Feminism and Christianity

During my junior year of high school, our school newspaper interviewed the senior class valedictorian about her plans after graduation.  When asked about her career goals, she responded that, after going to college and studying something of interest, she planned to get married and stay at home with her family, raising a few children and volunteering as a Sunday school teacher.  Her response generated quite a bit of disagreement among my friend group.  Many of my friends were outraged, lamenting at what a waste of talent it would be.  But many others echoed her response.  They, too, saw themselves eventually becoming stay-​​at-​​home moms, giving up a professional career to start a family.

I had never thought much about the issue until I realized exactly which of my friends fell on which side of the spectrum.  My non-​​Christian friends were usually on the pro-​​professional side, championing women’s rights and equal opportunity.  And it was my Christian friends who more often than not announced that they planned to stay at home, citing family values and the calling of motherhood.  As a Christian, I fell into the latter category, but as a woman, I felt I fell into the former.  For the past few years, I discovered I had a passion for teaching, and I decided I wanted to become a college professor.  It was a career I had no intention of giving up.

So I got scared.  I started counting how many of my friends had mothers who didn’t work.  I’d inwardly cringe whenever someone would mention wanting to homeschool in the future.  Marriage seemed more and more like a heavy metal door, waiting to swing shut on my dreams.  I didn’t think I would be a terrible mom if I had a job.  Objectively, I was pretty sure I could balance a family and a career.  But it seemed that, as a Christian woman, I had a duty to dedicate myself entirely to family life.  Other Christian women were perfectly ready to give up job for family.  I was afraid that it would be a necessity.

Feminism seems to be quite a hot topic here at Princeton.  Not in the bra-​​burning, violent rally sense, but with regard to fulfilling one’s potential and aspirations.  I’d say most women here feel the career-​​family tension pretty distinctly.  Why else would we get so outraged when Susan Patton tells us to get married?  Or turn out in droves to hear why Anne-​​Marie Slaughter thinks women can’t have it all?  College is a time of figuring out both your future and your worldview, and we are constantly trying to make those coincide.

So here’s the million-​​dollar question:  is feminism incompatible with Christianity?  More specifically, can a Christian be a mother and careerwoman?  “Mother” can be a pretty vague term.  Say you ask three different people what it means to be a mother.  One says it’s biological.  You’ve been pregnant with a child and physically given birth to someone with half your DNA.  Another says it’s legal.  You may have given birth or you may have adopted a child, but the law lists the child  as dependent upon you.  The third says it’s emotional.  You can be a mother to your students, your neighbors’ kids, your patients.  One of these definitions isn’t more “right” than the others.  But they all have one thing in common:  a mother is someone with a certain relationship to someone else.  “Mother” does not tell how to interact with anyone else, or with society as a whole.

There seem to be two different categories regarding what you think you will do regarding your future.  For lack of official terms, I’ll call them relational and societal vocations.  Your relational vocation is how you choose to interact with everyone around you.  Cousin, friend, economics teacher, random guy that smiled at me—all can designate relationships between other people and yourself.  Being, or not being, a spouse or a parent is part of this category. And both options are equally valid.  Maybe you feel called not to get married and focus more on the relationships with your friends, family, and co-​​workers.  If you want to get married, you have an extra-​​special relationship with one person, although your other relationships are still important.  It’s up to you to figure out how to structure these relationships and what each one means to you.

Societal vocations sound more official, but in reality they’re a lot less specific:  it’s how you interact with the world in general.  Newspaper readers, Prius drivers, and restaurant patrons are all types of people who behave a certain way. This is where the careers fit in.  Being a doctor, teacher, or volunteer designates some interaction between you and society.  It certainly can overlap with your relational vocations, and the two categories often greatly affect each other.  But at their essence, the two vocations are not the same.

The thing about a vocation, though, is that it’s just that.  It’s a calling, not a destiny.  Everyone feels as if they have some purpose in this world, even if that purpose is still in the form of I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with my life.  Your purpose is pretty exclusive—nobody can have your exact vocation.  It’s a case-​​by-​​case basis.  And the greatest thing about a vocation is that it’s what is best for you.  Your “duty” in life, as it were, is to do what you feel called to do.  God’s not going to make you become a ballerina when you really think you should be an astronaut.  Rather, He invites you to discover how you fit into the world.

What does Christianity, then, say about a woman’s vocation?  What if you feel called to get married?  The Gospels don’t mention Jesus saying anything about women or wives, but if you turn back a little to the book of Proverbs, it gives a pretty specific description of a good wife.

A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.

Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.

She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.

She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.

Who can find, indeed?  She’s noble.  Hardworking.  Resourceful.  Responsible.  Entrepreneuring.  Strong.  Maybe she’s a stay-​​at-​​home mom; maybe she’s a professor.  But whatever she may do, she does not waste her talents.  She gives herself fully to her vocation.  You could say she’s a feminist:  she aspires to live up to her potential.  For her, marriage is not a heavy metal door, and her work does not limit her character.  I am not shut in by the Biblical depiction of a woman.  Rather, I could not possibly achieve all it asks.  Each woman’s vocation is different.  But in the grand scheme of things, it turns out that we all have the same vocation:  to be the best women we can be.


Image: Felt suit by Joseph Beuys.

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