While reading A Woman's Place by Katelyn Beaty, I was reminded of the subtle actions that make women feel as if their work, gifts and calling matter less than having a ring on their finger or a baby or two. In the digital age, it's noticeable on social media – the ecstatic comments, celebrations and scores of 'likes' that follow a pregnancy or engagement announcement, that simply aren't replicated when a woman shares news of a promotion at work or an exciting new project she's involved in.
I don't believe this is usually done with malicious intent. But having spoken to friends about it in the past, I know that it can often feel that it speaks volumes about what women tend to receive praise for, and what life choices are valued in Christian culture.
Contending with cultural expectations about what it is to be a woman – those of the church and those of society – isn't easy. In A Woman's Place, Beaty attempts to cut through the destructive narratives about working women, calling for us to embrace work outside the home as something that's amazing, fruitful and can bring glory to God.
Beaty, Managing Editor of Christianity Today and the founder of the Her.meneutics blog, weaves the accounts of various women and also elements of her own story into the book – from being a smart child who was told she was 'going places' to a woman who, like many of us, has struggled to get her head around the societal pressures women face – admitting to feeling at one point that she had to 'choose' either success in her career or the chance to be a committed wife and mother – not both.
The book isn't simply the 'Christian Lean In', which Beaty mentions as being what several people assumed she had set out to write. And I'm thankful that it isn't: Beaty devotes several pages to discussing Sheryl Sandberg's hugely popular – yet also controversial – book about women and work. Yet as much as she highlights its truths, she also hones in on its weaknesses.
"Sandberg names the how of work – how to advocate for yourself and confidently lead meetings and navigate a company's flexitime and maternity leave policies – but only takes us to the far edge of the why of work," she writes, noting that Lean In has plenty to say to privileged women, but little to say to women outside the corporate elite. Beaty instead urges the reader to take a more critical look at the values of the modern workplace: "Instead of questioning the world that privileged men in the West have created - a world in which career advancement is the highest goal - we women are simply being helped to acclimate to it."
At its heart A Woman's Place is a call for women to cast off the weight of guilt and disapproval that they may feel regarding working outside the home – and for the church to support and uphold them as they do so.
Many of the women Beaty conducted interviews with while writing the book felt that Christian culture does not view working women in a flattering light, from the leaders that openly preach that a woman's role is to find fulfilment in marriage and motherhood alone, to remarks like 'Men don't want to marry a career woman'.
In hoping to change this, Beaty addresses a number of 'sticking points' for Christians in a way that should make all readers think a little harder about the ideals they champion when it comes to work and family life. One is the negative perception of feminism held by much of American Christian culture, the influence of which shows an obvious correlation with conservative churches and leaders doubling down on their restrictive views about a woman's place in society.
Another is the concept of the 'separate spheres' of work and home and the relatively recent preoccupation of with mothers devoting themselves to being the 'best' mother they can be and making the 'best' choices for their children – something that has only ever been the preserve of a privileged few, but now causes anxiety and shame for mothers from all walks of life, especially those who find themselves constrained by finances.
Quite rightly, Beaty takes the opportunity to call for legislative change, highlighting several times that even as American culture maintains an obsession with the sanctity of the family, parents struggle with the absence of paid maternity leave, inflexible working environments and prohibitive childcare costs.
She also discusses the need for a change in attitudes where men are all too often seen as 'babysitters', showered with praise for taking the slightest bit of interest in their children, rather than co-parents who play an equally important role in the lives of their offspring.
"Tasks and roles long considered fixed in biology or spiritual design are being traded, shared and handed off at increasing rates," she writes, concluding that this is an invitation for couples to craft a family culture of "industry, interdependency and love".
It was to be expected that A Woman's Place would critique problematic Christian assumptions about gender roles and the workplace. But Beaty takes this critique much further, with thoughtful exploration of gender, work, fruitfulness, gifts and ambition addressed to women with and without children, married and single – noting that working women need a spiritual framework for their lives just as much as practical support. She challenges the church to be more inclusive of its single and childfree members, urging Christian culture to move away from what often seems like an "obsession" with marriage.
As a feminist who works full time outside the home, has taken advantage of paid maternity leave and inhabits a cultural context that feels less conservative and more accepting of Christian women who combine a career and motherhood, I know that I don't face some of the challenges that many women reading Beaty's book may have had to contend with. But I've still noted the looks of surprise when people discover I work full time, noted the sense of anticlimax and even disinterest when I've told people I have big news and it's something related to my job, or one of the 'side projects' I'm involved in, rather than another pregnancy.
I was thankful, therefore, that those parts of the book exploring a theology of women and work take the reader much further than the oft-discussed themes of the glass ceiling, gender roles and the 'mommy wars', making it a valuable resource for all.
A Woman's Place successfully encourages the reader to look past insecurities, fear, judgement and prescriptive teachings about masculinity and femininity. It's a book for the woman struggling to understand how her calling to the marketplace fits in a church culture that only seems to hold ministry work in high regard. It's a book for the mother of young children trying to do the best for herself and her family. It's a book for the single woman, the woman in the corporate world and the woman who would like nothing more than to quit the workplace and return to the home.
In appealing to women from all walks of life through understanding that womanhood is wonderfully diverse, Beaty asks us to recognise that the workplace will best reflect the Kingdom of God when men and women labour alongside each other, remembering that we are all accountable for putting the gifts God has given us to good use.
Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge
A Woman's Place is currently available for Kindle and in hardcover from 1 September.