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What is Woman?: A Re-examination of Feminism & the Church

The relationship between Feminism and the church – and the current debate surrounding Feminism – cannot be understood without first closely examining the historical roots of Feminism. As with any idea, we must first figure out how we got where we are before we can determine how to proceed. We cannot understand anything about Feminism if we do not first explore the profound and radical change that was wrought upon the home, the family, and women by the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution

Before the mid-1800s agrarian homes were miniature manufacturing centers. Men and women, children and grandparents, worked together and the rural home was largely self-sufficient, “demanding of its female workers a wide variety of skills and an endless capacity for hard work.”[i] The work of the woman was essential to the survival of the family. In addition to what we now think of as the work of the home (cooking, washing dishes, sweeping, dusting, laundering) women did everything from carrying water, chopping and hauling wood, and laying fires to candlemaking, soapmaking, spinning, weaving, shoemaking, quilting, rugmaking, making medicines, etc. She accomplished all this in addition to working in the fields, tending livestock, caring for the children, sewing and mending clothes, and nursing the sick. In the agrarian home housework was not just a series of chores, it was a skilled enterprise. And the homemaker’s work played a central role in whether or not a family lived or died. Additionally, the work of the woman was complementary to the work of a man. The woman was a helpmeet to her husband who worked side by side with him in some capacities and completed the work he started in other capacities. For example, the husband may cut the wood, but the woman drags it home. But, it is important to remember that a strict division of labor by gender did not exist in the pre-industrial age. It is wrong to conclude that the woman tended the home, while the man engaged in outside labor. The domestic arena was ruled by the wife, but when the situation warranted it, the women worked right alongside the men, bringing in the harvest, for example. The pre-industrial family did not think in categories of “women’s work” and “men’s work”; there was simply the work of the home that needed to be accomplished for the family to survive. As a result, no one questioned the value of a woman or the importance of her role in the home. A good woman was essential for a family to exist! The Industrial Revolution changed all that. And some astute social observers began to mourn those changes. In 1851, Horace Bushnell gave a speech in which he noted the loss of the economically functional woman: “[They were] harnessed, all together, into the producing process, young and old, male and female, from the boy that rode the plough-horse to the grandmother knitting under her spectacles…. The house was a factory on the farm; the farm a grower and producer for the house.” He went on to argue that the Industrial Revolution had brought about a complete revolution of domestic life and social manners. And he noted that the “transition from mother and daughter power to water and steam power” was so momentous and so final that “the very terms ‘domestic manufacturer’ have quite lost its meaning.” “Domesticity is altered beyond recognition; women no longer marry to help their husbands get a living, but to help them spend their income.”[ii] The Industrial Revolution also introduced an even more radical change in the way we perceive the world. The world was now divided into the public and private spheres. In this new paradigm men are in the public sphere and their primary function is as breadwinners and women are relegated to the private sphere and their primary function is as homemakers. Two things happened as a result. First, women were relegated to the private sphere, the sphere of the home, at the same time much of the work of the home was now given to the realm of the factory. The jobs of the home, the traditional work of women, were relegated to professionals. In particular, professional men. Interestingly, women as midwives were barred from the new medical profession and they vanished from a number of other occupations as well. We see the rise of the expert culture—and it is a culture of men. The shift from the agrarian to the industrial also meant the loss of status for women in society. Women lost a significant number of legal privileges, among them the right to vote. Interestingly this loss of legal rights comes not from an oppressive patriarchal Christianity, as is so often claimed, but rather came from Enlightenment thinking and European rationalism which deified Reason and taught that only men possessed Reason in the Enlightenment sense. Women were unreasonable emotional creatures and therefore the right to vote and other legal rights were stripped from them. Consider Mary Wolstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women which repeatedly attacks Rousseau’s view of women and contrasts it to how she expects a Christian society to treat women. The very real complaints of the 18th and 19th century about how poorly women were educated and how they were treated as intellectually inferior came not from an oppressive Christianity but from the tyranny of the ironically named Enlightenment. The second thing that happened, which is closely related to the first effect, is that now the public sphere became the sphere which was valued. As Wendell Berry notes, in an industrial society only that which produces money is considered valuable. So, to be a professional teacher or chef, or even a maid, is considered more worthy than if those same jobs are performed for free in the home as an act of love. This shift in thinking displaced women who were robbed of their historic function and importance.

The Feminized Church

At the same time that the Industrial Revolution was dramatically altering the home, the church was undergoing a radical shift of its own which would lead to the rise of modern Feminism. Ann Douglas, in her seminal work The Feminization of American Culture, traces the introduction of sentimentality in the church after the Second Great Awakening and its feminizing effect on the culture as a whole. It’s an interesting perspective because she is a feminist and she sees the move toward feminization as positive. She does an excellent job providing evidence for a new sentimentalized church but she doesn’t offer much of an explanation for why this happened. Until the 1820s, Calvinism was the dominant theology of the US. The reason for its decline is complex and I’m unable to explore this in detail in this article. What follows is a very brief explanation.[iii] Like classical education in the 19th century, the Calvinist church was characterized by rigid formalism and a loss of real zeal. At the same time, there was a rise in Enlightenment thinking and European Rationalism—the idea that man is not fallen; he can know truth by unaided reason and can achieve perfection through Reason. Deism and European Rationalism first made inroads through the foreign soldiers in the War for Independence and were embraced—not surprisingly—by New England intellectuals and young men on college campuses. This rationalism gave rise to Deism and Transcendentalism outside of the church. Inside the church, there were two responses: in New England, the liberal church responded with the rise of Unitarianism, led by Lyman Beecher; and in the West, the conservative church responded with Arminianism, led by Charles Finney. Finney was also the father of the modern revival which placed heavy emphasis on a personal emotional experience as a way of knowing. This is the same thing that Rousseau taught.

Charles Finney

The doctrine of election, at the heart of Calvinism, seemed elitist and aristocratic to the new way of thinking—very un-American. And in 1832 one of the founders of the public school movement wrote that the doctrine of total depravity was “a degrading slander that has stolen from man his self-respect!”[iv] Calvinism was seen as the enemy of mankind and so it was aggressively attacked and replaced. Henry James, Sr. said that “religion in the old virile sense has disappeared and been replaced by a feeble Unitarian sentimentality.”[v] Note his use of the word vir from the Latin for man. He is saying there is a loss of manly religion. This new feminized church was characterized by its sentimental hymns and theology. There was a shift away from an emphasis on victory, triumph, and Christ’s kingship to an inward focus, and a pietistic, mystical, emotional experience with Christ. Musically, the hymns moved from militant music to sentimental tunes. Additionally, the church changed the way it interacted with the culture. Until the 1820s Calvinist theology produced a robust and culturally active church. Ministers were political shapers involved in debate and actively promoting politics from the pulpit. The political significance of the Calvinist pulpit was so great that King George III privately called the American Revolution, the Presbyterian Parsons’ Rebellion. As Douglas notes, “the church which was once the meeting house of the town, the center for the vital community activities of worship, education, and business, was now merely a house of prayer, a place for words and not deeds.”[vi] Significantly, in this new paradigm of separated public and private spheres, the church removed itself from the public realm. Ministers were told by church leaders that politics was not the “proper sphere” for ministers, and these leaders warned that political involvement by the church was “always dangerous.”[vii] This view of the impropriety of the church’s political involvement dominates the discussion even today, almost two centuries later. It is difficult for moderns to imagine a time when religion was anything more than a “personal faith” irrelevant to public discussion. In this new paradigm of separated public and private spheres, the church and all religious matters were placed firmly within the private sphere, as was consistent with the new internal focus of religion. Ann Douglas describes the loss of respect – and even self-respect – that the newly emasculated clergy experienced. Attempting to redefine the role of the church, the clergy found a ready ally—the now-displaced industrialized woman who was struggling to find a new role for herself.

Attempts to Defend the Home

Technology was rapidly changing the work of the home at the same time that there was a loss of community, as people moved to cities and away from mothers and grandmothers. As a result, a proliferation of housekeeping books were published which not only tried to teach women how to perform household chores, but also provided an apologetic for the importance of the home, trying to convince women as well as men that the home still provided an important function in an industrialized world, in a world in which a factory can accomplish most of the work of the home cheaper and faster. In 1832 Lydia Maria Child wrote The American Frugal Housewife—one of the first of its kind—and it went through 29 editions before 1844. Child became a cultural icon and the book became the standard gift for every new bride. It is important to note that Child was not a specialist. This book was written from one wife to another. In 1841 Catherine Beecher wrote A Treatise on Domestic Economy – which revolutionized home management books – and became the Martha Stewart of her day. She covered a comprehensive range of topics that explained how to make a home function better and argued that the home should not only be a place of relaxation but a place of productive work.[viii] At a time when the importance of the home was under attack, women began also to forget the skills of the home. Enter the Home Economics Movement. Seeking a way to teach women domestic skills and to provide some legitimacy to the function of the home, home economists sought to apply scientific principles to homemaking and the factory became the ideal model for proper housewifery.” This attempt to make housework scientific, and therefore respectable, not only promoted domesticity but undermined it as well. The new scientific approach emphasized skill and technique over artistry (and even over flavor in cooking) and attacked tradition by creating a divide between the old ways and the new ways, and therefore home economics were promoted by Progressives in the public schools who wanted experts and scientific principles to replace tradition. Now mothering and the tasks of the home would be overseen by experts who combined “the rationality of science with the efficiency of business, replacing love, common sense and old-fashioned ways as guides for housework.” [ix] Technology, while an aid in the work of the home, also made women’s work seem easy and therefore less important. Technology afforded more freedom but “the net result for most was a diminished sense of authority.” The power that women once held now went to machines.[x] The final blow came when the domestic scientists wedded themselves with Big Business and advertising. Together the advertisers and home economists convinced women that the work of the home is best performed by corporations and that the assembly line is superior to the handmade. In this new era women functioned primarily as consumers instead of producers!

Women and the Church

Displaced by industry and technology and suffering from a loss of meaningful work in the home, women found a way to restore significance to their lives in some of the new doctrines of the church. The new feminized church began to teach that women were inherently morally superior to men and that their spiritual superiority was centered on their place in the home. A woman was an Angel in the House, the conscience of the household, influencing her husband who, in contrast to his wife, was carnal in nature. (This idea is a common theme in the literature of the time. The phrase “Angel in the House” comes from a poem of the same name by Coventry Patmore, published in 1854. In the US, in the South, this idea was known as the Cult of Domesticity.) Significantly, mothers took over the formerly paternal task of conducting family prayers, and “religion was increasingly associated with feminine influence and disassociated from masculine activity.”[xi] It was at this time that male membership in churches declined as well. The modern church has yet to recover from this shift and churches are still viewed primarily as the realm of women and children and the elderly. This wasn’t some unspoken doctrine; it was plainly taught, in books, magazines, and from the pulpit, especially in Unitarian churches. Rev. Daniel Wise preached thunderously, “There is a power BEHIND THE SCHOOLROOM AND THE CHURCH which is capable of neutralizing both: maternal influence.”[xii] Catherine Beecher, daughter of the Unitarian preacher Lyman Beecher (and the same woman who wrote housekeeping books and was the Martha Stewart of her day), deified the position of women and wrote, “To American women, more than any others on earth, is committed the exalted privilege of extending over the world those blessed influences, which are to renovate degraded man.”[xiii] A woman was no longer a helpmeet, but a redeemer of her husband. Sarah Hale, the editor of the popular 19th century women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book and the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, went so far as to say that “to bring about the true Christian civilization, which can only improve the condition of our sex, men must become more like women and the women more like angels.”[xiv] This moral elevation of women bordered on heresy at times. One clergyman in 1854 writing on “The Woman Question” not only asserted that the “womanly element predominated” in Christ but went on to specifically link women with Christ, saying “She must open the long disused page of the beatitudes among us, for manly energy rots among its husks, having dismissed reproving meekness and poverty of spirit. Let woman offer them an asylum; let her rise and take the beautiful shape of the Redeemer.”[xv] Some even argued that Christianity itself is feminine. One Unitarian minister writing for The Christian Examiner in 1858 announced that while “the ancient world was emphatically masculine… Christianity [had] proclaimed the Gospel of the Ever Feminine.”[xvi] Ann Douglas speculates that most ministers at this time had been sickly home-bound mama’s boys and they elevated feminine maternal influence so much because it had been so pronounced in their own lives. Once the church began preaching that women were morally superior to men, the issue of female ordination surfaced right away. Antoinette Brown arrived at Oberlin College in 1846 eager to study for the Christian ministry. She was strongly opposed by most members of the male Oberlin faculty, except Charles Finney. The shift in thinking of the time is demonstrated in her conversation with two different Mrs. Finneys. Antoinette Brown records: “The first Mrs. Finney used to argue and beg me to give up the idea. She said, ‘Would you set your opinion against all those learned and wise men?’ The second Mrs. Finney was very liberal and said, ‘Antoinette, always follow your own convictions.'”[xvii] The first Mrs. Finney upholds the authority of the traditional interpretation of Scripture while the second Mrs. Finney elevates personal feeling as the final source of authority. Miss Brown did indeed follow her own convictions and became the first woman in the United States to be ordained in the Protestant ministry. She later became a Unitarian and a prolific speaker and writer in support of women’s rights and other social causes. The connection between female ordination and this new doctrine of women’s moral superiority is further seen in 1848 in the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. Among other issues presented at the convention, leaders complained that women were excluded from the ministry. They wrote: “Resolved, that inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to women moral superiority, it is pre-eminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has opportunity, in all religious assemblies [emphasis added].”[xviii] You can see the giant can of worms that was opened once the church began to teach that women are morally superior; women wondered why they weren’t being allowed to run the show. The cause of women’s rights and female ordination is so closely tied that the convention also resolved “that the speedy success of our cause depends on the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit.”[xix] This doctrine of the moral superiority of women was happening at the same time that the clergy were avoiding direct involvement in politics; they instead were relying on indirect moral influence. And who would they influence? The only people at church, women! They taught that women were redeemers of their husbands and redeemers of the world. For by influencing their husbands with their moral superiority, they would thereby influence the public sphere. This idea of brides redeeming their bridegrooms has many significant theological problems, not the least of which is that it turns the picture of the Gospel on its head. For the Gospel is the story of Christ, the bridegroom, redeeming His bride, the Church. Additionally, the shift from direct to indirect political involvement may seem slight but the effect is quite large. Instead of the Church—capital C—informing public policy from a place of authority as God’s institution on earth, now individuals are encouraged to “influence” the public realm from the authority of the convictions of their own individual beliefs. You can see the difference. Combine this with moral relativism and no one’s belief is better than anyone else’s. This leads to a political stalemate and tyranny.

Women and Politics

Now, the clergy not only worked for women but also worked with women in various “causes” and reform societies. Not content simply to influence the public realm through influencing their individual husbands, women began to launch various social and political causes from their place of moral superiority in the home. From abolition and the temperance movement to the anti-capital punishment crusade, ministers and women sought to influence the public realm. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe who achieved great political and social influence through her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was described as being able to speak out against slavery because she had the moral authority of the home behind her. This led ultimately to the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Frustrated at the lack of success of indirect moral influence, women desired to actively engage in the public realm. Contrary to what we often hear, the issue of female suffrage was not about equality. The push for female suffrage came from a belief in the moral and spiritual superiority of women. An early slogan for female suffrage read, “A Vote for Women’s Suffrage is a Vote for World Peace.” The message was unmistakable. Men are the problem; men are the reason we have wars. Put women in control, and their moral superiority will usher in a utopia of social change and world peace. Consider the song “Sister Suffragette” from Mary Poppins. Mrs. Banks, the Edwardian mother who comes home from a rally for the Cause, sings about men, “individually we love them, but as a group they are rather stupid.”

World War II

This brings us to World War II. After the war, there was a great deal of uncertainty about how to reintegrate men returning from the war into society since women had entered the workforce in such large numbers. The popular Freudian psychiatry of the day insisted that if women continued working, this might damage men’s egos. The antidote was to return to the home of old. That women should care for the home was nothing new, but now there seemed to be a law laid down that women could be nothing more than housewives.[xx] Furthermore, the problem with returning to the home of old is that the home of old didn’t exist anymore. There was a new hunger in modern living. By the 1950s, kitchens looked very much how they look now. With the exception of the microwave, there really haven’t been any major advancements in kitchen technology. Gas and electric stoves, running water and modern plumbing, water heaters, refrigerators—these radically changed home life in the first half of the 20th century. Our kitchens today are largely the same as those of our parents and grandparents in the 1950’s. What does that mean? It means that at the same time that women were told to stay at home, there wasn’t much to do at home anymore. By the 1960s women were spending 3 hours daily in meal preparation.[xxi] Preparing food used to be much more time consuming. The modern 60s woman had all these time-saving devices, but they were not told what to do with all that free time. It’s no wonder that some women began to be discontent.

The Second Wave of Feminism

By the 1960s and 70s the stage had been set for the Second Wave of Feminism. A century had reinforced the idea of distinct spheres for men and women, with the public realm of men esteemed and valued over the work of the home. The Women’s Movement of the 70s simply took the paradigm of the Industrial Revolution to its natural conclusion. If the public realm—the male part—is the only sphere that is valuable, then the sphere of the home—the female part—is not just meaningless, but it is oppressive. The home is a prison if you believe that the goal for a human is to achieve in the public realm. If you want a meaningful, successful life, argued the feminists of the 70s, grab for the male—the public—world—out of which women have been shut. This is why modern Feminism focuses on women gaining economic and political power. And it is why feminists attack and try to destroy everything that keeps a woman out of the public realm; namely, marriage, motherhood, and traditional sexuality. Additionally, this belief in the superiority of the public realm is why the radical Feminism of the 70s centered on the issue of abortion. And it continues to be why the debate about abortion is so central to the debate about Feminism—because motherhood inhibits a woman’s public achievement. It’s why when a Christian says that he opposes abortion, his opponent will counter by accusing him of hating women. That’s not a non sequitur; it’s not an attempt to confuse the issue. That is really what they are hearing you say, that you want to keep women confined to the prison that is the home, that you want to exclude women from the meaningful, valuable life only to be found in the public sphere. And here’s the thing: if you accept their premise, the premise of the Industrial Revolution, then their conclusion is correct. The Second Wave of Feminism emphasized the loss of the importance of the home and the inability of the home to be a source of satisfaction for women. By 1963 Betty Friedan wrote that “vacuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”[xxii] Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique became a feminist bible and encouraged a lot of women to abandon the home, which was a place of unhappiness for many women. You can see the reasoning here: the home is no longer a place of productive meaningful labor. And what little work that is done there now isn’t enough to keep an intelligent woman satisfied. Even something as vital and essential for human survival as meal preparation had become so industrialized that it was stripped of any potential satisfaction. Consider the rise of processed food. The first was Hellman’s Mayo in 1909, and by 1954 Swanson’s offered a frozen TV dinner for $.98. Interestingly, the inventor of the TV dinner got “hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mother’s did.”[xxiii] Now fixing a meal from the freezer is so matter of fact, it’s an uncontroversial experience. But reheating frozen pre-prepared food does not produce joy or satisfaction (nor does it produce health!). Women looked out in the public realm where men engaged in productive labor and they wanted a piece of that action. Feminists argued that the only way out of the prison of the meaninglessness of the home was to abandon it and to fight against anything and everything that kept a woman bound to the home. And so women did. And in the 1980s Esquire magazine published an article entitled, “The Vanishing American Housewife.”

Modern Fragmented Family

Today we think of Home as a place of relaxation, a refuge from the harsh realities of the world, but not as a place of productive work; nor is it a place of any nourishment—spiritually or physically. The modern home suffers from fragmentation and the almost complete loss of domestic life. Homes function largely as hotels. Occupants sleep and occasionally eat at home (although many modern meals are eaten in cars as fragmented families dash from one activity to another). We end up with the bizarre phenomenon of homes equipped with gourmet kitchens, and the only appliance that is used is the microwave. “Between the 1920s and today Americans bought the argument that we no longer have time to cook—and even if we did have time, it was a drudgery we’d rather avoid in preference to leisure activities.”[xxiv] A 1999 National Eating Trends Report stated that half of all meals are now prepared outside of the home.[xxv] Fifty cents of every dollar spent on food is spent on restaurant take-out. That is staggering number! In the 1960s three hours per day was spent on food preparation, today it’s twenty minutes on average.[xxvi] Cooking from scratch is a lost art, now a specialized skill for expert professionals. Other domestic skills are disappearing as well. Inadequate housekeeping has been linked to the rise of asthma and allergies. And even the most basic skills, like very simple sewing, are vanishing. Boy Scout badges today are often stapled rather than sewn onto uniforms.


And yet in the midst of this, a hint of change has emerged. There is a growing backlash against industrialization and the loss of domesticity. What used to be consider hippy and fringe behavior is becoming more mainstream: organic gardening, owning livestock, making hand-crafted items, natural health, home births, home schooling. And many self-professed feminists are suspecting that they have thrown the baby out with the bath water in their rejection of domesticity. They are realizing that in their search for satisfying meaningful labor they have rejected a life that could be producing far more satisfaction than a professional life. As some of you are aware, there is quite a knitting craze afoot right now. Young women, professionals, young men, even punk rockers, are crazy about knitting. A few years back I bought my first book on knitting—this is when I was getting very deliberate about reclaiming lost domestic arts. The book I picked was highly publicized in Barnes and Noble and other booksellers. A knitting book! In the introduction the author, a feminist, explains how she realized that she had rejected knitting as a worthy endeavor ONLY because it was domestic, ONLY because it had been traditionally associated with women and the home. And she realized that there was incredible value to the handmade—value that could not be measured in dollars and cents. She learned that when you give someone a handmade item they can feel the love poured out in the act of creation. And as more and more people come to this same realization we are finally beginning to throw off the paradigm we received from the Industrial Revolution. People are realizing that a home is indeed a place of value, or at least that it should be, and that we moderns are suffering because our homes are not functioning as they ought to. As a result, a desire to reclaim lost skills and domestic living began to emerge. Last year Flylady, an online life coach who teaches women through daily emails the how-tos of cleaning, how to approach maintaining order in the home, how to approach laundry and meal planning, and how to cook from scratch, boasted 550,000 members. In 1999 Cheryl Mendelsohn published Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House—another highly publicized book. Mendelsohn’s book is not just a how-to, but paints a vision for life in the home. Flylady is about keeping the chaos down so your home is not a source of anxiety. Home Comforts is about making your home a place you want to be, an extension of your own body with rhythms and patterns of life that bring joy and peace. A home that nurtures. Interestingly, this book is written by a feminist as well. In addition to this general backlash against industrialism, by the late 90s and the turn of the century, what can be described as a post-feminist backlash began to emerge. Women realized that they simply could not have it all, that when they were at work they felt guilty about not being with their children and when they were with their children they felt guilty about not being at work. Women started leaving the workforce and choosing to stay home with their children. But once they got there, they were clueless about how to run a home, and as a result they experienced frustration and depression. This is a classic case of trying to “repair the ruins.” We see this in classical education. We acknowledge the bankruptcy of modern education, we try to reclaim the wisdom of the ancients, and we try to educate children without having been given a very good education ourselves. It’s very difficult. It’s the same with these women who desire to give their children the home life they never had. They have zeal, but no real idea how to accomplish their goal. We are cut off from tradition and the wisdom of the past. It’s not just that women lack job training; they generally lack a basic job description as well. There are no natural rhythms to the life of the home. The home of old followed the rhythm of the year, preparing food for winter, and then planting and reaping the harvest, for example. It also had a rhythm of the week: Monday was laundry day because laundry was the most laborious, physically demanding household chore; therefore, it was done the first day after the Sabbath rest. This weekly pattern continued throughout the week, all the way down Saturday, which was the baking day. This pattern even extended to what foods were cooked. Where I am from, south central Louisiana, Monday was traditionally red beans and rice day—because women could put the beans simmering in the morning, proceed with laundry day, and then at dinnertime, the beans would be cooked. But modern life is marked by no such patterns. For the woman of today, daily life is a series of fires that must be put out; she is constantly moving from one crisis to another. She is not running her home; her home is running her ragged! The Bible’s answer to the problem we face is Titus 2. But what do we do when our mothers and grandmothers have not taught us? The reasons for this failure are complicated. Sometimes these women simply had no real skills to pass down. Other times, there was the unspoken lesson that domestic life is not for modern girls; we were being trained for a different, a better, life.

The Church’s Response

What has been the church’s response to all this? The response generally falls into two extremes: In the liberal church, the debate centers on the issue of female ordination. We’ve already seen how the liberal church in the 19th century paved the way for female ordination. The bigger issue is that Scripture is no longer the final word of authority for church matters in the liberal church. That’s the far more serious issue. There are people in the liberal church who oppose female ordination, but it needs to be opposed for the right reasons. In the most extreme end of the conservative church is the self-labeled Prairie Muffin movement, which teaches that women are homemakers; they don’t need a college education, they just need to know how to tend babies. They don’t need to be challenged to think, they just need to be able to change diapers.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft addresses this very issue in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that women need a proper education if they are going to be true helpmeets to their husbands. They need to have their minds developed if they are to engage in intelligent conversation with their spouses. She further points out that if women are going to be instructing their children at home—which the Prairie Muffins advocate—then it’s even more important that they be given a proper education. This ultra conservative extreme confuses biblical Christianity with Victorian traditions. We need to look further back than 200 years ago to get to an understanding of biblical gender roles. The Prairie Muffins are trapped in the Industrial Revolution’s paradigm of the public and private sphere, teaching that women are homemakers and men are breadwinners. Following this paradigm has left them promoting a life for women that is less than fully human. The more mainstream conservative church throws around buzzwords, like biblical womanhood, submission, and helpmeet. They think that women need to be at home but they are pretty vague about what women are supposed to be doing there, other than that they should be “helping” their husbands in some way, and that they should be “biblical,” and that they should be “submitting.” These are all positive ideas, but they should initiate the beginning of the conversation not be the end of it. The church’s vague response leads to two problems. There has developed an assumption that any woman who is discontent at home is in sin. The conservative church is correct to emphasize the home as a place of joy. However, joy does not come magically from being at home. Joy comes from what happens in the home. Because most modern women do not know what they are supposed to be doing at home, they not only fail to find joy, but they often fall into despair. But for a woman to admit that she is less than joyful in the home is to be accused of sin by other Christians and even by church leadership. Of course we cannot discount the effects of sin or how easy it is for any of us to fall into sin. However, I think there is more to this discontent than just an unwillingness to submit to God’s calling of womanhood. These women need job training not a rebuke. For women of my generation who tried to be home-centered on principle but who lack any real domestic skills, it is constant frustration and despair. And the church has not helped by telling these women their problem is a lack of submission. Christians produce lots of book about being submissive, but the books I’ve quoted from today, the books that explain the loss of domestic life and the books that seek to rediscover the value of the work of the home, these books are written by feminists. Why are Christians not writing these books? This is precisely the instruction that needs to happen. These books will have to serve as our Titus 2 guides. The second problem with the church’s vague response to modern feminism is that the church and feminists largely speak past one another. To desire to find joy and satisfaction in meaningful labor does not make a woman a feminist; it makes her a human being. The problem is that she wrong-headedly thinks that the public sphere is the only place for productive work, that the modern home is largely meaningless. Christians and feminists are arguing over conclusions when they should be debating premises!


I sympathize with women who chafe at being told they need to be homemakers. They have grown up in modern, industrialized homes and lack a vision for home as a place where they can employ their God-given gifts and talents. In fact, we can’t even agree what to label women who chose a domestic calling. The socially acceptable term “stay-at-home mom” ignores every aspect of domestic life except childrearing. We moderns largely have no clue what is supposed to take place in the home. The modern home is a place of relaxation, a refuge, a place to be when you are not working! Women want to engage in satisfying labor so it’s no wonder they don’t want to stay at home. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that women should abandon their homes and seek fulfillment in careers; rather, I am suggesting that any discussion about gender roles must begin by acknowledging the radical change created by the Industrial Revolution. The discussion must also affirm the God-given desire of women to engage in meaningful satisfying labor. The question is not whether or not women should work, but in what kind of work women should be engaged. It is pointless for the church to command women to stay at home, if the church does not also teach women—and entire families—how to make their homes places of meaningful work. Ironically, the same Industrial Revolution that created the whole mess now offers at least a partial solution. Women—and men—are returning home and finding ways to engage in productive work as a family. Home-based businesses are booming and many families have found that homeschooling provides more than enough meaningful labor in the home. It is not the lie of Feminism which lured women away from the home; the feminists believed the lie of the Industrial Revolution, the lie of the supremacy of the public sphere. If the church will speak to the hearts of women, it must first reconsider the function of the home and find ways for our homes to be places of productive work in an industrialized, modern world. Women need more than how-to housekeeping books to reclaim domesticity. More fundamentally, they need a framework, a vision for what life in the home should look like. Providing this vision is the challenge for the twenty-first-century church.

[i] Zimmerman, Jean. Made from Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth. New York: Free Press, 2003, p. 126.
[ii] Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Doubleday, 1977, p.52.
[iii] See Wilkins, Steven. “Rationalionalism and Theological Decline.” America: The First 350 Years. Monroe, LA: Covenant Publications, 2005. audio lectures.
[iv] Wilkins, Steven. “The Public School Movement.” America: The First 350 Years.
[v] Douglas, p. 17.
[vi] Ibid., p. 48.
[vii] Ibid., p. 33.
[viii] Zimmerman, Jean, p. 69.
[ix] Ibid., p. 86.
[x] Ibid., p. 91-92.
[xi] Douglas, p.89.
[xii] Ibid., p. 97.
[xiii] Ibid., p.104
[xiv] Ibid., p.108.
[xv] Ibid., p. 110
[xvi] Ibid., p. 116.
[xviii] “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. “ July 1848.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Zimmerman, p. 114.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 157.
[xxii] quoted in Zimmerman, 111.
[xxiii] Ibid., 152.
[xxiv] Ibid., 173.
[xxv] Ibid., 153.
[xxvi] Ibid., 157.

* * * * Angelina Stanford has a Master’s Degree in English literature and was a classroom teacher for 10 years before being called to homeschool 8 years ago. You can read her blog here.

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