The Convenient Construction Of The Public-Private Distinction

Revolutions are public affairs; revolutionaries bring them about. They fight in the streets, they ‘man’ the barricades, they push back the forces of reaction. And then, they go home for the night, to a meal and a warm bed. There, they rest and recuperate, recharging the batteries of uprising, ready to battle again the next day. Revolutionaries are men, doing the real work, out in the public sphere; their home fronts are staffed by women, whose job is to sustain the revolution’s domestic aspects.

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1985, pp. 57-58), David P. Jordan writes:

Although Robespierre was most at his ease in the midst of bourgeois domesticity, he depended upon others to create such an environment for him. Left to himself, he would have perpetuated his solitude in bleak rented rooms. It is worth noting that he fought the Revolution from the comfort of a bourgeois home. His passivity, his willingness to have others look after him, bespeaks an indifference to the mundane. He knew nothing of the marketplace; in Paris, as it had been in Arras, food awaited him at table, including the fruits he adored. Similarly, he knew nothing of the conditions of the desperately poor, with whom he never fraternized extensively. And there is no record that he ever went next door at the Duplays’ to talk to the carpenters in the shop. [citation added]

“An indifference to the mundane.” The home is the site of the mundane, the ordinary, the dull and dreary. Outside, the public sphere, where the non-domestic happens, is where the extraordinary takes place. That is the zone of men, the revolutionaries; the home is where women (and perhaps some servants), like a pit-stop crew, get the smooth machine of revolution up and running again with an oil and tire change for the body and mind. The revolutionary, from his lofty perch, can look down on and disdain these mundane offerings, the labor underlying which is not worthy of recognition in manifestos intended to stir the masses to action.

The excerpt above is drawn from a book published in 1985, two years after Carole Pateman‘s classic feminist critique of the public-private dichotomy appeared in print.¹ It shows in paradigmatic form, the standard (male and patriarchal) construction of the public-private distinction in political theory. The ancient Aristotelean understanding of polis as sphere for politics and civic life and home as venue for a much lower form of life persists here. Jordan does not make note of Robespierre’s detachment from the domestic with approval, but he does not find anything problematic in it either; instead, it appears as the sort of bemused indifference that we associate, quite romantically, with artists, writers, poets, and others too intent on cultivating their creativity to be bothered with the ‘mundane’ particulars of life. In this history, the public fray rises above domestic scurrying; the men hover above the women below.

Note 1: Carole Pateman, ‘Feminist Critiques of the Public/Private Dichotomy,’ in Public and Private in Social Life 281,281 (S. I. Benn & G. F. Gaus eds., 1983)

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