Should Women Work? A Historical Perspective

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Should women work? Carolyn McCulley addressed this question at Wisdom Forum 2015 by tracing the history of women’s work.

Watch the video above. Here are key excerpts:

Why we need a historical perspective.
“This question that we have and still wrestle with today — ‘Should women work? How should women work?’ — is actually a question our ancestors would never have understood. They would have looked at you like, ‘Should a women work? Do you want food? Do you want warm clothes on your body? Yes, mere survival requires all hands on deck. Let’s get to work people.’….

“If we don’t know the story of work, [we will] make the error of reading our own modern experience into the scripture.”

If we don’t know the story of work, we’ll read our modern experience into the scripture.

On Paul’s perspective of women.
“If we separate Paul’s epistles from Paul’s narrative examples, we’re going to miss the message. Because Paul partnered with women to advance the gospel. His first convert in Europe was Lydia, a woman who dealt in luxury trade called purple cloth, and he partnered with her to advance the gospel. And it’s arguable that the first church at Philippi met at her home.”

On Kate Luther, Martin Luther’s wife.
“[Kate Luther] married Martin, and he was not good at managing money…. She was very, very prodigious in her work. She’d get up early, work hard and all of Europe came flying through her household. All of Europe wanted to sit and listen to Martin Luther. They wanted to trade the news of the Reformation.

“Kate knew, ‘You know what? We’re running a bed and breakfast here. We’ve got to make it a good business.’ So she went to her husband and said, ‘We need to start charging room and board.’ And he agreed. That did not slow down the demand. There were more than 6000 entries that people took down of the conversations that happened at their table that influenced the course of history. And they were able to do it because Kate managed what was their income.”

How the Industrial Revolution impacted women’s work.
“Productivity was a family issue. But along came the Industrial Revolution. The first industry it disrupted was the industry that had long been women’s work — textiles….

“The Industrial Revolution changed the world from being self-employed artisans. (Now there are always exceptions; there were trade deals going way back. But generally human history was built upon people creating their own work and their own sustenance.) And suddenly you traded that to become a wage earner. And it profoundly shaped our culture. So much so that while some young, lower class girls and children were being put to work in these factories, other women were looking at the situation and saying, ‘Well, if there’s capitalism running amok, what must we do? We must refine the human soul at home.’

“So there was this period called the Golden Age of Domesticity from 1830 to 1850, where everyone said [that] women were naturally morally superior (not good theology) and they should be in charge of refining the character of men…. During this period, women saw themselves as being improvers of society.”

How the Civil War led to the missionary movement
“Then came the Civil War. And we lost 600,000 men in the Civil War and created the first gender imbalance in our nation’s history. Suddenly you had a lot of women who didn’t have family structures and needed to be put to work but encountered all kinds of barriers to being able to get educated or work.

“Interestingly, it was the church that helped solve a lot of this. The church was at the height of its missionary movement. They said, let’s put ‘redundant women’ to work as missionaries. So women took the cause of the gospel and went around the world to reach the lost.”

The home is shifting from a place of productivity to a place of consumption.

Productivity vs. Consumption
“Along comes the 20th century. And now the home is shifting from a place of productivity to a place of consumption. And this is where we are today. We’ve stopped seeing the home as a place of productivity but instead of consumption, and now we look outside and say, ‘how can we add value?’ This is where all the struggles we’ve seen in the women’s liberation movement have come.

“And Christians…have an answer. That is what you find in the parable of Matthew 25. What have you been given to invest for the glory of God? [This] means that your life is going to look different from the lives of those who are next to you. You have time, talent, treasures, relationships and opportunities to invest that are different from those around you.

“So should women work? Yes. They should work very hard for the glory of God. But it takes extra wisdom in a culture that separates productivity from parenting.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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