Brain Pickings

George Orwell, Feminist: The Beloved Author on Gender Equality in Work and Housework

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“The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework.”

Besides his great wisdom on why writers write and how to make the perfect cup of tea, George Orwell also endures as a kind of cultural oracle who presaged the NSA era in 1984 and the Occupy era in Animal Farm. But it turns out he might have also presaged the Lean In era a century before Lean In and decades before the second wave of feminism.

From George Orwell: Diaries (public library) comes an entry dated March 5, 1936, in which the celebrated writer recounts an incident while visiting the Searles — a poor family with whom he lodged during his quest to learn empathy by immersing himself in poverty and of whom he noted that he had “seldom met people with more natural decency.” Writing nearly a decade before his first big literary success with Animal Farm, a novella essentially about inequality, 33-year-old Orwell shares his unease with the gender inequality so deeply imprinted in the cultural fabric:

We had an argument one evening in the Searles’ house because I helped Mrs S. with the washing-up. Both of the men disapproved of this, of course. Mrs S. seemed doubtful. She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the housework unaided, even when the man is unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed. She said that she thought the women now-a-days, especially the younger women, would like it if men opened doors for them etc. The position now-a-days is anomalous. The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working. Yet the woman continues to do all the housework and the man not a handsturn, except carpentering and gardening. Yet I think it is instinctively felt by both sexes that the man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he became a “Mary Ann.*”

* British slang for a male homosexual or an effeminate man.

George Orwell: Diaries offers a rare record of the beloved author’s becoming, from the evolution of his private beliefs to the formative experiences that shaped his writing and his character.

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