From home to the office: How work has changed for women

Whenever we talk about women and work, people get a little nervous.

Given the choice, many women would choose both family and career, not because they think they can “have it all,” but because they are created in God’s image. Part of reflecting God means working for the good of the world — and the world includes children, homes, workplaces, churches, neighborhoods, and any place you find yourself. The questions about women and work owe more to the constraints of the economic and workplace situations in our society.

We live and work within a broken system and marketplace that is built on ideas that do not often prove fruitful for working women. Because of this, many women choose one vocation over the other. The home/marketplace divide is one aspect that contributes to the “mommy wars,” and because we are so entrenched in this cultural divide we fight against the wrong things. The angst we feel is not because one woman is doing better work than another woman, but because the system is not designed to serve us.

Over the years, I have found that women actually have more in common — whether they work inside or outside the home — than some tend to think. It’s far easier to stay in our own lane, but when we move a little to the right or to the left we find that people really are all just driving to a common destination, just using a difference vehicle to do it.

I’ve swapped childcare tips with my working mom friends. I’ve learned about their contributions to the marketplace and been thankful. I’ve come to see that our marriage, parenting, and life struggles really aren’t all that different. Our nine to five might look different, but we share more in common at the end of a long day. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of women and work, I think we can all agree that both women in the marketplace and women in the home want to serve God in their work.

Looking back to move forward

Anyone who studies women and work, will encounter the “mommy wars.” The “mommy wars” is a phrase we coined back in the 1980s to define the tension between working moms and stay-at-home moms. Both sides struggled to see each other valuable to their families, communities, and society, as they attempted to justify their choice of working within the home or an office. Understanding where we are today requires looking at our recent history of women and work, and this starts by understanding why we are so conflicted about our work in the first place.

For a long time, we have attributed the problems with women and work to feminism and its growing influence on our modern society. That’s partially true. While the rise of feminism did contribute to many women choosing one work over another, it also held positive results for women who deserved a voice in the conversation to begin with.

First wave feminism emerged in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, but before that, most work was done in homes, or at least close to home and included both parents. As work was moved into factories and city centers, the home was no longer the primary place where work occurred. As women gained a voice in society through first and second wave feminism, they also began to wonder if life potentially involved more than work in the home.

The issues regarding women and work are not because one side devalues home and one side devalues the marketplace. I doubt most stay-at-home moms think an attorney’s work is useless any more than I think most career moms think their friends at home are lazy. It might be easier to make the conversation about that, but it actually only makes us enemies when we should be allies. It fails to understand the real struggles and desires that most women have, which is that they often feel pulled toward both home and career.

The church’s response to the divide

Many women in our churches want to know they aren’t failing in their work because of the choice they have made. They feel the pull toward their career and family. They feel the weight of letting their career opportunities pass and the burden of caring for kids. God created women to reflect him to a watching world, and this happens in a variety of ways — from motherhood to the marketplace, women exhibit his character. But the modern world is designed to make women choose or attempt to do both with little assistance.

Everyone always likes to use the Proverbs 31 woman as the model of domesticity and womanhood, and she is a great model. But what we often fail to recognize is that she was a woman of many gifts and opportunities — both within and outside the home. While we can’t look at her life and see it as prescriptive for how we should all live (wisdom literature doesn’t work that way), we can see her fruitfulness as owing to a system that worked in her favor. Her home was the center and it afforded her the opportunity to work and serve with fruitfulness and faithfulness.

We don’t live in that world any longer, so we must adapt. Instead of playing to the “mommy wars,” let’s encourage women in our churches that we see them, we see their struggle, and we value their work even when the system doesn’t.

Our churches can be a place of healing and support, where we acknowledge that no economic system is perfect, but we can all work with faithfulness, knowing in the Lord our labors are never in vain (1 Cor 15:58). Life in a post-Industrial Revolution system might not help us find a place to adequately fulfill our many callings, but it does allow us an opportunity to offer grace to those who are trying to make it work.

Topics: Calling and Career Choice, Christian Life, Culture, Work in History

About the Author

Courtney Reissig is a wife, mother, writer, and speaker. She and her husband live  in Little Rock, and have four boys: Luke, Zach (who are twins), Seth, and Ben. Reissig is the author of several books, including Glory in the Ordinary: Why Your Work in the Home Matters to God and The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God’s Good Design, and she also writes regularly for The Gospel Coalition, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and her own website.