Women's Work


295841679Last week the Pew Research Center released a report revealing that women are the primary breadwinners of 40% of American households. Conservatives have interpreted these statistics as yet one more step on the road to social ruin. And I agree that they should give us pause—not because of how many women are in the workforce—but because of the staggering number of these women who are single mothers. But somehow, instead of focusing on issues like male abandonment, the conversation inevitably shifts to the fact that women are earning more money than men. The standard conservative response goes something like this:

“It’s not that women can’t work—it’s just better that they stay home with their children. Men should be the primary providers for their families.”

For the record—and perhaps in my defense given what I’m about to write—I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for the last eight years and my husband has been the primary breadwinner for our entire marriage.  Still, I find this response highly problematic. Not because I don’t value what happens in the home, but precisely because I do.

The problem with this kind of response is that it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of work and what it means to provide for a family.

One of the interesting things about gender issues—both inside the church and out—is that they are rarely about gender alone. Instead, gender is often a presenting issue for deeper values and assumptions--in this case, how we evaluate what it means to “work” and what it means to “provide.” (For those following the New Wave Complementarianism conversation, this post addresses Theses 17 and 22.)

A significant part of the problem is that we are still relying on the false paradigm of work vs. home. It is ironic that even as conservatives push against what they see as the fallout of 2nd Wave Feminism, they end up perpetuating the very philosophical assumptions that made feminism problematic in the first place. They continue to define “work” as something that happens outside the home and is rewarded financially. In context of feminism, this division plays out as an undercurrent of condescension toward women who have not pursued careers. In conservatism, it plays out by restricting men to the workforce and women to the home.

The problem is that these strict categories simply don’t exist. When God created man and woman in His image, He commissioned them to rule over creation by reproducing and stewarding the earth together. But not only were they to rule together, the very things that embodied their rule—reproducing and stewarding—also had to be accomplished holistically. God did not issue two commands but one command that exists with an internal tension and intrinsic interconnectedness.

Anne-Marie Slaughter highlighted this tension in her article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, that appeared the July 2012 issue of The Atlantic. In this now famous piece, Slaughter argues that the greatest barrier to the success of both the family and business is that they are pitted against each other. So that when we insist on a strict divide between home and work, we set ourselves up to fail at both.

Secondly, by defining a man who works outside the home and earns a paycheck as the “primary” provider, we unintentionally communicate to women that what they provide is “secondary.”

If by saying “a man must be the primary provider,” we mean that a husband should be the first to sacrifice his freedom by indenturing himself to an employer because his wife needs greater flexibility to care for young children –well, and good. But what I’m afraid we are unintentionally saying is that by being the “primary” provider, he is doing something more essential to the well-being of the family. We are saying that the greatest need of the family is financial.

That is not to say that money is unnecessary or that money is not a legitimate expression of our values. One of the most romantic things that my husband has ever done was purchase life insurance for me at the same time that he was purchasing it for himself. In this moment, he communicated that he understood what I contributed to the family. He understood that despite the fact that I did not earn a salary, the work I did at home—the boo-boos kissed, the noses wiped, and the books read--was just as much a “primary” provision to our family as his work in a salaried position.

Which brings me to my third and greatest concern. By defining “work” as what men do in the role of primary financial providers, we allow women to excuse themselves from stewarding the earth because we position “work” as a male characteristic instead of an imago dei one.

When we say a woman “can” work, we are, in essence, saying that work is optional to her identity. But as a person made in the image of God, a woman MUST engage in meaningful work that capitalizes on both her biological potential and her personal gifting. Where and when and how this happens will vary, but she must be working because work is what humans do--not simply what men do.

Don’t think this is problem? You’ve obviously never watched the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

It is, in fact, so likely a problem that the apostle Paul warned against it in two of his epistles. In Titus 2, when he calls women to be “workers at home,” he does so in context of calling them to "renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to [be]… zealous for good works.”  In I Timothy 5 when he issues a similar call, he cites that the danger of caring financially for young widows is that they would become “idlers... gossips and busybodies.”

Paul’s concern seems to be not simply that women would work outside the home but that they would cease from working altogether. When your physical needs are being met by someone else, the natural pressure to be a working, productive person evaporates. The greatest danger to a woman who is wealthy enough to stay at home is not materialism, but laziness. The greatest danger is that she would not keep working even as she is at home because she would think that "working" is what men are called to do.

As women made in the image of God, we must be productive, life-giving people because our God is a productive, life-giving God. How this works out in practice is undoubtedly affected by our various callings and seasons of life. But in the end we are not Cinderellas waiting to be whisked away from our work--we are Susans and Lucys bravely embracing our call to be Queens over Narnia who rule faithfully alongside our brother Kings.

So that in the end, the best we can say is about work and family is that a husband should provide for his family by working imago dei and a wife should provide for her family by working imago dei as well. If these new labor statistics reveal that men are failing to do this, we should be concerned. But we must be careful in how we express this concern. If we are not—if we insist on perpetuating the oversimplified categories of work vs. home--we run the risk of undermining the very thing that we are called to pursue in the first place—the flourishing of every individual as an image bearer of our infinitely complex, infinitely glorious God.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ If this post piques your curiosity, here are several more that address the issue of gender and work:

http://www.sometimesalight.com/1/post/2012/09/my-take-diy-pintrest-and-the-rise-of-the-new-domesticity.html http://www.sometimesalight.com/1/post/2012/11/mad-men-june-cleaver-and-biblical-womanhood.html http://www.sometimesalight.com/1/post/2012/08/dear-coal-miner-exterminator-cafeteria-lady-hotel-maid-and-anyone-else-who-works-a-less-than-glamorous-job.html http://www.sometimesalight.com/1/post/2012/09/on-being-a-stay-at-home-mom.html