Do religious communities look favorably on a woman with professional ambition?

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In her latest book, author Katelyn Beaty says today’s Christian women should be empowered to feel anything is possible. A successful professional life should not come at the cost of marriage and family. Beaty says it’s time that conservative Christians truly celebrate the role of women in society and encourage genuine gender equality. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with journalist and author of “A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World” Katelyn Beaty.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

When did you first start to notice this tension between your gender and being a professional?  

Katelyn Beaty: “I currently live in New York, but I used to live in the Chicago suburbs and work at a magazine in the Wheaton area, where there’s a very heavily Christian subculture. I really found in my own life, that tension between what I wanted to do as a professional and what I was hearing in the Christian subculture around me. I started to experience that as I started to really gain some traction in my professional life. I often found that one's work, professional work just wasn't something that was being talked about at church. It was almost like the 40 hours that many of us spend in places of work every week, was just not a point of consideration or importance in those church communities. 

But also in many church communities, not only in where I used to live, but across the country, in evangelical subcultures, there is a suspicion of women who have too many professional ambitions and just a reclamation of women as nurturers and caretakers, wives and mothers and of course, nothing that I say or write wants to denigrate the the work of caretaking or parenting or nurturing but I think there's really something that the world loses when women are told they can only be one thing  That they can't be many different things.

Being a single person, I didn't really find a lot of space in the spiritual communities that I was a part of to bring my full self, including my professional self, which is a really big part of who I am. I had to imagine in writing my book that there were a lot of other women of faith who felt that same lack, that they also couldn't bring their full selves into their communities of faith. So I wanted to try to remedy that and to cast a more expansive vision for women in the church.”

Why do you think some components of the Evangelical Church still uphold so deeply these traditional roles for women?

Beaty: “I think a lot of evangelicals find references in Bible scriptures, especially in the New Testament that would delineate really strong roles between men and women between husbands and wives. Of course, so much of reading the Bible and understanding the Bible is interpretation and 10 people can look at the same passage of scripture and come to 10 different readings of what that scripture means. At least in the Catholic tradition, I know that you were asking about the Evangelical world, but there is some overlap there. 

Traditional Catholics would find a lot of robust teaching about gender differences and theology of the body and manhood and womanhood and how they complement one another in marriage and I think for a lot of conservative Christians today, whether they're evangelicals or Catholics, they perceive that there's a kind of blurring of gender roles in broader Western culture and that there's a trend towards that. There's a sense that they're something really valuable would be lost to them, if they don't teach really distinct roles for men and women and keep the gender differences really clear. 

That would be a significant reason why conservatives, including conservative Christians, in the 60s and 70s, and 80s really railed against second wave feminism, because it was perceived that if more women are encouraged to advocate for themselves in the workplace, then they will neglect or forsake or diminish the role of motherhood. That's where we have such a strong component of the culture wars over the last 50 years which has been about women's entree into the workforce.”

How does someone like Judge Amy Coney Barrett pull this off? 

Braude: “ In conversation with Catholic women after the New York Times piece came out, that Catholicism has, despite stereotypes, have done a better job than evangelical communities in affirming women's intellectual gifts and capacities. I have to imagine in terms of her extensive schooling at elite institutions, that Amy Coney Barrett found encouragement from her various faith communities to pursue that kind of intellectual formation and attainment. In terms of practically, how she has managed to, as you said, have a lot of kids and also have this incredibly time consuming and high profile position of power, she would be, I'm sure, the first to point to the fact that her husband, her life partner is 100%. behind her. Both of them probably draw a lot of support from their broader community so that it's not just left to the two of them, but there are many people involved in raising their children and managing a household. 

Of course, she is in a position of privilege, not only to attain the education that she has, but also to have that kind of support network. That's something that very few women realistically have access to. That's all the more reason why we need to advocate for workplaces and communities that affirm women's desire to be fully engaged as professionals and also fully engaged as parents and to be creating more flexible workplaces or policies that allow for women to flourish in both areas of life at once.”

Do you recognize the work done by women in the workplace by liberals and feminists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is an interesting comparison in this moment with Judge Coney Barrett? 

Braude: “Absolutely. When I wrote The New York Times piece, it wasn't so much because Amy Coney Barrett is a personal heroine. At the end of the day, if I had to choose,  I would more naturally resonate with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and much of what she championed but I could also see my own faith formation and faith community in the person of Amy Coney Barrett and that is why I wrote that piece about her. 

But absolutely, I would not have been able to, for example, attain higher education or advocate for equal pay or advocate for more women in leadership at various workplaces that I've been a part of including my own leadership, we're not for liberal feminists of the last 100 years, pushing for gender equity at all levels of society. 

So when conservative Christians are kind of tempted to throw feminists under the bus or kind of lump all feminists together, we have to remember that we have the feminists to thank for much of the inroads that women have made and we're a part of their legacy, we're part of what they championed and we now get to enjoy the fruits of their labors. And we would be remiss not to remember the sacrifices and the cost of what they won for women today, even though we also still have a long way to go.”




Andrea Brody