A Woman’s Place

9781476794099.jpgEarlier this summer, I worked my way through Katelyn Beaty’s book, A Woman’s Place. Since then, Beaty’s ideas have been working their way through me.

This inviting  reflection beckons readers to consider how God has created women to work. Rather than limiting women to homemaking, or insisting that all women must find meaningful work outside the home, Beaty provides an insightful, prophetic, and ultimately encouraging engagement with a more robust and holistic view of work. Considering biblical and contemporary examples of working women, Beaty crafts a helpful vision of how women are called to work – and how humanity cannot flourish without women working. As she writes: “What women bring to the table is not simply a feminine touch but half of humanity’s gifts, passions, and experiences.” (65-66)

I’ve received many gifts in the process of engaging A Woman’s Place. Some of those gifts have come as joyous affirmations; others as pointed challenges.  I’d like to share three of them here: one each from my location as a husband, a father, and a pastor.

As a Husband

Beaty relays the story of a woman who was asked “without fail” for five months’ worth of Sundays: “How do you manage it all?” (27-28). That story brought home something I had failed to understand about the pressure and critique of women, like my wife, who have been called into full-time work outside of the home.

While pastoring full time and working on my doctorate full time, I would occasionally have someone remark “Wow! You’re busy!” More often than not, that comment came with an undertone of being impressed and a pat on my back for being industrious and taking initiative. From time to time, some would also ask if I was setting aside time for my kids. (There is a lot that could be unpacked here about the assumptions that men should be busy and that the time men spend with their kids is a bonus. But I’ll leave those for another post.)

On the other hand, I have heard numerous people make passing comments about how busy women who work outside the home must be. Others have commented “I don’t know how she has time to work and take care of the house and kids.” I have not recognized how deeply these judgmental comments, even when not expressed directly to a “working woman,” create an atmosphere in which guilt and self-doubt can thrive. Instead of being affirmed, women who engage their creational calling to work, particularly those in organizational leadership roles, are often subtly (and sometimes overtly) critiqued for having misplaced priorities.

As Hennie’s husband, I am taking away two immediate things to work on after reading this book. One, I need to be way more attentive to the social pressures that Hennie experiences as a Christian woman who engages her gifts in a full-time professional leadership position. This includes asking Hennie, “what’s your experience of being a woman working in a male-oriented culture?” Two, I need to behave and speak about caring for our children and our home as my responsibility and joy. This includes guarding my language so that I never ask “How can I help you around the house?” or “Do you need me to pick up the kids?” Both of which feed the damaging narrative that Hennie is responsible for the home and kids and that anything I do around the house or with our kids is an act of my generosity. This step is not merely about language. Rather, it’s a commitment to honour Hennie in all things, including our shared leadership of our children and our home.

As a Father

In summarizing several interviews with women working in male-dominated professions, Beaty writes “femaleness doesn’t dictate what they do for work. Rather, it adds one more dazzling dimension to how they do that work.” (136) She later adds,

“We don’t – and indeed can’t – turn off our femaleness when we walk into the office or classroom; when we try to, we can end up seeming sexist, as if working like a woman is a liability or source of shame. Rather, we can work with our gender, letting it inform but never overwhelm our particular tasks and decisions. It’s like one blossom in the bouquet of our identity.” (140)

While reading this paragraph, I could not help but wonder how to nurture such a vision in my children. We have three sons and one daughter. How do I speak to each of our children in such a way that they see gender as a gift and not a detriment? How do I engage with them so that they can name and resist the cultural shame and shaming of women? We’ve been quick to call out and guard against phrases like “you throw like a girl.” But what about more subtle things, like primarily asking our daughter to wash dishes and our sons to mow the yard or take out garbage? Are our affirmations of our boys’ hard work and sweaty bodies and of our daughter’s creativity forming messages to all our children about what it means to work like a woman or work like a man? These are much harder questions to answer – but absolutely necessary ones to engage. How do I parent in such a way that sweating from physical labor is just as acceptable for and valued by our daughter as for our sons?  I recognize that for my kids’ good, I need to be way more intentional about how I affirm them and how I ask them to participate in our family’s responsibilities.

As a Pastor

I stopped several times while reading Beaty’s chapter on “A Fruitful Life” simply to assess my own posture toward those who are single within the church. Beaty writes: “Monasteries of the Middle Ages became arenas where unmarried women bore fruit in the form of education, spiritual discipline, and care for the sick, poor, and dying.” (191) She also contends that marriage “is neither the capstone of maturity nor the scope God’s purposes for his followers.” (196)

As I read this chapter, I recalled a person in my church asking if we could set up an odd number of chairs around each circular table at church events. Rather than having 8 chairs, set 7 or 9 as a way of making intentional room for each person to participate with or without a significant other. It was a small request for a more hospitable space, but that question prompted me to start thinking outside of my assumed norms.

As a pastor, I am left wondering how do I portray a flourishing life of discipleship to those who are single within my community? Have my leadership recommendations conveyed that women need to be married in order to be heard? How will I exemplify single people in my sermons as models for all of us to follow? Will I make room for those who are single to tell their stories of joy and community, or of longing and struggle, in the same ways I do with married couples, and especially with parents? After reading this chapter in particular, I am left realizing that even our congregational prayers need to more intentionally incorporate the praises, fears, joys, and concerns of those in our community who are single.

One Final Thought

While writing about women and work, Beaty also challenged the way we think of ambition within the Christian community. She writes: “We can be self-giving and self-driven, content with our circumstances, yet deeply discontent when those circumstances are filled with suffering and injustice. Rather than dismiss ambition outright, we need to ask what ends our ambitions serve and amplify those ambitions when they serve good, holy ends.” (213). Quite frankly, I needed to hear that message. Not because, as a male, I “need to be okay with ambitious women.” Quite the contrary. I needed to hear that because too often I am prone in my privilege to be content with the status quo, a status quo that maintains the suffering and injustice experienced by others, particularly women and people of color. And I should never be content with such an unholy arrangement.