What is the Unfinished Revolution? It is the fact that the overwhelming majority of unpaid labor necessary to keep the world running falls on the shoulders of women in our homes.
I am a feminist. I strongly believe that the most basic injustice in this world, common to all times and all cultures, is mistreatment of women. Until the chains on women are broken, all the world remains in bondage. The heaviest links on those chains are forged from the tedious, backbreaking, and unpaid labor women have to do to keep our lives smoothly on track. Few of these tasks provide any chance for creativity or even personal expression; none of them carry any prestige or status. Nevertheless, if they don’t happen, nothing else does. The Unfinished Revolution in my title refers to the fact that we haven’t figured out how to get these chores done without exploiting others, either all women or poor women that wealthy women hire to do the shit work that must be completed in order to do the creative or at least remunerative tasks of life. Until we solve that problem, the feminist Revolution and all other Revolutions will remain unfinished.
While thinking about the problem of the Unfinished Revolution recently, I was reminded of this essay, "Feminism, The Body, and The Machine,” by foolish liberals’ favorite reactionary, Wendell Berry. Berry wrote an essay, published in Harper’s Magazine, defending his refusal to buy a computer. He mentioned in passing that he wrote his manuscripts in pencil and had his wife type the fair copy for publication on a manual typewriter. When confronted with some blowback for making his wife do shit work while he did the fun part of writing, he wrote the linked response. In the most petulant manner possible, Berry sniffs that his critics judged him unfairly, but he never provides any real evidence demonstrating that his wife was not exploited by their relationship.
Berry wrote one specific line in the linked piece that demonstrates better than anything else why feminism is stalled and in retreat. He claims, in the middle of his Peak Privileged White Dude Whine, “I understand that one cannot construct an adequate public defense of a private life.” This is immediately and effectively contradicted by his own statement that his critics fail to consider a number of other possibilities: “that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing.” He obviously knows that some facts could blunt his critics and yet provides no evidence of any of those things. Since he mentions that his wife might find some “use and meaning” in doing his shit work, I think it’s worth examining how he describes their respective tasks.
In the linked reply to his critics, Berry describes his process of writing as follows: “The act of writing language down is not so insistently tangible an act as the act of building a house or playing the violin. But to the extent that it is tangible, I love the tangibility of it. The computer apologists, it seems to me, have greatly underrated the value of the handwritten manuscript as an artifact. I don’t mean that a writer should be a fine calligrapher and write for exhibition, but rather that handwriting has a valuable influence on the work so written. I am certainly no calligrapher, but my handwritten pages have a homemade, handmade look to them that both pleases me in itself and suggests the possibility of ready correction. It looks hospitable to improvement. As the longhand is transformed into typescript and then into galley proofs and the printed page, it seems increasingly to resist improvement. More and more spunk is required to mar the clean, final-looking lines of type. I have the notion—again not provable—that the longer I keep a piece of work in longhand, the better it will be.” He lyrically describes his creative process: “Going off to the woods, I take a pencil and some paper (any paper—a small notebook, an old envelope, a piece of a feed sack), and I am as well equipped for my work as the president of IBM. I am also free, for the time being at least, of everything that IBM is hooked to. My thoughts will not be coming to me from the power structure or the power grid, but from another direction and way entirely. My mind is free to go with my feet.” Writing is, for him, a creative and active process that allows him to think and get into the fresh air.
I said I would compare his tasks to his wife’s, but Berry does not at any point in all of his works, as near as I can tell, describe the process of typing, and does not allow his wife to provide her input on this question. He provides her a stack of random notes in smudged pencil marks and she provides him a text he can submit for publication. He does not bother with any discussion of what, exactly, she does. We know he has an interesting task. What is hers like?
In order to fairly compare his creation process to what she has to do, it is necessary to know something about using a manual typewriter. He does not allow his wife the chance to describe her task, so I have to find other sources. Here is one person's description of using a manual typewriter. Note that typing on manual requires the typist to set the side margins and use the return to set the top margin. She had to type exactly what was written from smudged pencil marks in handwriting on paper of various sizes and make it into a coherent page. Unless Berry himself has perfect handwriting, a lot of his wife’s job involved decoding blurred marks that could be any one of a dozen letters. If the page has footnotes — and Berry’s nonfiction work has a lot of footnotes — the process was a lot more complicated. All of this was in service to someone else’s creation.
Is there anything in his writing that provides a clue to what Berry thinks about typing? He has a low opinion of working in offices. He mentions how offices monitor the keystrokes of employees, nothing that the “oppressiveness of some of this office work defies belief.” If it’s ‘oppressive’ for a boss to demand an easier form of typing, it should be presumed that a much more onerous kind of typing is equally oppressive, yet Berry never bothers to address that point. He ignores the substance of the task his wife does for him.
That bit, that refusal to see the concrete substance of the task he requires, lies the last remaining part of the Unfinished Revolution. Berry’s entire defense of himself lies in the fact that he and his wife are married and that theirs is a joint enterprise which gives them ‘a measure of economic independence and self-employment, a measure of freedom, as well as common ground and a common satisfaction.’ He never defines what he means by ‘economic freedom’ here or any place else. I assume he means they make enough money to avoid having to get other jobs as ‘corporate drudges.’
The problem with his ideal lifestyle of both spouses working at home, especially his own marriage, is that the money is ALL HIS. If his wife worked as a clerk for another company, her paycheck would be her own and independent of him. He couldn't demand it from her and she would have it regardless of what he did. She would be really independent and able to exercise agency in her own life. As it is, she can’t. She depends on him to write so that they can continue to eat. He is not so dependent on her. Her name appears on none of his published works, including the essay to which I have such a great exception. She has effectively no identity while he exists as a public figure.
That is the crux of my objection to Berry’s position: Wendell gets the sugar and Tanya gets the shit. Her task is tedious and confining while his is fascination and liberating, and he never once acknowledges that difference. Berry states that it is not possible to make an adequate defense of his private life as his explanation for why he doesn’t even try to do so. He asserts that it is not reasonable to presume his wife is exploited and not compensated for her work, but never shows what compensation he provides her. Their life is that he does something fun while she does something tedious and he calls it even. I’m going to mimic Berry’s rhetorical trick, and note that Tanya never gets to speak for herself. She never explains what else she might like to be doing instead of banging away on a typewriter while decoding smeared pencil marks.
Since you’re all wondering what the text of this post has to do with the title, it’s that the Berry essay perfectly illustrates the assumption that most men have that women have nothing better to do than to accommodate men’s whims. Tanya Berry raised three kids and tended a hobby farm with little help from her husband. Instead of explaining how the two of them make their system equitable, and showing that Tanya has ample time to pursue her own creative interest, Berry whined that his critics didn’t assume the best of him. The reason his feminist critics did not assume that their relationship was equitable is that the relationship he described is not in fact just, which makes his marriage like almost every other marriage in human history. Until men start deferring to their wives’ desires for a creative life or remunerative career, our revolution is not finished.