Article  Human Dignity  Marriage and Family  Work

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

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.

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