Women and Work
Women tend to feel the struggle of untangling the modern conflicts of life, love and labor most keenly, but ultimately this issue affects everyone.
Take for example, the idea that the earth is flat. We’ve all been taught that our ancestors believed this because church leaders promoted it. But in fact, the idea of a spherical world had been accepted as early as the 4th century B.C.1 Anyone who has watched a boat sail over the edge of the horizon and return could never have believed the earth was flat. So where did this idea come from? Two secular books in the late 19th century promoted this idea to stigmatize Christian beliefs and support “scientific” thinking. After their publication, nearly every secondary-school textbook in America featured that “fact,” even if diligent study of historical materials and common sense dictated otherwise.2
Truth was squashed to serve an ideological agenda.
When it comes to thinking about work/life balance, we women in the 21st century also have received a number of “flat earth facts” about our lives that we accept without question — “facts” about how we should conduct life, love and labor. It can be hard to discern them, except for one factor: You can recognize a “flat earth fact” by the one-size-fits-all box that it comes in.
I am passionate about calling out “facts” that are based on one-size-fits-all thinking, especially when the advice is applied broadly to all women at all times, no matter our varying circumstances, locations, training, gifting or personal histories. We women are not a monolithic group, but every coalition seems to have a formula for what being a real woman looks like.
One of the most ironic in recent years was when feminist Linda Hirschman trashed “choice feminists” for making a choice other than working full time. To be a full-time wife and mother was not a valid choice in her opinion.3 Unfortunately you can be handed one-size-fits-all boxes as often within the church as you do from outside of it. It’s much easier sometimes to disciple people into a practice or a specific behavior than to make followers of Jesus and trust Him to clearly and creatively lead His own people without violating His own principles.
How Then “Should” We Live?
I’ve been thinking about life, love and labor for decades. I grew up in the midst of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, studied journalism and feminist women’s studies in college, and then became a Bible-believing Christian at age 30 — which shook up all my prior assumptions about being female. I’ve worked all my life because I had to support myself as a single woman. I have a high view of marriage and motherhood, even though I’ve never had children of my own. And I’ve traveled extensively to other nations, where most of my American ideas and assumptions have been challenged. In other words, I’ve been all around the circle when it comes to the issue of being female and what we “should” be doing as women. I’ve had “flat earth facts” handed to me from both secular feminists and earnest Christians, and I’ve spent years trying to sort through the issues. So I’ll tell you this: If you look at the verses in the Bible about women working at home and you picture a modern household, you are guilty of reading your own experience into Scripture. To understand what the Bible says about the home and women’s work, you need to know history.
A history lesson
Unfortunately, you can’t unpack the history of the home or women’s work in just one article. So here’s the quick summary: For most of history, the home was the small business unit of the local economy, a place of productivity for both men and women. Industrious women like Kate Luther and Sarah Edwards freed their husbands to tend to theology by managing their family businesses, be they land, farms or boarding houses. But the 19th century profoundly altered the home’s role, place and activities. The Industrial Revolution bifurcated home and work by taking men away from their family farms and family businesses, and putting them to work in factories, creating separate spheres for men and women of economic means. Lower-income families had to put everyone to work to survive, including women (the first large-scale textile mills in America were run by women known as the Lowell Mill Girls) and children (who were viewed as cheap, nimble labor). Ironically, many of the items factories manufactured were consumer goods intended for the home.
By the 20th century, the home in general society went from a place of productivity to a place of consumption. It’s a place to store your stuff, a monument to your taste and style. The public sphere — the commercial marketplace with its economic valuations — became the valued sphere. The private sphere — the place of intangible, eternal investment — became the devalued sphere. Yet we Christians know that all the activities of the private sphere are the ones that await eternal reward: the cultivation of loving marriages; the rearing and discipling of the next generation; the care for elderly or disabled relatives; and the twin missions of Gospel outreach to neighbors and hospitality for the church family. This tension is the basis of the modern conflict that Christians of both sexes experience in trying to balance life, love and labor. Women tend to feel it most keenly, but ultimately this issue is one that affects the whole family. Therefore it is a human problem.
The Labor of Love
To find a way out of this conundrum, I think it’s wise to study the epitome of biblical wisdom found in the Proverbs 31 portrait. Knowing more about the history of the home, it should be no surprise that far more verses in this passage are about productivity and financial management than family relationships. The divide we created in the 19th century between work and home is an artificial one. In the biblical narrative, work is a co-labor of love with our Creator for the benefit of others. Are we hungry? Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread. So we ask our heavenly Father to give us the good gift of food. In the way God ordered His world, His image-bearers co-labor with Him to grow the grain, bake the bread, deliver it to the stores and sell it to hungry people. We receive our daily bread because dozens upon dozens of others were faithful in their labors, embodying answered prayers.
John 5:17 emphasizes this co-labor perspective. In response to criticism that He healed a sick man on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” His work was to glorify His Father and help others. Ours is the same, whether our days are spent in an office or at home with children, or some of both.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many women about whether or not they should pursue a career. My answer is a qualified no. Not because I’m trying to hand someone else another one-size-fits-all box, but because our modern concept of “career” is largely a self-centered one. It’s ultimately about self-fulfillment and self-definition — how you are defined by what you do. (My answer would be the same for men, as well.) But don’t misunderstand me here, either: Pursuing your identity in a job is not the same thing as cultivating your skills or professional networks in order to be more productive and demonstrate excellence in your work. In fact, I believe you can do your work much better if your identity is not bound up in your job. When you know that your primary identity is as an object of mercy who is now an adopted child of the Father and a co-heir with Christ, neither the triumphs nor the setbacks of your vocation can shake you.
So how should we think about productivity over the course of our lives? We should think like good investors. “For what do we have that we did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). It is God who gives us the relationships, children, time, talents, interests, and tasks that fill our days and years. We can’t force these gifts to materialize, nor are they our true and complete identities. We may be wives or mothers, but as important as these are, they are roles that end in this life. We continue on as children of God and sisters to those who have been rescued by Christ. We may work in highly esteemed professions, or we may not be paid for our daily labors. Those roles are not our identities, either. They are opportunities to steward for God’s glory. Whatever God gives us in terms of relationships and opportunities, He wants multiplied for the sake of His kingdom. That’s a kingdom principle (Matthew 25:14-28).
Should women work? Absolutely! Women should work and work hard every day. As Christ-following women, the Bible calls us to work for God’s glory. But the location of where we work is neither the definition nor the measure of our productivity. Because God has designed our life cycles to be different from that of men, the challenge for young women (and those who love them) is to think simultaneously about the “now” and “someday/maybe” ideas of productivity. What no one really ever talks about is planning ahead for the second half of life. We hand each other a lot of “shoulds” about whether it’s better to work outside of the home or not when you have children, but few people talk about sequencing across the full spectrum of an adult woman’s life — planning for the early years of fertility and the later years of second-chapter wisdom and influence. There may be a number of things God has given you to multiply throughout your life, but not all can or need to be done at the same time. What’s most important now in light of eternity? Give yourself to that cause and plan ahead for the next season.
I’ve worked all my life, and now I own my own film company and employ others. Yet just because I own a small business, I am not exempt from investing in the private sphere for God’s glory. I, too, have extended family members who need care; neighbors who need to know and see the Gospel in action; a church that needs my support; and a home that needs my attention so that it’s prepared for hospitality. I’m responsible to multiply all that I have been given so that I can return it all to Jesus and enter into His joy (Matthew 25:21-23).
Investing what you have right now for God’s glory prevents presumption about the future (“I don’t need to cultivate marketplace skills because I will get married soon”); curbs anxiety about the future (“what if I will always have to work?”); checks sinful comparison (“I will never be a soccer mom!”); and squashes worldly ambition (“I will never give up my important job to be a full-time mom!”).
Glimmers of Change
You may have read this far expecting me to tell you concrete things to do. I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. Your life is unique, and the Lord is guiding you to do all the good works He has planned in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore your life will not look the same as anyone else in your circle of friends, family or church. There may be many similarities, but it won’t be cookie-cutter-similar. But I will give you a few illustrations.
While recent history has made it hard to integrate productivity and family responsibilities, I see glimmers of change on the horizon, especially among the young adults I work with. Though Millennials are often maligned as a self-centered generation, I’ve been fascinated to watch many around me make purposeful and long-range decisions about how to integrate work, family and mission into a seamless lifestyle. Most of these couples have married in their early 20s and then built a family business together in some form of media. They intentionally pursue the work they enjoy as entrepreneurial filmmakers, artists, photographers, sound designers or musicians, but they build in flexibility for rearing children. Some have adopted internationally; others have given birth to their children. They work hard, but they work together as a family. I recognize not every couple will have the skill sets or temperaments to do this, but it is intriguing to watch how these young families are trying to overcome the work/home split by integrating productivity back into the family unit.
I’m also seeing this trend among a few of my older friends who are in the post-children time of their lives. These couples are thinking about businesses they can run together or complementary jobs they can tackle from home with their overlapping skill sets.
No matter their ages, my friends are discovering the work world is not really flat after all. There are myriad ways to invest the opportunities, vocational interests, skills and relationships God gives for the sake of His great name. It’s not about what you “should” do. It’s about what you get to do to love others through your labors.
Copyright 2012 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.
- Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Christine Garwood, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2007, p. 20.
- Stephen Jay Gould, “The Late Birth of a Flat Earth,” Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Crown, 1996), 38–52.
- See “Homeward Bound” in The American Prospect, Nov. 21, 2005. http://prospect.org/article/homeward-bound-0
About the Author
Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker and filmmaker at Citygate Films. Her most recent book is “The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.” She is a member of Redeemer Church of Arlington and is the proud aunt of six nieces and nephews.