There is a very well-known axiom: anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. It gets quoted often, generally as an excuse for a mediocre performance, but that is not what the author meant. Even its more positive interpretation- something can be good without needing to be absolutely perfect (a good axiom for a perfectionist to keep in mind)- isn’t quite the truth. In fact, when these words were originally penned, the author had a particular group of people in mind- women. Offended yet?
Yes, that’s right. That famous quotation is aimed at women. So what is this clearly sexist author implying? Is he suggesting that women can’t do things as well as men can, but that’s okay? Is he proposing that women are inferior to men? And who is this man anyway? Because it’s certainly a man.
Well, you’re right on that account. That axiom was coined by a man. It was written by the author G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic writer and pseudo-theologian. No surprise there- of course it would be written by a Catholic. They’re all misogynists anyway. They don’t let women become priests for heaven’s sake. Of course they’re all sexist.
But before you go Catholic-bashing, let’s set some facts straight. G.K. Chesterton (and any good Catholic) does not think that women are inferior to men. He is not suggesting that women can’t do anything as well as a man can. In fact, he probably would have argued that there are some things that women do much better than men. But that also means that there are some things that men do better than women. To deny that would be to ignore reality. Men and women are different, and that’s okay.
So what did G.K. Chesterton mean when he wrote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly”? He was in fact speaking about women. He was referring to the fact that women are often what he calls “generalists.” They can do everything acceptably. They know how to cook. They know how to paint and draw. They know how to play scales on the piano. They know how to do math, diagram sentences, and tell you the names of the 50 states (and possibly where they can be located on a map). But most women are not famous chefs. They are not avid painters or illustrators. They aren’t incredibly talented pianists, mathematicians, linguists, or historians. Some of them are, but most are not. Most are not college professors, but they are their child’s favorite and best teacher.
Women are what we would call amateurs. That’s right, they are amateurs. But I don’t mean it derogatorily. Generally, when we hear the word ‘amateur,’ we assume that the person is mediocre in their skill. Below-average even. But that’s not what the word ‘amateur’ actually means. Another word for ‘amateur’ is ‘lover.’ And not just any type of lover, but a lover of all things.
Women are often called big picture thinkers. They might appreciate the details, but they are more concerned with the big picture, with the overall impact. Men, on the other hand, tend to be interested in the details. They will forgo the big picture so that they can concentrate on the details. While women tend to be generalists, men are often specialists. Women tend to be passable at many things; men like to be exceptionally good at one thing. Another way of putting it is that women know a little about a lot, while men know a lot about a little. But does that make men better than women? Is this just a fancy way of affirming that women are in fact inferior to men?
No. The fact that women are okay at many things means that they are incredible at one thing in particular: being mothers and teachers. Most college professors are men, but most grade school teachers are women. College professors become very well-versed in their own field of study, say Physics, but they would be incapable of teaching in another field, say Ancient Mesopotamian History. An elementary school teacher, on the other hand, can adequately teach both science and history, though she might not be familiar with string theory or be able to identify the cause of the collapse of the Mesopotamian civiliation. And that’s okay.
Men are not superior to women, nor are women superior to men. But that doesn’t men that men can’t be better at some things than women, and that women can’t be better at other things. We are equal, but different. Gender equality doesn’t mean that all women must become men. Gender equality means that a woman should be respected for exactly what she is, a woman. A generalist. An amateur. A lover.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!
Very well put. I love the quotation from Chesterton.
Thanks! He’s one of my favorite authors. I absolutely love “Orthodoxy.”