So then, what problem do I have with the predominant evangelical idea that women are intended to be stay-at-home moms?
There are a number of ways to approach this question and if I explored all of those avenues, I would write a book instead of a blog post. Since I doubt my readers are that devoted, I won't test their patience with that sort of endeavor. What I would like to do instead, therefore, is address what I believe to be a major historical myth often used to prop-up the "stay-at-home mom" ideology. That's where the "women's history" part of my title comes into play.
Conservative evangelicals routinely communicate their viewpoint using the argument that it is only with the rise of feminism in the 20th century that women left their proper place in the home to pursue employment elsewhere. In this model, a familial "Golden Age" is posited, wherein prior to the 1950s and 60s, women knew their proper place, were honored by society for it, and "family values" were upheld throughout the nation. (Let's not talk about the absence of civil rights, women's rights, and all that, of course.)
Conservative evangelicals would argue that it is when women began to abandon their place as stay-at-home moms that Christian values in our culture began to decline. In this regard, I have even read volumes where the independence of women (that is, the choice of many women to pursue employment outside the home) is blamed for most of society’s ills, including child abuse, divorce, teen promiscuity, increases in female crime rates, and even increases in female health problems. (Sounds a bit like those who would like to blame Eve for the downfall of the entire human race.)
Nonetheless, an honest survey of women's history, even if we limit the survey to women's history in the Western world, will reveal that this supposed exemplary "Golden Age" of stay-at-home moms is grossly inaccurate on a grand scale. In reality, the time period in which some (it is important to emphasize "some") Western women had the luxury of staying at home with their children, with no outside employment, is a virtual "blip" on the vast screen of history. The majority of women, most of whom occupied what could be called a "peasant's existence," experienced a long arduous life of labor and family. Indeed, the concept of separate spheres for women and men was alien and unfathomable until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
In the two-volume work, A History of Their Own, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser detail the developments, achievements, and changes in women's lives from prehistoric times to the present. It is their chapter on peasant women that I find the most helpful as we discuss the myth of the stay-at-home mom ideal. Despite the fact that the "known" women of history are the wealthy, elite noblewomen, approximately 90% of European women from the ninth to the end of the 19th century, lived in the countryside, experiencing life as a peasant.
What was the life of peasant women for a thousand years of European history? Surprisingly enough, despite differences of geography, culture, religious traditions, and language, the lives of peasant women for thousand years were fairly consistent. Anderson and Zinsser sum it up in this way:
"From the time they were small, children through maturity to old age, rural women expected to work. They knew no division of labor, no separate spheres for women and men. They worked everywhere. They performed all but the heaviest tasks having to do with the preparation of the fields and the harvest. They helped to plow, to spread manure, to weed, to reap, to thresh. They did all the work of the household. They gathered kindling, hauled water from the well, tending the fire. They gardened, they tended the animals, they also did extra jobs to make money needed for rent, for taxes, for necessaries. So they hired themselves out as day laborers or laundresses, they sold cheese and butter, they worked their spindles, knitted, made lace. And always there were children to care for, pregnancies, infants to breast-feed, all around and about the other tasks."
Does this sound like the men worked, while the women "kept house"? I don't think so. For the majority of women in the Western world, life revolved around the cycles of the harvest: harvest-time, winter, spring, and summer. There was no kissing the husband and waving goodbye as he headed off to work. In times of harvest, peasant women would follow their husbands to the fields, often with small children strapped to their backs, so that they could bind the sheaves, collect them, and pile them up. Hemp was also harvested for ropes and sacks, as well as flax for linen. Then she would do what was necessary to create flour from the harvested grain, the staple of the family diet.
Peasant mothers and their daughters prepared one main meal a day for the family. Some would rise at 2 or 3 AM on Mondays in order to prepare the breads for the entire week. She would be responsible for taking care of the family livestock and fowl, as well. The litter of piglets born every spring were her responsibility, as well as the slaughtering of the litter in the winter, being sure to use every possible aspect of the carcasses. (I will spare you the gory details!) In many instances, however, the livestock and fowl were too valuable to eat, so they were fattened and sold at market.
In the winter months, warmth and food were the obsession, for absence of both were genuine threats to family survival. Most families spent the months indoors, hovered around the hearth of the main room, fired with manure or some other cheap source of fuel. In the very poor homes, women brought the livestock indoors to promote warmth, and the family had to brave the fleas and lice that plagued them during the months they were unable to bathe.
But, most of the peasant women's time during the winter months went to providing cloth for the family. From as early as the 9th century, peasant women were responsible for all aspects of the family's clothing needs, from collecting raw wool and flax to finishing the shirt or coverlet. Indeed the primacy of the female responsibility for thread and cloth goes beyond written memory. Although peasant families were happy to have one set of clothes to be worn all year long, peasant women devoted much time and attention to the wedding clothes, bedclothes, and table linens that would be a part of their daughters' dowries.
From the end of March to the first of August, peasant women returned to the fields with their husbands to hoe, weed, and mulch the newly planted crops. And, of course, this was done in addition to their other chores. In March, the family vegetable garden was planted. In May, the women cut turf for the family's fires. In June, the women sheared the sheep. And, all of these traditions varied depending upon the region, of course.
Spring and summer months were also the time for laundry, with big washes happening about twice a year. And, in the last lean weeks before the harvest, the peasant woman used all available means to brig in extra income for the family. They cared for the new cow about to calf, the goats about to give birth, as well as the piglets, chicks, and goslings. Milk, butter, and cheeses were made and sold at market, with the same methods of production being used for centuries.
Of course, with this description of peasant life, we haven't yet touched on the major constant in the working woman's life: childbirth and child-rearing. The studies of recent demographers have shown that a peasant woman might have five to seven successful pregnancies at two and a half year intervals, if she lived a normal life span. "From the woman's perspective, she could assume that she would be pregnant or nursing a child for most of her adult life." (That is, from the age of 14 to around 45.)
I won't go into the details of peasant childbirth, but suffice it to say that the pregnancy and birthing processes were clearly defined "women's work," with the wisdom of midwives playing a major role, as well as the experience and camaraderie of sisters, aunts, neighbors, and friends. All manner of anomalies in the birthing process could bring death for mother or child, or both: transverse or breech presentations, prolonged labor (lasting over 24 hours), infection, dehydration, and malnutrition. After birth, peasant women breast-fed their infants, weaning them anywhere between one and three years of age. They would take primary responsibility for the child until around the age of five, when the older children would take over.
Beyond the work of caring for family through farming, slaughtering, weaving, sewing, and feeding, peasant women bore the responsibility for healing, that is, caring for sick and injured family members. Skills and insights into herbs and spices, incantations, and prayers were passed down generation to generation. Every symptom had an herbal remedy and "the accumulated lore of this herbal medicine gave peasant women a way to deal with the illnesses all around them."
Despite all this effort, however, death surrounded peasant women. Studies have shown that while rural women bore an average of six children in a lifetime, half of them died before they were twenty. Twenty-five percent of children died in their first year, and in bad times, this percentage could climb to 50%. The threats to peasant survival were numerous: bad weather, which made for bad harvests; scarce food supplies; cold weather illnesses (small pox, typhus, croup, diphtheria, whooping cough, asthma, rheumatic fever, TB); warm weather illnesses (dysentery, malaria, cholera, and typhoid fever); the Black Death; and the constancy of violence, warfare, and rape.
Through it all, however, the peasant woman continued to labor, maintaining as best as possible, the home, the farm, the lifestyle of her family. Even in the 1950s, after the war was over for women of the Russian countryside, one peasant woman had this to say:
And so now the war has ended,
I alone remain alive.
I'm the horse, the ox, the housewife,
And the man and the farm.
So now, after this brief synopsis of peasant women's history in the Western world (those who make up 90% of European women from the ninth to twentieth century), we are left with the question: Where are the stay-at-home moms? Where are the families where the men go out to work and the women stay home to care for the children? The truth is, in the majority of families for the last one thousand years, they are nowhere to be found. In the history of European women alone it is clear that the idealization of the stay-at-home mom is just that: an unrealistic idealization.
Also, I should point out that we haven't even discussed the realities for women of color in the Western world, most of whom have been adept "working mothers" since the first slave ship began landed in the New World hundreds of years ago. Female slaves in the Antebellum South cared for their own children, as well as the children of their white masters, in addition to the cooking, cleaning, or field work, for which they were responsible.
And, their stories have parallels to the stories of immigrant women today, who must leave their children at home or in the care of a relative to pursue multiple jobs, in addition to their jobs as household managers, to support their family and ensure survival. As with the peasant women of Europe, they do what they have to do, with industriousness, tenacity, and dignity, despite the fact that the privilege of being stay-at-home moms eludes them.
So, how were women of the early 1900s able to become the idealized stay-at-home mom that we hear so much about today? This topic is far too large to address at this time. But, the simplified answer is this: wealth. It is through technological advances and unprecedented economic growth that, for a time, the so-called "nuclear family" of the Western world was able to allocate special spheres of work to women and men. Interestingly, though, many suspect we are coming to a place in the slowing of the American economy, and that this kind of division of labor may no longer be sustainable. Yet, many evangelicals still cling to the image of the stay-at-home mom as the only right and proper (and God-given) role for women. This way of thinking seriously concerns me.
In closing, I admit that the information I have presented in this post is decidedly descriptive not prescriptive. I am not suggesting that the historical record is the only or even the deciding factor in the debate over women's "proper place." For many, much remains to be explored.
Still, as we look across a thousand years of women's history in Christendom, I think we should ask ourselves: If God's ultimate intention is for women to be stay-at-home moms, then why is it that only upper class, American, white women have been able to experience "God's best" over the past millennia? Surely God does not so favor such a relatively small group of women that only they, among all the women of Europe (and even the world), have been able to attain his "best" for them? I don't think so.