As someone who recently returned to part-time, outside-the-home work after 10 months at home with our two young children, I eagerly read Katelyn Beaty’s first book, A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World. A graduate of Calvin College and the youngest-ever managing editor of Christianity Today, Beaty speaks to an American Evangelical audience with whom she is very familiar. She argues that the way Evangelicals have attached gender roles to different spheres of work – women in the home, and men outside of it – has “kept many women from pursuing work outside the home” and it has “kept women from seeing the value of work they do inside of it.” The reality is that despite these “idealized” divisions of labour, women are working outside the home, in ever-increasing numbers; in the United States, 83 percent of women raising kids are working outside the home. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada study it appears that in Canada it’s 76 percent.
Beaty seeks to develop a more robust biblical understanding of work and culture-making for both men and women, and her premise is that since humans are made in the image of a working God and are jointly given the cultural mandate, “every human being is made to work.” Since women are human beings too, “every woman is made to work.”
Christians “work in order to live into God’s purposes for all of us” because we are called to “make something of the world.” To counter the assertion that a woman’s sphere of influence is primarily private, Beaty leads the reader through an exegesis of the Genesis creation account, Psalm 8, Proverbs 31 and numerous New Testament passages, convincingly making the case that the purpose of our work is to embody shalom: “We were meant to work so that flourishing, wholeness and delight would spread to the farthest reaches of creation.”
In the central chapter, Beaty examines of the role of women and work throughout history. “Working mothers” are not a modern phenomenon, even though the current struggle to “balance” work and home is certainly vexing for many women. Historically, especially in agricultural societies, men and women worked alongside their children in order to provide the necessities of life for their family and community. It’s the full-time stay-at-home mom who is the modern phenomenon. Corresponding to the economic shift during the Industrial Revolution that separated “work” from “home” has been what sociologists call “the professionalization of motherhood.” Christians compounded this move by assigning motherhood a sacred, elevated meaning that imposes impossible standards on mothers and “breeds deep inadequacy.”
Beaty offers women an alternative vision for a fruitful life, defining that fruitfulness as the ways we invest our God-given resources in order to plant seeds of shalom in God’s world. She encourages reclaiming ambition as something God wants us to use for his glory and the world’s good.
This book resonated powerfully with me, and I found myself nodding enthusiastically and taking copious notes throughout. One critical note, though: despite recognizing that homemaking is work, and the importance of un-paid work, most of the time when Beaty uses the term “work” it refers to paid, outside the home work. What does this mean for women and men who choose to be outside the paid workforce, fully “at home,” for a season or longer? Are they somehow failing to fulfill God’s cultural mandate to bring shalom not only to the private sphere but also to the public sphere? I can’t imagine Beaty would make this argument (the book’s title indicates it contains a Christian vision for the home, too), but I do wish she would have used her considerable discernment to flesh out the culture-making, Image-bearing value of unpaid work of parenting, preparing meals, doing home maintenance and all the miscellaneous tasks of household management.
I hope this book is well-read – and most importantly, much-discussed – within churches and among Christian women and men. I appreciated the strength of Beaty’s exegesis, the insights she gleans from history and sociology, and the way she highlights the work of influential women between each chapter. Despite my longing for more discussion of “home-work,” A Woman’s Place is a timely and important counter-point to both secular and Christian assumptions about women and work.