I’ve appreciated Katelyn Beaty’s work for years, as a woman, and perhaps especially as a fellow single woman (although I think that her writing is important far beyond that demographic). Today, her book A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World, releases. I caught up with her to talk about it. You can listen to the interview here.
Cara Strickland: I’m so excited to talk about your new book! Why don’t you tell me a little bit about it?
KB: The name of the book is A Woman’s Place and is essentially providing a positive theology of work and vocation, specifically for women. Some of it is cultural analysis, looking at the rise of women in the workforce and in higher education in Western culture. Some of it is theology, looking at what the Bible and the Christian tradition have said about professional work or secular work. And then some of it is also my personal stories of my experience at work. I’m an editor at Christianity Today Magazine and I’ve been here a little over nine years. I’m also drawing in stories of women that I met in my research, about their own professional work, how they think of it as a Christian, as a woman, as a single woman, as a mother. So it’s a balance of cultural analysis, theology, and personal reflection and I hope that it starts some important conversations for the church, both how we value, or sometimes devalue, professional work and then whether we have either implicit or explicitly told women that work is not something that they should really desire or really pursue in any kind of intentional or directed way. I’m hoping for good conversations to be had as a result of the book.
CS: What was it that got you interested in researching and writing about women and work?
KB: In my work at Christianity Today, I am often able to see broader trends within the Christian world, within the church, and I think a lot of us have noticed an increase in conversations about the integration of faith and work. We recognize that professional work is a way that we can bless our neighbors, benefit our communities, serve and honor God, and yet, I have found as I’ve seen that conversation really take off, I have found that the conversation tends to be either led by men or directed towards men. For example, a lot of churches will have a faith and work Bible study or a devotional group, and it’s affiliated with the men’s ministry. I think we have inherited a gendered understanding of professional work, and I am wanting to say work is of benefit and can be a call for both men and women alike, so really just seeing that gap in the faith and work conversation and wanting to come at it both as a woman and for other women.
The other thing is that I just really love work. I am excited to go to work every day. I feel very fulfilled and energized by the work that I get to do, and it’s a place where a lot of spiritual growth and development, personally, has happened for me. So my own positive experience of work has really challenged some unexamined beliefs that I held about what it means to be a Christian woman, and maybe in an earlier phase of my life, thinking that professional work was good as long as it lasted, but that once you got married and had children you would clearly see that work doesn’t really matter that much. I want to reframe that to say, ‘no, professional work can actually be a direct and central way that women serve God and live out God’s purposes for them.’
CS: You mention a lot of conversations, and many articles, and other books, in your book. Would you tell me a little about your research process?
KB: I am someone who really wants to ground my thoughts and arguments on the best of what other people have said and written, so as I approached this book, I really didn’t just want to sit down and type my own thoughts on the page, but I really wanted to root my argument and my thoughts in a broader historical and theological context. There were a lot of trips to the Wheaton College Library last spring and summer just doing research there looking at what Christians of the past have said about work, looking at what Christians of the past have said about women, and then also wanting to tie in what mainstream writers and researchers are noticing and noting about women’s place in Western society. There’ve been enormous changes just in the past hundred years regarding women’s work and entrance into the workforce along with women’s civil rights in the United States, and so I wanted to note those trends so that readers would be able to say ‘these are trends and changes in mainstream culture that we have to pay attention to as the church and we have to find ways to speak into those changes.’
So some of the process was just the really boring sitting at your desk or sitting in a library reading and taking notes, but then I also really wanted to draw in the voices of Christian women I know, so I held about ten different small group conversations and each conversation had about anywhere from 7-25 women in the room. It was basically just me doing a group interview, and recording it of course, and asking those women questions like: When did you first discern a call to the work that you’re doing now? How do you integrate the call to professional work with the call to parenting? What are some helpful or unhelpful messages you’ve received from your church community about work?
As someone who works at a journalistic institution, at a magazine, I really value quotes and stories and anecdotes as a way of fleshing out a bigger idea, that it’s not enough for me to just pronounce something as an individual but I really have to show what I’m trying to say. And I really just enjoyed meeting those women. I probably met a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five women over the course of a couple years in these conversations and I just met a lot of wonderful people that I’m still in touch with, so I’m really grateful for that part of the project.
CS: You write specifically about and for women with children, married women and single women. What was important about addressing these groups separately, and what were some things you found to be unifying between the groups?
KB: One of the reasons that I devoted a chapter specifically to motherhood, or women with children, and then devoted another chapter to singleness, or women who are not married, is because I think work plays a slightly different role in your life depending on the life stage you’re in. So, in the chapter on singleness, I really make the argument that this is a time of your life when you can really invest very deeply and centrally in your professional work and that that is not a second best or a plan B, but being single can actually enable you to really focus fully on the work that God has given you to do, and it’s not leftovers, but it’s actually a privilege to be able to do that.
For women who have children or want to have children, obviously there are a lot more practical considerations to take into account when thinking about work. Every woman has a slightly different way of integrating her professional work and her parenting. There were themes that emerged among the women I interviewed, but one of the things that I really wanted to make clear is that I don’t believe there’s any one way to integrate parenting and professional work. I met women who have young children and work full time and she and her husband make it work. I met women who once they had children, they felt like they really needed to back away from the professional world for a few years and then come back to it, and that works great for her and her family. Every family is different, every woman is different, and I don’t really think that there’s one kind of Christian way at integrating work and parenting. I wanted to show the range of options that are available to women, but I also wanted to say to women who have children, and who really want to work professionally: ‘that desire is good, and when you step away from work to be at home with your children, for those first few years, that’s a good and noble decision and it’s also a loss, it requires a loss.’ Stepping away from professional work, you really are saying no to something good and real. So in that specific chapter, I wanted to give women language to talk about the decisions that they and their family need to make and not come down on one specific option but show there are a multitude of options and if you do want to work professionally, you can make it work. You can probably make it work. What was your second question?
CS: What were some of the things you found to be unifying between the groups?
KB: I would say every woman that I met, whether she was single, or married without children, or married with children, just felt like their life was full, and full in a good way in terms of lots of important relationships and fulfilling and enriching dimensions of their lives. And then full in a more difficult way. The question of work-life balance, I would say, is not just a conversation for married women, or not just for women with children. Every adult who has multiple responsibilities, and we all do, has to figure out a way to pursue work while pursuing other really good, important things. So, that sense of ‘how do I integrate work into the rest of my life?’ Was a question that both married women and single women are asking.
I would also say that whether women were single or married, they weren’t necessarily getting great messages about professional work from their church communities. So, for the single woman, it would be people at church asking about your dating life or asking about your family life, like your extended family, but never really asking you ‘what do you do during the week? How do you spend your time? How do you spend your days? What are you enjoying about your work right now?’ Work was not a dimension of these single women’s lives that were really being engaged in the church community.
I think married women, and especially married women with children, would say, in the church, the expectation is either that you would quit working once you had children, or at least significantly step back, and that there were kind of these camps or tribes emerging in a lot of church communities. There were the stay at home moms and there were the working moms, and by the way that language is not helpful because stay at home moms are working in some sense, in their homes, and the professional moms say ‘well, I try to be at home at much as I can.’ So even the language that we have to talk about these different camps is limiting, but I think a lot of women with children would say that there’s a divide among women based on the life choices that you’ve made about parenting and professional work and that there can kind of be this suspicion of the other, and a defensiveness about the choices that you’ve made and a worry that if your friend or the women in the pew next to you has made a different choice that she’s judging you. Or maybe you’re judging her. So I really wanted to name the so-called Mommy Wars and how they’ve affected life in a local church, and also to really offer some sort of peace flag in the midst of the Mommy Wars. Even though I’m not a mom myself, I have seen the way that these things play out, and I think that there’s a lot more we have in common than what separates us, and at the very least, women need each other. We need to be for each other and be willing to reach across man-made aisles in order to support each other and understand each other. So even though I have a sense of what I would do if I were married and had children in terms of working, I recognize that as my own decision, or my hypothetical husband’s decision, and not one that I think we can say. I think there’s obviously no one size fits all solution for every family or every woman.
CS: This book is written for and about women primarily, but obviously it’s a book that is important to the whole church since men and women both make up the image of God. Would you speak a little bit about what you hope that men will get from this book?
Well, first off, I really wanted to ensure that the cover design was not floral with script type font, so I’m hoping that the sheer look of the book will communicate: this is for men, too. This is not just for women, even though there is a bright pink font type on the cover.
But beyond that, I start the book by saying that, even spanning farther out from professional work, that all of human culture was intended by God to be stewarded by both men and women, that both men and women bear the image of God and are tasked in the very first chapters of the Bible with stewarding creation together. And yet, when we look at all of our major cultural institutions and just basic world history, and even church history, we see that women have not had as many opportunities as men to steward culture and cultural institutions and to live into that call, to have dominion. That call is given to both men and women together and so we actually recognize that when the world and when all of our major institutions are run only or primarily by men, the world is really missing out, or missing out on what God intended for us as His image bearers in community. So, I think men just need to grapple with that for themselves, as individuals, as people in the workplace, or in family. Asking themselves ‘how am I either enabling or not enabling the women in my life to live into that Genesis call to steward creation? Are there ways that I could share that call or partner with women in that call? What do I do with the fact that we’re living in a fallen patriarchal society? How do we start to mend some of that broken way of organizing men and women, how can I start to mend some of that brokenness as an individual?’
On a more practical level, every man is in a close relationship with women, whether that’s co-workers at work, or your spouse, or the women in your family, or your friends. I think especially for men who work alongside women, and then married men, you’re in close relationships with women. Often in the home, the decisions about work, and work-life integration and parenting are going to be made in community, and so if you’re a married man, your spouse, your wife, might have either a call, or at least a very strong desire, to work outside the home and to really invest in professional work, and that is going to affect your life, that is going to affect the decisions that you make, that’s going to affect the kind of husband and the kind of father that you are. So for more women to be empowered to work outside the home, and to invest in their professional lives, there has to be a lot of good, deep, sometimes hard, but very important, conversations between husbands and wives about ‘what kind of lives do we want to fashion together?’ and ‘how can we fashion a life where my wife, my partner, can flourish in the workplace?’
So, I think that there are both theological and very practical reasons that men should read the book. Finally, I end the book by talking about what churches and church communities can do to empower more women to work outside the home, and it is the case that most pastors and church leaders are men, and I think, a lot of those men see that there’s a gap in their discipleship, or in their ministry to women in the church, and they just don’t know how to address it, and I’m hoping that some of the practical things I suggest in the final section can be applied by pastors and church leaders in a local church context.
CS: What is your hope for this book as you prepare to send it out into the world?
KB: I’ve had a lot of women who, when they find out that I’m writing this book, and I would say women of an older generation, so women 20 or 30 years older than me, say ‘oh, I wish I’d had a book like that when I was starting out in my career,’ or ‘I wish I’d had a book like that when I was 30 and having young children and trying to figure out, do I stay at home full time, do I work part time, how do I make this work?’ I think what these women are saying, in so many words, is ‘I wish I had been given permission. I wish I had been given the space to claim work as a central part of who I am and who God made me to be. A central way that I bear His image in the world, a central way that I bless my neighbors, benefit my community, benefit my workplace.’ I think what these women are hoping for is permission, and also to be seen, right? To be seen as women whose identity transcends any particular role, you know, the role of a wife, the role of a mother, the role of a volunteer, the role of a friend. I think these women are wanting a more expansive vision of what it actually means to be a Christian woman. I’m really hoping that there are women who pick up this book and read it and say ‘finally, I have the language to talk meaningfully about the work that I do, day in and day out,’ and also to say, ‘there are other women like me.’ Maybe this woman feels invisible in the local church or in her neighborhood or among her friends, but to say, ‘oh, there are other women like me,’ so that there’s actually a sense of community created by the book itself.