The story of work—and why it’s so complicated for women

March 7, 2018

Should women work?

That’s a modern question—and frankly, one that would puzzle our ancestors. They would wonder: Do you want to eat? Do you want warm clothes? Then yes, women should work!

For most of human history, mere survival required all hands on deck. But something changed in the last three centuries that makes us think that our modern experience of work has been the norm throughout time. If we don’t know the story of work, we could not only misunderstand our own times and culture, but we also could potentially read our current experience into the Scriptures.

For example, there are some who charge the apostle Paul with being sexist because of the instructions he gave to the younger pastor Timothy about younger widows, when he cautioned against women becoming “idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Tim. 5:11-14 ESV).

Was Paul being sexist here? If we think of “managing households” as the way we currently live in our homes, we could think he wanted to keep women “barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.”

But Paul’s own words need to interpret this passage. Why does he want women to avoid idleness? It’s right there at the close of the passage: Because he does not want to give the adversary an occasion for slander. Paul is being strategic, not sexist. He knows that women’s work matters to advance the gospel. He also knows that gossip destroys relationships in the church and undermines our worship of God.

Why is the issue of women working today so difficult—both inside and outside of the church?

Additionally, Paul’s example in the narrative accounts in Scripture show that he was eager to partner with hard-working women like Lydia, a dealer in the luxury good of purple cloth, and Priscilla, with whom he labored daily as a tentmaker. Paul’s example in those accounts is not contradictory to his pastoral epistles.

So why is the issue of women working today so difficult—both inside and outside of the church?

This is not just a philosophical question. It has serious implications across the globe. Take, for example, Japan. Japan has a problem that foreshadows the future for many developed nations: a falling birth rate. Its fast-shrinking population means Japan’s future labor force and tax base will shrivel, while its costs to maintain the elderly will grow.  

This looming economic crisis has forced Japan’s leaders to consider how younger Japanese women should be used to solve this dilemma. The question they ask is, are women more useful to the Japanese economy in the bedroom or the boardroom? Should more Japanese women be employed to grow the economy or should they have more than their average of 1.3 children?

Japan is not alone. This discussion is part of most cultures today, including developing nations, where education and employing women is seen as the key to poverty alleviation. What happened? How did economic productivity and parenthood become distinctly different roles for women?

The short answer is that this division arose largely after the Industrial Revolution changed the home from being a place of economic productivity to being a place of consumer goods consumption. This became more pronounced in the late 20th century as modern businesses began to prize short-term profits over long-term investment.

A Historic Understanding of Women’s Work

Historically, women’s work revolved around creating textiles and getting food to the table. These were not fluffy activities. They were vital to survival. They could also be done while bearing and caring for children.

The superlative example of feminine productivity written thousands of years ago and found in the Old Testament Scriptures—the paragon of excellence in Proverbs 31—was a financially savvy woman who traded in textiles, managed employees, reared her children, and honored her husband. She wasn’t a real woman, but a portrait of what wisdom and excellence looked like in the virtuous woman. Her profitable activities dominated this picture, and she was commended for them.

Travel through time and you soon find industrious women like Kate Luther, the wife of Martin Luther in the Reformation era, and Sarah Edwards, the wife of theologian Jonathan Edwards, in colonial America. These women were married to men whose writing and teaching profoundly affected their eras, but those activities weren’t always profitable. Their husbands were not the sole income-producers. Instead, their wives managed the estates that generated their family’s income, and did so while rearing large families and housing numerous guests.

The Industrial Revolution and the Wage-earner

Their children also saw how their parents worked and were involved in keeping the family fed, clothed, and housed. There was no “take your kid to work” day because with only a few exceptions, most children grew up seeing their parents work. But that shifted when the Industrial Revolution arrived. What had once been typical of American productivity—the self-employed proprietor, farmer, and artisan—gave way to the wage-earner.

Ironically, when the Industrial Revolution arrived in the U.S., it began by disrupting the textile industry. The work that had been largely done by women in their homes was now outsourced to the large textile mills of New England. These mills, in turn, hired young women to work long hours and live in factory towns—the famous Lowell Mill girls. In the 20 years following the start of the American Civil War, the size of the U.S. industrial labor force doubled. Then it nearly doubled again in the next 10 years, between 1880 and 1890.

Children were also affected by the Industrial Revolution. They had been an early supply of cheap and nimble factory labor. But the 19th-century reform movements—largely driven by women—curtailed the abusive practices surrounding child labor. That was good for the children, but it meant if families could not labor together, then families had to decide how they would earn money and care for their children.

Women were employed in increasing numbers through the 1920s, but the Depression in the 1930s created a backlash against working women. Employed women faced great hostility because they were seen as taking a job from a man who needed to provide for his family. That attitude was so prevalent that in 1932, Congress passed the U.S. Economy Act, prohibiting the federal government from employing two people from the same family, and 26 states passed legislation prohibiting married women from holding any jobs at all, including teaching.

But World War II radically changed that view. During the war, the U.S. government ran a huge campaign out of its Office of War Information to persuade women to join the workforce to manufacture war materials. They ran more than 125 MILLION ads to do this. That was nearly equal to the number of people living in the U.S. at the time! In response, six million women took on industrial jobs in shipyards, lumber mills, steel mills, and industrial laboratories—and they were good at it. In May 1942, Business Week reported that airplane plants considered women 50 to 100 percent more efficient than men in wiring instrument panels due to greater attention to detail.

A “New Normal” that Doesn’t Satisfy

Postwar, after decades of upheaval, everyone was eager to create a "new normal." The expanded manufacturing base began to churn enormous numbers of consumer goods. The dawn of national television in 1951 provided a way to showcase modern families living with these goods. As the economy grew, so did the middle class. While spending on food rose by a modest 33 percent in the five years following the end of World War II, purchases of household appliances and furnishings jumped by 240 percent.

Now here is the important point: This was the culmination of a trend that had been developing since the 19th century. The home's transition from a place of productivity—as it had been for all of human history—to a place of consumption was now complete. This significant and profound change now shapes our modern assumptions about the home, and it colors the way we think about the Bible's passages that mention the home. But there, in the idealized 1950s, while the home was undergoing this tremendous shift, more women were entering the workforce. By 1952, there were actually two million more working wives in the labor force than at the height of World War II, and there was a 400 percent increase in working mothers throughout the decade.

This gap—the gap between the advertising propaganda designed to sell household goods to a consumerist culture—and the reality that having more stuff doesn’t really satisfy the soul is where the women's liberation movement was born in the early 1960s. As Betty Friedan wrote in her influential 1963 book that kicked off the movement, women need "some higher purpose than housework and thing-buying."

She’s right. But the unfortunate thing is that even Betty Friedan refuted some of her own ideas by the end of her life. Though the women’s liberation movement did enact some needed legal changes in terms of equal pay for equal work, the movement did not overcome one of the most significant tensions for women in fulfilling the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 to both “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth and subdue it.” Instead, it added to the overload by maintaining that it was possible to “have it all” and all at the same time.

For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, reality set in and there was a sub-group of feminists who pushed back at the ideas that there were no differences between men and women and that gender was a social construct, and instead said that the truly radical thing would be to legitimize the differences between women and men, especially with regard to their windows of fertility, and create a different life sequence for women that honored the time out needed for bearing and caring for children without penalty to future productivity and job opportunities. This group, called the Sequencers, lost the argument, which was truly a blow for our culture at large.

Stewarding our talents over time

So how then should we resolve this tension? I submit that the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 helps Christians to think eternally about productivity.

The policies and practices of our modern workforce are not family-friendly for either men or women. I hope these issues will change in the near future, but I’m not certain they will or how it will be accomplished. But I am certain that this dilemma does not escape the Lord. Whether in biblical times or today, he is the one who gives us the time, talents, treasures, relationships, opportunities and capacities that need to be stewarded and invested for his glory. We are not in charge of what we have received in any of those areas, but we are held accountable for how we invest them. This stewardship idea means we do not need to compare ourselves—our lives are not going to look like anyone else’s, for we have specific opportunities, capacities, and talents to invest for God’s glory.

Please note the inclusion of “capacities.” Not everyone has the same energy levels or ability to juggle stress. Please also note the inclusion of “opportunities.” It takes wisdom to know which opportunities need to be invested in immediately and which could be simmered until a less busy season in the future. This is where the idea of “having it all” is unhelpful. Those of us who have lived a few decades know you may have it all, but not all at the same time, and usually not without a lot of stress. Because we only speak about women’s life for the first 20 or so years of an adult woman’s life, we have not developed vision for what women can and should do in the second half of life. Seeing a woman’s life and productivity through the entire arc of her life helps us understand that you may put the Great American Novel on hold for a better time but you can’t put your toddler on hold. The growing is going to happen no matter what.

The story of work helps us to understand that our modern experience of parenting and productivity is not the norm in history, but it presents an opportunity to live thoughtfully and strategically as stewards of all we have received, meriting praise from our Master and an invitation to enter into his joy.

This article was adapted from The Measure of Success. Carolyn McCulley is a documentary filmmaker and is the founder of Citygate Films in Virginia.

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker, and filmmaker. She has written three books —The Measure of Success, Radical Womanhood, and Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? — and contributed to the ESV Women's Devotional Bible, Mom Enough: The Fearless Mother’s Heart and Hope, and Sex and the Supremacy of Christ. Carolyn is an award-winning producer/director/editor … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24