa and Asia — enjoys today. And, despite Hobsbawm and Milliband’s longings, communist alternatives have usually failed to survive the passing of individual iconic leaders, with the exception of China, Vietnam and North Korea.
So, when and why did women become more selfish? And how is this now impacting our society — and its future development — in major ways?
Consider first the very clear example of what happened to the nursing profession. O tempora, o mores! The world has had the benefit of caring nurses for eons, often as part of religious orders, or informally at local level. (Driving through a village in central Java once, I noted a particularly large and well-decorated house, and was told that was where the local midwife lived, as she was the prized professional no village family could do without.)
Modern Western nursing developed as a skilled profession only in the last 150 years, thanks in part to Florence Nightingale’s awful experiences nursing in the Crimea. That skilled profession changed the world. (Up until the 1920s, it is said it was safer when ill NOT to be in a hospital than to be admitted to one.) Within fifty years, nursing was seen as a successful, highly suitable career for young women from a wide range of backgrounds. The profession emphasized — in contrast to the world of business — non-capitalist and decidedly-Christian virtues: Service, unselfish devotion to the needs of others, and disregard for monetary reward.
Older readers will recall just how common it was for so many young women to leave school in their teens to “go nursing”. (Watch Call the Midwife for a rather biased reminiscence of how this had evolved in 1950s London.) Then the young nurses lived in strictly-supervised nurses’ homes, with full board provided, and worked round the clock in the hospital next door, for low wages with little prospect of promotion. If you ask many an older nurse, they had a lot of fun and satisfaction in living and working this way, not to mention their ability to delay choice of a mate, allowing them a little more choice for themselves. The general idea was that most nurses would marry soon, and leave nursing, to make a home and rear children, and be provided for materially by husbands (often delighted they had found a loving, unselfish and skilled partner.
By the 1970s, in many Western countries, there was first outrage at and then legislative action to improve the very low wages that nurses earned (although the housing and catering benefits added something). At the same time, fledgling degree courses in nursing opened up, and graduate nurses were encouraged to stay in nursing after marriage and to follow their interests via sub-specialisation — involving further study, less out-of-hours work, more autonomy, and better wages. (The Greiner government in NSW removed some of these benefits for specialised nurses in the late 80s – much to the chagrin of those who took these roles or worked alongside them.
Since then, to become a registered nurse one must finish high school and undertake several years of tertiary studies in nursing. Arguably, those years at university are just the time when, physically and emotionally, young women are most capable of dealing with the arduous and draining, 24/7 roller coaster ride that busy acute nursing can be. (I say “young women” because – despite various attempts by social engineers to change this – over 90% of nurses are and seem likely to remain women. There are some skilled and devoted male nurses. But perhaps it is most men’s innate selfishness that stops most from ever contemplating a nursing career.
Today, in many Western countries there is a worsening shortage of nurses, which doesn’t bode well for any of us, as we age and become more likely to need nursing care. Almost half of recent nurses employed by the UK’s National Health Service are new immigrants, already trained in nursing overseas, and often in countries where notions of female devotion to unselfish service remain popular, albeit decreasing. Many Western, university-trained nurses drop out or switch to a related (but less 24/7 or emotionally draining) field in health sciences. Some of the best doctors I have met are ex-nurses, who understand all sides of healthcare priorities. But the worrying result is that our ageing society, with many more of us living with some sort of disability that requires skilled nursing help, is running out of its most vital resource – devoted young nurses.
In short, because women have (correctly, according to our society) become more selfish, we may see a decline in our society’s ability to care for basic, unchanging, often unpleasant and sometimes heart-wrenching needs of the sick and aged, even with all the technological advances that restore function and help keep them alive longer. And yet, what we have now is no doubt a more “equal” society between the sexes.
What has happened to nursing is just the tip of the iceberg however. The pendulum of gender-based achievement has swung a long way, and seems unlikely ever to swing back (short of the men with the scimitars taking over). As young Western women’s options and aspirations have changed, so has the brave new (and more selfish) society they are creating. Today’s average woman does better at high school, is more likely to go to and to graduate from uni, is more able to gain stable employment, is more likely to gain early promotion, and in some areas (e.g. medicine) is coming to dominate professions that 150 years ago were off limits to the “fairer” sex.
The flip side of this fast female advancement is that more men drop out of high school, fail to gain tertiary qualifications, have poor or unstable employment records – and are much more likely to be involved in risky behaviours (speeding, alcohol and drug abuse, gangs, criminal activities and suicide). Of course, those failures are not primarily women’s fault (although there is an argument that today’s mothers can/do devote less time to bringing up their boys to succeed, and thus more boys end up in low and risky avenues of life.) Yet, today’s women pay a price if they are unable to find a partner who can equal or complement them, or even stay the course.
Is this all really a problem? And, if so, what can society do about it (short of the scimitar)?
Well, the rise of the selfish-if-successful woman has implications for how we fundamentally treat each other. No longer is the capitalist, win-lose, business model that men created balanced to some degree by a caring, nurturing, pick-up-the-loser model that women mostly created. Oh, sure, politicians of all persuasions will say they are providing better aged pensions, better hospitals, better unemployment benefits, better social housing. But the sad truth may be – as women increasingly adopt a selfish male disregard for the less-well-off – that governments can’t keep up with the goals they have foolishly and deceptively set (Consider the USA’s 20 trillion dollar debt, for example, largely on the back of their social welfare budgets). At the same time, we decrease our charitable giving and works, and we don’t take up careers that look after the needs of the aged, ill or homeless.
In short, the rise of the selfish woman may be sowing the seeds of destruction of our so-called compassionate society. And yet, it is far too late (and probably not a reasonable or equitable proposition) to try to put the I-Dream-Of genie back in the bottle. The inability of Western society to persuade men to take up nursing roles – as these roles became less sought after by women – suggests that there is no ready way to “tweak” gender roles to re-address and hence re-balance the situation. (Sure, there are plenty more stay-at-home-dads these days. But statistics show that working women in these households continue to carry a much heavier share of child rearing and household chores. And there is evidence that the full-time-working-woman/house-husband relationship is less sustainable longterm, and more likely to end in separation.)
However, there may be some ways forward that neither destroy the arguably great advances of women’s liberation, nor result in more and more women just being as selfish as the menfolk they come to resent and avoid. First, perhaps we need to re-think where our teenagers are deployed – for their own and society’s sake. The idea that the vast majority of 15 to 18 year old male or females should be in classrooms 30 hours a week is a only recent one – and (if you ask most teenagers) probably not a favoured idea by those in the know. (It has suited governments from the 1970s onwards that youth unemployment has been kept falsely low by requiring more and more participation in education for longer and longer.) Instead, it may be that – after four years of high school – a majority of young people would gain benefit (and provide enormous service to society) if released from school.
Once again, we could have many young women joining nursing (and other caring careers) — and many young men employed in construction, transport and resources industries — as we did back in the baby-boom years of the 1960s. Some would argue that “these jobs just don’t exist anymore”. But, in many cases, we have taken away the workforce (think, nursing) when the jobs and needs DO exist, even if they have been redefined and diverted.
In the late teens (as any McDonalds employee knows) one is much more likely to take on employment to keep busy, gain skills, and make some extra pocket money — knowing that the family home and resources are (usually) there to sustain us. So, jobs for teenagers can be (as they were once) at relatively low wages — with the knowledge that all of these employees will move on, and quickly, to other things. Some will go back to finish high school diplomas, and move on to tertiary education. Others will start formal apprenticeships — in nursing, in childcare, in the construction industry, in transport and in the resources industries. Over time, allowing teenagers to participate in the workforce again, which the Left will decry and wail about, will make our industries more successful and enhance their international competitiveness, and will restore our ability to provide basic services (such as nursing and childcare) where we are running out of staff. more successful. If we don’t go down this route, we risk that three or four years of undergraduate study becomes an entry ticket to being a weekend barista.
The second way forward is to counteract some of the persuasive but unsubstantiated fantasies that have emerged from third-wave feminism. No, there is nothing wrong in our society with anyone doing a job that requires unabashed service to others, and is rewarded more with satisfaction than oodles of cash. In fact, our society has always depended on most workers taking this approach. Yes, men should be enabled and encouraged to assist with all the formerly “female” tasks (except actually bearing children and breastfeeding) — but, no, their roles in these areas will never be equal to those of the more genetically-adapted and usually better-suited women. Yes, there are no roles in society that are off-limits to women (although some would argue about front-line military combat). But, no, we will as a society not suffer if women — by their own preference — take on caring roles.
The unmitigated rise of the selfish woman may otherwise help hasten the fall of Western society — as we cease to provide the care that our weakest and oldest need. To be replaced by what? Possibly the medieval ways in parts of the Middle East, or the stifling stagnation of pure communism, both of which societies Hobsbawm and Milliband would certainly have been seen dead in.