Wendell Berry on Women and Feminism

wendell-berry-feminism-350In an earlier essay on writer/farmer Wendell Berry, I wrote, “What really adds to the uniqueness of his view on racism is his indictment of mainstream American society and culture.” Something similar could be written about his views on the exploitation of women. The logic of his position is that the primary goal of U. S. blacks and women should not be breaking through glass ceilings to achieve equal treatment with white men in a corrupt America. What the main aim should be we’ll get to later.

Berry’s view is clearly indicated in a few of his essays. In his early 1990s Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (reprinted in abridged form here) he writes:

The trouble with the various movements of rights and liberties that have passed among us in the last thirty years is that they have all been too exclusive and so have degenerated too readily into special pleading. They have, separately, asked us to stop exploiting racial minorities or women or nature, and they have been, separately, right to do so. But they have not, separately or together, come to the realization that we live in a society that exploits, first, everything that is not ourselves and then, inevitably, ourselves.

In his 2003 essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” he elaborates:

Is the life of a corporate underling . . . an acceptable end to our quest for human dignity and worth? . . . One does not cease to be an underling by reaching “the top.” Corporate life is composed only of lower underlings and higher underlings. Bosses are everywhere, and all the bosses are underlings. . . .

How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to? And that question is made legitimate by another: How have men improved themselves by submitting to it? The answer is that men have not, and women cannot, improve themselves by submitting to it.

Women have complained, justly, about the behavior of “macho” men. But despite their he-man pretensions and their captivation by masculine heroes of sports, war, and the Old West, most men are now entirely accustomed to obeying and currying the favor of their bosses. Because of this, of course, they hate their jobs—they mutter, “Thank God it’s Friday” and “Pretty good for Monday”—but they do as they are told. They are more compliant than most housewives have been. Their characters combine feudal submissiveness with modern helplessness. . . . These men, moreover, are helpless to do anything for themselves or anyone else without money, and so for money they do whatever they are told.

Berry has a long history of being hard to classify along any political lines, of resisting any easy labels. He is like the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who regarded “trade-marks and labels as a superstition,” and disliked being labeled by those determined to regard him “either as a liberal or as a conservative.” In a 2013 essay, Berry wrote:

In the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter that neither of these labels signifies much in the way of intellectual responsibility or that both are paralyzed in the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military. . . .

We appear thus to have evolved into a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending “positions,” oversimplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.

Depending on the issues, I am often in disagreement with both of the current political sides.

Thus, here is a fair warning: Do not expect any simplistic, immature, conventional treatment of women’s exploitation from Berry. To appreciate his approach you have to be open-minded, open to looking at a long-standing problem from a new perspective. Like some films, his views should be marked “for mature audiences only.”

A Concise View of Women’s History

In a chapter, “The Body and the Earth,” of his The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), later reprinted as an essay in his The Art of the Commonplace (2002), Berry writes that before the Industrial Revolution women

performed the most confining—though not necessarily the least dignified—tasks of nurture: housekeeping, the care of young children, food preparation. In the urban-industrial situation the confinement of these traditional tasks divided women more and more from the “important” activities of the new economy. Furthermore, in this situation the traditional nurturing role of men—that of provisioning the household, which in an agricultural society had become as constant and as complex as the women’s role—became completely abstract; the man’s duty to the household came to be simply to provide money. The only remaining task of provisioning—purchasing food—was turned over to women. This determination that nurturing should become exclusively a concern of women served to signify to both sexes that neither nurture nor womanhood was very important.

But the assignment to women of a kind of work that was thought both onerous and trivial was only the beginning of their exploitation. As the persons exclusively in charge of the tasks of nurture, women often came into sole charge of the household budget; they became family purchasing agents. . . . Such a woman was ripe for a sales talk: this was the great commercial insight of modern times. Such a woman must be told—or subtly made to understand—that she must not be a drudge, that she must not let her work affect her looks, that she must not become “unattractive,” that she must always be fresh, cheerful, young, shapely, and pretty. All her sexual and mortal fears would thus be given voice, and she would be made to reach for money. What was implied was always the question that a certain bank finally asked outright in a billboard advertisement: “Is your husband losing interest?”

Motivated no longer by practical needs, but by loneliness and fear, women began to identify themselves by what they bought rather than by what they did. They bought labor-saving devices which worked, as most modern machines have tended to work, to devalue or replace the skills of those who used them. They bought manufactured foods, which did likewise. They bought any product that offered to lighten the burdens of housework, to be “kind to hands,” or to endear one to one’s husband. And they furnished their houses, as they made up their faces and selected their clothes, neither by custom nor invention, but by the suggestion of articles and advertisements in “women’s magazines.” Thus housewifery, once a complex discipline acknowledged to be one of the bases of civilization, was reduced to the exercise of purchasing power.

As in so many of his other writings, whether prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction, Berry thus links a problem, in this case the exploitation of women, with our retreat from an agrarian way of life to an industrial age and with living in the midst of a capitalist consumer culture (see here for more on Berry’s criticism of such a culture).

Although readers may judge for themselves, the degree of truth contained in his remarks, a few additional facts, which I first mentioned elsewhere, may help.

By 1926 Ladies Home Journal featured advertisements on more than half of its pages. About four out of every five pages of a 1990 issue of Bride’s magazine were devoted to advertising. From the beginning, women were also the main target of afternoon radio soap operas, which got their name because of the advertisement of soap and other products on them. One of the most successful ad campaigns of the early 1920s was developed for General Electric by an ad agency executive . . . who developed a series of ads entitled “Any Woman.” Their theme was that electric appliances such as washing machines could liberate women from many hours of household chores. Advertisers also paid special attention to, and often fostered, women’s insecurities about their appearance.

One of the companies which benefitted the most from female insecurities was Avon Products, founded in 1886. By early 1999 it sold products to women in 135 countries. An Avon ad of the 1990s began “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if you could wave a magic wand and take ten years off your skin?” Avon’s web site proclaimed its vision “to be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service and self-fulfillment needs of women—globally.”

But let’s return to Berry’s “The Body and the Earth: “Girls are taught to want to be leggy, slender, large-breasted, curly-haired, unimposingly beautiful.” Boys are conditioned to desire their own set of physical characteristics, but “both sexes should look what passes for ‘sexy’ in a bathing suit. Neither, above all, should look old.” But since very few people live up to such culturally-conditioned models, “the result is widespread suffering that does immeasurable damage both to individual persons and to the society as a whole. . . . Woe, above all, to the woman with small breasts or a muscular body or strong features. . . . One spends one’s life dressing and ‘making up’ to compensate for one’s supposed deficiencies. . . . The putative healer is the guru of style and beauty aid. The sufferer is by definition a customer.”

A quarter century after writing the above words about women, the essay mentioned even earlier appeared, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine.”  In it, Berry recounted that after his 1987 essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” had appeared in Harper’s, he had received some “feminist letters” that accused him of “exploiting his wife.” Berry believed that their accusations were unjust because all he had written was that his wife typed his manuscripts and told him her reactions to what he had written. He objected to his critics that his Harper’s essay, “does not say what her motives are, how much work she does, or whether or how she is paid. Aside from saying that she is my wife and that I value the help she gives me with my work, it says nothing about our marriage. It says nothing about our economy.”

Berry suggests that his critics are more supportive of a type of marriage he satirizes as “an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the ‘married’ couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.” Such a household is “where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. . . . For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.”

Berry proceeds to criticize those who have trouble tolerating a more traditional marriage [like his own] based on mutual help and a division of “household economy” that makes sense to both spouses. Ideally speaking, such an economic arrangement “involves the work of both wife and husband” and provides “a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as a common ground and a common satisfaction. Such a household economy may employ the disciplines and skills of housewifery, of carpentry and other trades of building and maintenance, of gardening and other branches of subsistence agriculture, and even of woodlot management and wood-cutting. It may also involve a ‘cottage industry’ of some kind, such as a small literary enterprise.”

But Berry laments that such an arrangement is “now frequently held in contempt, first by men who left farm work for salaried work and then by some feminists. Berry writes, “Thus farm wives who help to run the kind of household economy that I have described are apt to be asked by feminists, and with great condescension, ‘But what do you do?’ By this they invariably mean that there is something better to do than to make one’s marriage and household, and by better they invariably mean ‘employment outside the home.’”

Considering Berry’s view of corporate America, it is hardly surprising that he would conclude: “I do not believe that ‘employment outside the home’ is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women.” Returning to the charge that he is exploiting his wife, Berry states: “If I had written in my [Harper’s] essay that my wife worked as a typist and editor for a publisher, doing the same work that she does for me, no feminists, I daresay, would have written to Harper’s to attack me for exploiting her—even though, for all they knew, I might have forced her to do such work in order to keep me in gambling money. It would have been assumed as a matter of course that if she had a job away from home she was a ‘liberated woman,’ possessed of a dignity that no home could confer upon her.” Why, Berry asks, “should anyone assume that my wife would increase her freedom or dignity or satisfaction by becoming the employee of a boss, who would be in turn also a corporate underling and in no sense a partner?”

Considering what corporate America is doing to our environment and people, Berry concludes that “to call this vandalism ‘liberation’ is to prolong, and even ratify, a dangerous confusion that was once principally masculine. A broader, deeper criticism is necessary. The problem is not just the exploitation of women by men. A greater problem is that women and men alike are consenting to an economy that exploits women and men and everything else.”

Women’s Liberation and Freedom

This present essay will not devote space to detail the various other ways that Berry believes our capitalist consumer society and culture are harming women as well as men, but they are numerous and range from attitudes to sex, romance, love, marriage, and divorce to eating and physical fitness. His use of terms such as the “capitalization of love and marriage” and “sexual capitalism” suggest his approach. What he values are such virtues as love, fidelity, and compassion, and when he stresses freedom it is more the freedom of communities than any type of individualistic freedoms. This emphasis has strong implications for his views on women’s liberation.

Consider the following from his “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community”:

The individual . . . always has two ways to turn: she or he may turn either toward the household and the community, to receive membership and to give service, or toward the relatively unconditional life of the public, in which one is free to pursue self-realization, self-aggrandizement, self-interest, self-fulfillment, self-enrichment, self-promotion, and so on. . . . The individual life implies no standard of behavior or responsibility. . . .

. . . There are two kinds of freedom: the freedom of the community and the freedom of the individual. The freedom of the community is the more fundamental and the more complex. A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims; and it prescribes or shows the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free. . . . The freedom of the individual, by contrast, has been construed customarily as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities.

These two kinds of freedom, so understood, are clearly at odds. In modern times, the dominant freedom has been that of the individual, and Judith Weissman believes—correctly, I think—that this self-centered freedom is still the aim of contemporary liberation movements.

Berry then quotes Weissman as follows: “The liberation of the individual self for fulfillments, discoveries, pleasures, and joys, and the definition of oppression as mental and emotional constraints. . . . remains basically unchanged in later feminist writers.” And he goes on to state that such liberation “tends to see itself as an escape from the constraints of community life.”

Almost everybody now demands it, as she or he has been taught to do by the schools, by the various forms of public entertainment, and by salespeople, advertisers, and other public representatives of the industrial economy. People are instructed to free themselves of all restrictions, restraints, and scruples in order to fulfill themselves as individuals to the utmost extent that the law allows. . . .

But there is a paradox in all this, and it is as cruel as it is obvious: as the emphasis on individual liberty has increased, the liberty and power of most individuals has declined. Most people are now finding that they are free to make very few significant choices. It is becoming steadily harder for ordinary people—the unrich, the unprivileged—to choose a kind of work for which they have a preference, a talent, or a vocation, to choose where they will live, to choose to work (or to live) at home. . . . We try to be “emotionally self-sufficient” at the same time that we are entirely and helplessly dependent for our “happiness” on an economy that abuses us along with everything else. We want the liberty of divorce from spouses and independence from family and friends, yet we remain indissolubly married to a hundred corporations that regard us at best as captives and at worst as prey.

Cleary, Berry’s idea of women’s “liberation” is no Sex-in-the-City type of liberation. The proper type of freedom to seek, for both men and women, is the type of freedom he depicts his female heroines like Hannah Coulter pursuing: the freedom to love, to enter into a loving, mutually-respecting  relationship with a spouse, to have children, to be close to nature, to be part of a community, and to be as free from corporate influence and control as is possible in a modern capitalist country.

Divorce and Abortion

In modern times, feminists have frequently insisted on a woman’s right to a divorce or abortion. How does Berry feel about such rights? His latest thoughts on these topics are reflected in a 2012 interview and 2013 article. The interview was conducted by John J. Miller, national correspondent for the conservative National Review. Miller quotes Berry as follows: “I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters. . . . Abortion for birth control is wrong. . . . That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices.” In general though, Berry said, “I’m against divorce, too, though I know perfectly well that nobody can judge anybody else’s marriage and say that any particular divorce should not happen.” (Miller also indicated that “Berry said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again this November [2012], and that Berry supports “Obama’s embrace of gay marriage.”)

Berry’s 2013 article “Caught in the middle: On abortion and homosexuality,” appeared in the The Christian Century. Although he criticizes both liberals and conservatives for often approaching these topics too simplistically, his ultimate position is that abortion and homosexuality are private matters which should be left to individuals to decide. “There should be no law either for or against abortion.” And “sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval and . . . domestic partnerships, in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another, ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges that the government allows to heterosexual couples.”


As promised, Berry’s position on the exploitation of women and women’s liberation is unconventional. As LA Progressive readers who have read my previous essays on Berry know, I often admire his thinking and feelings (e.g., his criticism of racism and militarism), but I have also differed with him on occasion (see, e.g., here). In looking over what he has written on women, I believe there is much truth in it. But I also recognize, as I have in previous essays, that he is writing from his own unique agrarian perspective. Many urban women might see things differently. In addition, he does not deal directly with many forms of misogyny that women face, some of which even a conservative writer like Ross Douthat acknowledges—see his recent article “The War on Women.”

walter mossIn one of Berry’s twenty-first-century books of essays, he writes of “the wisdom of humility,” and he is correct to urge us all to be humble when considering complex questions. As I have indicated elsewhere, the old Buddhist tale of the blind men and an elephant still has much to teach us about the complexity of truth and the need for multiple perspectives. This applies to the mistreatment of women as well as many other subjects. One thing that can be said about Berry’s written and spoken views, however, is that they will usually be unique and well worth considering.

Walter G. Moss


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