The Myth Of The Perpetually Unemployed Christian Mother

As titles go, this one isn't that snazzy. If you're willing to overlook that, we can move on to the fact that many Christian mothers feel ashamed over the notion of going to work. And while the Bible is not explicit that a mother has to go to work, there is no prohibition that she cannot. This blog post may be more of a history lesson than most. I hope you'll stick with me to the end where we will refer back to the Bible. 

The notion we traditionally have of the stay-at-home mother is from the Victorian era, and is an idea that we revived again in the 1950's. Prior to the gilded age, it was common that mothers earned a wage by washing or ironing other people's clothing.

In the mid-1800's, in England and in America, there was a shift back to the ideal notion that a mother's sphere should be that of the home. This view was promoted by trade and labor unions that promulgated the male as breadwinner ideal. They shut women out and did not allow for female membership, which greatly hurt women who remained in the workforce.

Wages were lower for women who performed equal work and conditions were often dangerous. The grim example of the shirtwaist factory fire was particularly gruesome and forced America to take stock of its flaws. Female workers from the company had protested its dangerous conditions, but their warning went unheeded by the government and their management.

Eventually, the horrid conditions inside the factory resulted in a conflagration that trapped most of the women inside. Women hurled themselves from the building, some already on fire, only to crash unto the pavement below, in full sight of helpless bystanders. 146, in total, perished in the blaze. After the public viewed their charred bodies, which were on display for identification at the train depot, action was taken and laws were passed to correct bad working conditions for people everywhere. 

As expectations of domestic tranquility grew rampant, women took up the domestic arts with fervor. Still a great deal of the work done at home was performed by   servants. It has been noted that many middle-class women also did withdraw from the workforce during this time.

It must be said, however, that the shift toward believing the ideal for Christian wives and mothers was to eschew paid work, existed mostly among the wealthy. Their homes continued to be staffed with paid female servants and schoolhouses were manned by women.

Grandparents and extended families often roomed together and would assist in childcare. Women of lower social standing still needed to bring in money and were depended upon by their families to do so. It is known that in Victorian England, as much as two thirds of women below the upper classes were employed in some fashion.

Prior to this era, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, it was not uncommon for women to earn a wage. Later on, at the turn of the 19th century, women were employed making watches, clothing and working in factories. Business laws made owning or operating a business very difficult, if not impossible, for women, and many women operated behind the scenes of their male-owned businesses.

Throughout time and across cultures it has been looked down upon for women to utilize their God-given talents. It is known that Mozart's sister, Maria Ann Mozart was an exceptional musician and composer. She performed and toured with her brother, even receiving higher billing, until she was prohibited from doing so because she had reached marriageable age. Only society's views toward women kept her from exercising her talent. 

In the case of composer Felix Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, she composed 460 pieces in her lifetime and is believed to have even exceeded her brother's power of composition. However, due to the views of women at the time, her work went unpublished under her own name. Her father believed that doing so would interfere with her domestic duties and, he therefore, disapproved.

Several of her works were published under her brother, Felix's, name and were quite successful. The piece, 'Italien', composed by Fanny was received with delight and acclaim. One night after a performance, Queen Victoria expressed to Felix that it was her favorite song. Embarrassed, he confessed to her that Fanny had written it. 

In reading books like, 'Jane Eyre', written in 1847, the primary theme was that of frustration over the stagnation of the powers of feminine intellectualism, as well as the narrow scope of women's paid work. Women's education was often regarded as superfluous and unnecessary and was in many cases, limited.

Even in the case of the wealthy Victorian mother who did no paid work, it is a misconception that she remained in the home. She was a political and social force to be reckoned with. Something which is often overlooked is the sheer amount of civic and social work which Victorian mothers engaged in.

Though wealthy women of the age were barred, almost entirely, from the workforce, their efforts were expended in fighting for women's suffrage, caring for the poor and later, fighting to pass Prohibition. The result of their work was felt throughout society and was wrought through women's clubs and organizations. The perception that the Victorian upper-class woman sat at home all day is fictitious.

Today we often regard the execution of domestic work all by oneself as a duty which is noble and almost heroic. There really is no precedent for this expectation, as throughout civilization women have had help from their daughters from other women, or from servants.

In the book, 'Of Human Bondage', the mother of one of the central characters warns her daughter, who is going to be married, not to attempt all of the domestic work on her own, but to procure a girl for the hard work, saying that it would destroy her if she did not. It is only a modern notion that a woman must do everything, and on her own. During the Regency and Victorian eras, among the classes of  women who did work, men and women were known to have divided home chores more equitably. 

Throughout history, we have stories of women who were burdened by the lack of opportunities, both work-related and educational. Stifling notions of women's inferiority in many regards have abounded throughout time to disregard their desire to learn and to express their talents. But, throughout history, there has been push-back.

In 1660's Mexico, Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, renowned for her intelligence and scholarship, voluntarily went into the convent so that she would be able to pursue her writing career and studies. She went on to become one of the greatest poets and playwrights of the Spanish language.

Jane Austen was known to have hidden her writing under her sewing and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the pseudonym, George Sand, in order for her work to be received. Shakespeare wrote of the character Rosalind who, after disguising herself as a shepherd boy, is able to experience a temporary rise in her freedom of expression. Forcing a person to forgo education or training or the use of their gifts can cause supreme distress, as women, along with men, have been each given unique giftings and talents.

In 1950's America, the stay-at-home wife was a sign that we had achieved a certain status due to our post-war wealth. For the first time, however, it was considered unfitting for a decent Christian woman to enter politics. The 1950's is also a time notorious for the frustrations of stay-at-home women.

Prior to this, during the 1940's, a large swath of America's female population went to work building the bombers and the artillery for the war, tasks which had largely been considered to be the exclusive work of men. Historians point out that many women longed for their wartime gains but found no equivalent in their future. For some, this domesticity was not a choice.

In the Bible, we have Hagar, who, unfortunately, was still considered a servant even though she was pregnant. It is possible to infer here that she was not barred from work due to becoming a mother. In the description of the Proverbs 31 woman we have a gal who is running several businesses. First she has a vineyard which she has purchased. Next she sets to making that thing profitable, which I'm sure is no easy task.

She also makes merchandise. She works with needle, thread, and material to make appealing apparel. Then she sells it in the marketplace. The lady is astute. She makes a wage, runs a household and obviously has children. And no one is losing their minds. We shouldn't lose ours either.

I share all the history above to demonstrate that whether a woman works and how it is viewed is largely due to whatever time and society dictates. When adopting a standard which we need to live by, it is important to make sure the standard is biblical and not man-made.

Do our children need us? Absolutely.

Should we ever neglect them? Not on your life.

There is, however, no biblical condemnation that says a woman who has a business or earns a wage is neglectful of her lot. She is helping to provide for them. And while scripture also admonishes men to provide for their families, nowhere does it say a woman cannot contribute. Only you and God know if and why you decide to earn a wage. The opinions of the rest of the world do not factor in.

What I love about the Proverbs 31 woman is that the standard of whether to work or not is never imposed. It is a choice. There is no shame for her doing it, in fact, she is praised. Her children love her. May we take the example of the Proverbs 31 children and praise those godly women who also help in bringing home the bacon.

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Thanks for sharing your inspirational post at the #HomeMattersParty - hope you'll link up again on Friday!
You made a lot of good points. It's too easy to become legalistic about areas of our Christian walk where God gives us freedom. Thanks for linking on Mondays @ Soul Survival. Blessings!
Lots of good historic facts here that were new to me. And I appreciate your balance. There's a whole lot more to be gained by attempting to understand and appreciate both sides of this issue than there is to be gained by judging those who make a different choice from me.

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