Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin, "Stay-at-Home" Moms, and Women's History: Part 1

It has been quite a while since I added an entry to my series on women in ministry, first introduced many months ago. You are welcome to review what I said previously, here, here, here, here, and here. A lot has happened since then and I'm not sure whether or not I will be able to finish it. But, I have found inspiration recently, so I have seized upon that in order to offer the following post. This was not "on the schedule," but hopefully it will offer some good food for thought.

Friday afternoon, after much tortured speculation in the media, Sen. John McCain announced the identity of his running mate: Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. She is a 44 year-old wife and mother of five, who has served in a number of capacities, from the PTA, to City Councilmember, to Mayor, to Governor. Recent reports show that US conservative evangelicals are enlivened and encouraged by this choice, for Palin is staunchly anti-abortion, not to mention a lifetime NRA member and opponent of same-sex marriage.

When I began to conceive of this blog post a few days ago, I didn't plan to reference Gov. Palin. And, I should clarify that I have no desire to comment on Sen. McCain's choice, nor even to discuss VP picks or politics in general. Instead, I find in Gov. Palin's appeal to evangelical voters an interesting tension that highlights a personal ideological struggle with which I have labored for some time: the overwhelmingly popular claim among evangelicals that God's ideal for women is for them to be a "stay-at-home" moms.

Now, I know that many of my evangelical brothers and sisters will protest that this is oversimplifying their position. That is to say, they would never condemn a single women who devotes her life to missions for not becoming a stay-at-home mom. Nor would they ever condemn a mother forced to work by her family's economic circumstances.

But at the end of the day, the predominant belief among evangelicals (and perhaps I should clarify, mostly white, middle-class evangelicals) is that it is the best case scenario when a woman is married to a man and caring for their children "at home." And, despite any protests, I know for a fact that many women are made to feel like incomplete women because they aren't married or because they cannot give up work for a life "at home." Books are written about it. Conferences are put together for it. And magazines obsess over it.

And that's one of the reasons I introduced this post with Gov. Palin. In my observation, the exuberant evangelical response to her is in tension with their familial ideology. On Friday, the world was introduced to Gov. Palin, she was flanked by her lovely family--husband and five children, the youngest of which was born with Down Syndrome in April. There is no doubt that it takes tremendous skill and ingenuity to manage a household of this size, let alone while she serves as the executive leader of Alaska. Gov. Palin is an accomplished woman and probably a great mother. But, in the end, she is definitely not a stay-at-home mom.

Even so, after McCain's announcement, political activist, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, released a statement praising Gov. Palin as an "outstanding" choice for vice president. Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission leader Richard Land has unashamedly admitted to recommending Gov. Palin to McCain as a VP pick. And, even the typically outspoken advocate of stay-at-home moms, Al Mohler, appeared to hedge his bets, saying, "If I were her pastor, I'd be very concerned for her and her family. But it looks as though she's found a way to integrate it all in a way that works."

[UPDATE: Since I posted this blog entry, SBC pastor Voddie Baucham has written a scathing critique of McCain's choice of Palin as VP, using a consistent view of women's roles. His conclusion is that Palin is really the "anti-family" choice. I do not agree with this assessment. But, feel free to read the original article here.]

Sen. McCain's choice of Gov. Palin has put evangelicals in an interesting position, I think. At the same time that they are thrilled with her socially conservative credentials, I think that if they stop long enough to think about it, they will realize that she poses a challenge to their commonly held belief that women are meant to inhabit the "home realm" with children, while men inhabit the social realm and lead. What will they do with someone like Gov. Palin? I don't know. I suppose we'll find out in November.

So, why am I picking on Sarah Palin? And why am I picking on stay-at-home moms? Well, let me say that I am definitely not picking on Gov. Palin. I congratulate her on her achievements and wish her well. And, I am definitely not picking on stay-at-home moms. I have no beef with women who are financially free to be the primary caregivers of their children and devote their days to working long, arduous hours, managing households and training up the next generation. I have no problem with them at all.

The issue I have in mind for this two-part post is the ideological perspective that women are intended by God to be stay-at-home moms. And, in Part 2, I will address one of the major reasons I think this ideology falls flat in the reality of God's world, the narrative of human history.


debbiekaufman said...

I'm going to look for that next post. Good points made Emily.

I remember Richard Land being on Face The Nation after the Convention passed the submission resolution, where he said that his wife does work outside the home, and did even when the children were small. I just don't get the doubleness of it all.

David Phillips said...


great points and good catch on the WSJ article. The pragmatic ethics of many in our leadership are astounding. They don't want to support her because she's a woman and should be at home raising her kids, but they have to vote for her because they can't take an Obama administration.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Debbie, I was unaware of the fact that Dr. Land's wife works outside the home. Obviously I didn't do my research in that respect!

I suppose I am looking at him as a representative of Southern Baptists, and since a majority of SBs support the "traditional view" of marriage and family, then he too, in theory, would support the ideology that wives/mothers should stay at home.

Maybe that's unfair. I'm not sure if it is or not. Nonetheless, for me, the irony in the situation remains, especially for someone like Al Mohler and others who have outspokenly encouraged women to be stay-at-home moms.

Thanks for the clarification, Debbie.

Grace and peace,


The Martyr said...

i heard Dr. dobson say to chuck colson that he would never vote for mccain hmm i think that makes him a liar.

CharlieMac said...

Interesting post, as all of yours are, but most of all want you to know I am still remembering you and Ronnie in prayer. Still hoping you can continue your thread about women in ministry.
This is a special blog site to me
because I can not find the where any scripture properly applied guides us to limit God's call to use anyone.
Charlie Mac

traveller said...

Yes, I have been thinking about this as well. Moreover, many, though not all, of these people would also believe that a woman should not have this position because she might have authority over men, particularly if she became president.

It seems there is a political expediency to the beliefs. In other words, I will forego my beliefs if I can get a person, even if it is a woman, into a position of power who thinks like I do.

This seems to lack a bit of integrity.....

Sandra said...

Emily, I took a class under Dr. Land at SEBTS and he also mentioned there that his wife works. She is a marital counselor. Or at least she was when I took his class in the summer of 2005. But I don't see "doubleness" in that fact.

traveller said...

While I think the announcement today that Ms. Palin's daughter is pregnant may provide additional interesting campaign fodder, my concern is for the young woman and how all of this must be affecting her life. She is 17 years old, pregnant, not married and her life is being monitored by the entire world, or at least most of it. Such pressure for one so young.

Michael and Jenny Clark said...

I think this is one of the better articles I have read on the Motherhood topic from Dr. Mohler's wife, Mary Mohler.

A Portion of her article:

"Lest you fear that I am about to beat up on mothers who work outside the home, let me be clear in stating that there is no biblical mandate that requires women to be at home full-time. We know Leah, Dorcas, and Priscilla were employed in some form. It's a personal decision and should not be made in haste. However, I am personally thankful every day for my husband who, like me, was raised by a stay-at-home mom and saw the intrinsic value in that decision. He would take whatever steps were necessary for me to be at home. We discussed this thoroughly before we were even engaged to be married. Too many couples wait until they are expecting and in debt to deal with this issue. I know moms who cry all the way to work because they didn't decide on this issue before they said "I do." "

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Michael and Jenny,

Thanks for the link and the excerpt. I hear Mrs. Mohler's heart not to "look down" on those who cannot stay at home. But, I think the point remains: the impression, whether explicit or implicit, is that the ideal situation for a Christian woman is to be a stay-at-home mom. And, if she is not, there must be some special circumstance that prevents it.

Again, I do not question Mary Mohler's intentions or support of mothers of all kinds. But I quibble with her depiction of the "ideal."

Thanks for the comment,


Janna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janna said...

Wow. Thank-you Emily. I love when I can come here and you've put my thoughts into logical words. The inconsistencies and hypocrisy of this nomination have been really bugging my heart. you are correct that it goes against most of what women hear from the evangelical movement.
(now to read part 2)

Anonymous said...

I like the points you bring up in your article, and would like to add something. Not regarding women working outside of the home, but about any person taking a leadership role when they have urgent family needs. It says in 1 Timothy Chapter 3 vs. 4
"he must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God�s church?"

This is talking about requirements for taking a leadership role in the church...but does the same not apply to a leaderhip role in the Government? With the issues facing the Palin family (teenage pregnancy, a special needs child, etc), I believe scriptures says Sarah Palin's attention needs to be towards her family.

I don't see how the Christian community does not pick up on this point.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I think you make a valid point. As I heard one conservative leader say, "Are you telling me there were no competent Republican women with grown, self-supporting children, who could serve as McCain's VP?"

Ideology and theology aside, whether a male or female candidate, I think the attention needed for family is a concern. I would say the same if McCain or Obama or Biden had young children, one with a disability, and one about to go through a teenage pregnancy.

Thanks for your comment!

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...

Just a thought. So the formula is...

"...young children, one with a disability, and one about to go through a teenage pregnancy."

Do all three need to be present before "attention needed for family is a concern."? What if only young children are involved?

Obama has two young daughters. If the demands upon the VP are strenuous, then the demands upon the President are the same and then some. Granted, his wife will not hold public office, but we would be naive to think the first lady's schedule is anything but busy, busy, busy. Why is there very little, if any, mention as to the concerns for the Obama girls like there is for Palin's children?

That said...I have enjoyed very much the comments posted and your blog.

Thank you.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Thanks for your comments. Certainly, I don't think any of us are saying that concern for the children of politicians is only a factor where there are special needs children and/or teenage pregnancy involved. Despite your reference, there is no "formula."

Really, what I'm saying is, if there is already a concern with a "normal" family situation, then surely there is even more of a concern for anyone in Palin's situation.

And, as for your question: "Why is there very little, if any, mention as to the concerns for the Obama girls like there is for Palin's children?"

I suppose the reasons are numerous. Obama has two children and Palin has five. Obama's children are past infancy, one of Palin's children is not. Obama's children are in grade school. Palin's oldest daughter is a few months away from giving birth.

These are very different family situations, calling for very different levels of parental attention. I think any woman with a newborn can vouch for that.

Also, Palin's party, the Republican Party, has staked their political life on their status as the "family friendly" party. And yet, here's a situation where it seems that family needs were ignored out of political expediency.

In the end, I couldn't help but be bothered by all the signs at the Republican convention: "County First." Of course, on the surface there's nothing wrong with that. Of course we want leaders who make sacrifices to take care of our interests.

But, at the end of the day, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the idea on an individual level. I'm not OK with Sarah Palin (or Barack Obama!) looking at her children and saying, "Country first." And, I don't think the Bible's OK with that either.

Thanks for your comment,