"Ring by Spring"? Giving Women Alternative Futures

Here in Upland, Indiana, I’ve been told by reliable people at Taylor University that many, many of their young women come to college with marriage and family uppermost in their minds. I’m sure the same thing is true at many other schools. To aspire to marriage and motherhood is quite wonderful, of course, but since it is not obvious to everyone just how to pursue such worthy life goals while also pursuing graduate school and/or early career, many women simply don’t explore these latter options.

Here’s the constructive challenge: To set out a variety of life trajectories, ideally drawn from the lives of actual women, to show what might happen. Much feminist literature speaks of the value of an “imagined future” by which one might steer one’s life. Such futures, in this case drawn from real experiences, could be of immense value in helping young women make good choices in these key early years of adulthood.

Has anyone already done this sort of thing somewhere? If not, are there a group of people at a college or church who would undertake it and share it with the rest of us?

0 Responses to “"Ring by Spring"? Giving Women Alternative Futures”

  1. Peggy

    Ah, yes … the infamous MRS degree.

    This is an interesting challenge … and I would be interested to read anything that might come to you.

    From my own experience, one of the biggest challenges comes from the culture (mostly home and church) of these women. I remember growing up wanting to be a minister’s wife … because that’s what my mom was.

    I remember the day when I first realized that none of the “church” men were interested in a smart, educated woman who could “sharpen iron” with the men. They wanted a quiet, compliant, hospitable homemaker. They wanted a Martha … and I was a Mary.

    Some things have changed in the past 35 years, but some things haven’t changed that much, either.

    I ended up not marrying until quite late … my first child was born just before my 39th birthday. I crammed a lifetime of amazing experiences into those early 20 years … and now, with three boys (10, 12 & 15), I find that I am grateful to be able to focus on making a home that makes a difference for my family.

    It is a bit of a conundrum … there are important choices that need to be made, but there are few voices willing to speak to the breadth of the impact those choices make.

    Personally I am in the stage, after having wonderful “career” years, where the sacred role of homemaker is becoming both clearer and more pressing. Life for our youth is much different that it was for us. Our children deserve to be raised by their parents. We have chosen to sacrifice much so that I can be home with them. And it just a couple of years, my first one will be gone. It goes by way too fast!

    Sorry to ramble, but this is anything but a simple subject. Hope someone takes you up on this challenge!

  2. katz

    Since there are no jobs, you can’t get into grad school, and anyone attempting to start a career will be at a lifelong disadvantage, maybe they’re onto something…

  3. ahna phillips

    This is my first foray into a discussion on your blog, and my contribution is not brief! But, I hope it’s worthwhile to the matter at hand.

    First, I think it should be noted that young men also, not just women, come to some of these colleges with the tacit goal or assumption that they will find a spouse, as evidenced by the fact that these young women of whom you speak tend to marry their (highly willing) male classmates. It seems easy to assume that it is only the women who don’t have more of an “imagined future” for their lives beyond becoming wives and mothers; perhaps this assumption is derived in part because it is culturally more acceptable for women than for men to talk about their desire for relationship and family.

    Also, as has long been noted by others more educated in Gender Studies than I, English language vocabulary is shaped to be highly supportive of men’s sexual prowess and independence, while disparaging of women with similar behaviour or roles (e.g., compare “stud” to “slut,” or, “bachelor” to “spinster,” just for starters). May I suggest that Christians begin to notice the ways we are complicit with these cultural messages by the ways the desire for marriage is linguistically cast as various aspersions against women (who, as “MRS degree-seekers,” apparently function as seasonally calculated jewelry-mongers, according to the cutesy rhyme referenced in this blog entry’s title)? See, all of the implications are subtle but no less insidious just because they’re couched in supposed humour.

    As for the “constructive challenge” you set forth here, I think it will be a challenge, indeed, because of some of the reasons mentioned by the above commenter, Peggy. (Hello, Peggy, nice to “meet” you here!) She says two things that are of particular interest because I think they are highly representative of at least one major type of female “life trajectory” that is likely to be found if a study such as you suggest is performed presently (assuming I understand correctly that your proposed study is *of* Christian women, and *for the benefit* of younger Christian women). Peggy says, “Personally I am in the stage, after having wonderful ‘career’ years, where the sacred role of homemaker is becoming both clearer and more pressing.” Notice the “career” years were “wonderful,” but she calls her role as homemaker “sacred.” I think it would be difficult to find a Christian woman, especially one who married and had children relatively later in life, as Peggy says she did, who *doesn’t* basically view these roles as “sacred” in a way her professional life simply wasn’t. (Peggy, please correct me if I’m putting words in your mouth.) Similarly, I would like to encounter the academic and/or career-oriented Christian single woman in her mid-30s or older who wouldn’t say she’s willing to cash that chip in now for the wife/mother experience.

    Or, perhaps the point you’re making (and really, I do believe it is) is that the ideas of marriage/family and an outside-the-home vocation shouldn’t be seen by young Christian women as an either/or decision. However, until there is more evidence to suggest that this is, in fact, a false dichotomy, I don’t think this proposed study is going to accomplish what you hope it will. And actually, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities has already initiated a similar dialogue (http://www.cccu.org/professional_development/women_in_the_halls ). Beginning October 2010, their monthly e-newsletter, the CCCU eAdvance, features a series, “Women in the Halls,” which explores “the challenges and delights of juggling marriage, family, and singleness with roles in academia, as well as ways to model for students the challenges and opportunities inherent in an academic calling and in a woman’s life.” Six months (and six female contributors) into the project, and fully half of the featured women are single. If this series were about the “challenges and opportunities” in the lives of men in Christian higher education, I think it is safe to say the word “singleness” would in no way be central to the conversation, but it is actually unavoidable, at present, as a potential issue for women in Christian higher education (and, I propose, in most other high-achieving careers).

    This is where I’d like to suggest that the current answer for these young women at Christian colleges is less in hearing from older women about “achieving their professional potential” and more in having *both sexes* in our Christian colleges (and in the Church at large) re-envision the roles women can perform (and should be performing), and dialoguing about how the sexes can work together to accomplish this (e.g., actively planning for a couple to take turns supporting each other through graduate school). However, if I understand current statistics correctly, the situation is not that fewer women than men from Christian colleges go to graduate school (those numbers are about even); it’s that of the women who go on to get advanced degrees, they are much more likely than their male counterparts to remain single. To get to the second thing Peggy said that I want to reference (yes, I did say there were two things), it is this: “I remember the day when I first realized that none of the ‘church’ men were interested in a smart, educated woman who could ‘sharpen iron’ with the men. They wanted a quiet, compliant, hospitable homemaker.” Until there are more Christian men (and there are indeed some already, such as yourself, Dr. Stackhouse) who eschew that model of relationship and who are excited to see women flourish to their full capacity, I don’t think there will be much of a change from the current status quo. After all, if Christian young women face the very real possibility that being an accomplished intellectual and professional may cost them their chance at marriage and motherhood, that means their choice could be seen as rather a cruel one, if it is a choice at all. It is going to take a revamped mindset in *both* Christian men and women if these young women are to have genuine choices for their “imagined future,” professionally and personally.

  4. Debbie

    I would recommend your colleague Miriam Adeney’s book A TIME FOR RISKING: Priorities for Women. It certainly upholds the importance of family, marriage and children but it also upholds the lives of single women. The stories she tells in the first chapters of women who have loved and served God with every ounce of the energy and talent he has given them, throughout history and in different cultures, is inspiring. It might be enough to set a fire under some young women who have a limited vision for their lives. It might also be enough to challenge some young men to expect more from a potential wife. It’s just a book, but it could be a place to start. If I were still working in college ministry I think I would find a way to use it.

  5. Peggy

    Thanks for sharing, Debbie! That is exactly the encouragement I could have used … when the vision for what women could do was so narrow that I was hounded by my church/family to get married “before it was too late” … and did not have anyone speaking into my heart that it was really okay (perhaps preferred!) not to be married.

    Not that I don’t love my husband and children — I DO — but it is important for single people to be able to be seen as “also normal” and not pitied or pressured about having to be married to be a “normal” someone.

    …from one who’s virtual name is AbiSomeone ;^)

  6. j.morgun

    Great discussion,

    I couldn’t help but be tempted to share a little bit of my own story – working with younger women and currently attending grad school (hey Ahna!) puts this one close to my heart.

    As one of only a handful (like 3 at last count?) of married women with kids studying full time at a Christian Graduate school, I know from experience that such rare, imaginative paths are often lonely. I was married still in my teens, far before any of my friends could relate to the challenges of married life. I had both my children in my undergrad and had to live with the fact that my teachers and classmates would likely assume that I was either an oppressed women, promiscuous, or just plain irresponsible. Currently, I often feel (rightly or wrongly) as if can’t talk to many of my peers, especially those who have bought into the “MRS” program, about the stress of balancing home and school because I invariably get the “you should be thankful for your family instead of complaining” response. But I know, and my spouse knows, that life can be lived this way. Home life and scholarship walk hand in hand, inviting our children into learning while opening their (and our) eyes to what is possible when we live life together.

    There are however, besides loneliness, significant challenges. Like many young women and men who have spent time at Christian colleges, I have had to struggle with the hidden curriculums of such institutions that have left lasting impressions upon my relationships. It is sadly more socially acceptable for a man to sacrifice his family for study than a woman… so I can’t help but think of the competition I might face if I do consider post-graduate study in the future (though, perhaps a blessing in disguise). I also worry, as a woman in theological study, that the jobs just won’t be there for me at the end of all this (this is a reality that is rarely addressed within Christian education). It sometimes makes me want to opt-out the Christian education sphere entirely.

    It’s a mixed bag for sure, and we don’t do any favours to students by presenting it as anything else.

  7. peggy2of7

    Hello, Ahna@#4!

    Just a few clarifications: Actually, Most of my wonderful experiences were forms of Christian ministry, so they would actually fit into the “sacred” arena … but the sad thing is that family is not considered “sacred” by folks who “really work” — and don’t get me started on that one!

    And j.morgun@#7, I can relate to some of your scenario, as well … since I returned to finish my degree at our Christian University when I was 35 years old — definitely the old woman of the dorms, I can tell you!

    I did, however, meet my husband at college … and we finished our degrees together and graduated on the very morning that our first child was born. We missed commencement exercises!

    Our son was 6 weeks old when my home church honored me by agreeing to ordain me to the Christian Ministry. And yes, there are precious few ministry positions (outside of music, office, Christian Ed and children’s ministry) for women called to teach and preach the Gospel! It took me six years to find one — and it was awesome!

    But one of the things that struck me hardest about my re-focus on my children and home is that I left the pastoral ministry — that perfect job — to do it. And I was one of those preacher’s kids who felt last in line for Dad’s time growing up.

    The growing up time of our children is so small, it really needs to be a joint focus by father and mother … and it needs to be honored and supported by the church and society.

    When I pulled our children out of Youth Minisry, it was because it is our responsibility to teach our children what it means to be a fully devoted disciple of Jesus … and that is a totally different thing than what happens in way too many Youth Ministries.

    Our three sons are a blessing and sacred honor given by God — and I am learning what it means to be present to my family so that they see what it looks like to live in a home where God is the center of their home life, not where God’s work somewhere else is the center.

    Blessings all…kids call! :^)

  8. Ziggy

    Dr. Stackhouse, we meet again.

    You asked for an example of a group of women imagining a future in which they served both in as professionals in their field and as workers in their family. I am pleased to say my wife was in such a group at our church in Houston. They were the ones, in fact, who made it a point to sit me down during my wife and I’s engagement and interview me very carefully as to how I would support my loving spouse when she aspired to new career heights. As I am currently cheerfully supporting my wife through a construction management graduate degree on a post-Regent salary, I can say with little doubt that the system works.

    I would say my biggest regret in such a group was its transience. Now, my wife is the only non-Christian woman in her graduate program, as well as the only woman in our current church planning to earn a graduate degree. I’d say our single greatest annoyance at this point is the reaction of our church friends not to encourage her to continue on but rather to ask “when are you going to finish so you can get to your real work of having a family?” (verbatium quote) While my wife and I of course calmly and rationally explain where they can shove it (did I mention I love my wife?), I then see that the greatest push back comes from the young mothers who are my wife’s age, who immediately act as if my wife and I are simply delusional or something. As a feminist man happily married to a feminist woman, it’s quite aggravating.

    Sufficed to say, I’m looking forward to more Christian women with such aspirations. It’s getting a little lonely in the feminist evangelical pew. And I know there are weeks my wife and I come back from church, look at each other, and wonder if we’re the crazy ones for thinking she should wear a hard hat and manage a construction site simply because God blessed her to be better at it then just about everyone.

    PS-we don’t really tell people to shove it…but we want to.

  9. Christine Hammill

    I appreciate your awareness of the need to image alternative futures for women, part of this is because,from a practical point of view, some of these Christian women will not get to experience the joys of marriage and family. This doesn’t mean they are any less attractive, capable, maternal or charming than their married counterparts, instead it is in many ways an issue of simple math. According to a study published in the Wall Street Journal there is a 60/40 ratio of female to male evangelical Christian, and even outside of this, plenty of people, both men and women, will not get married for many other reasons and for a lot of these people, it would not be there first choice.
    I love hearing stories like Peggy’s and Jess’s — being reminded that marriage can work out in different ways than we stereotypically expect. In fact, seeing how many of my professors and fellow students, both at Wheaton and Regent, have created marriages in which they both participate in the parenting and in which the women can pursue careers as well as motherhood has given me great hope and joy. But there are many of us that will not have that particular thread to our story. Does this then mean a sterile, lonely and childless life? The alternative futures modeled need to include women that have remained single and celibate, often not by choice, but who have had rich, fecund and beautifully joyful lives serving God and finding family and home in the larger community of God’s people.
    As I hit thirty this year, still “ringless,” it is hard not to either buy into hurtful comments such as those Ahna and Peggy mention that would suggest something is wrong with me, or to enter into a place of jealousy that idealizes marriage and keeps me from engaging in the lives of those who are different from me in this (Jess). I think I would be almost impossible not to do one or the other, if it weren’t for some amazing single, celibate Christian women who poured into my life when I was a youth.
    The first one of these is Dr. Willie Nielsen, my 6th grade Sunday school teacher. Dr. Nielsen was a brilliant woman in the mid-seventies who had never married but had a successful career as a psychologist. She would stay after Sunday school answer in my millions of questions, reassuring me that the Christian faith was indeed reasonable and that God was going to do great things with my life. She has been one of the biggest influences in my life as a Christian and the love and knowledge she poured into me helped me navigate the rough waters of Jr. High and High school. I admired and respected this woman, and yet she was never married! This was actually a shocker for me at the time. I hadn’t even imagined a life without marriage that wouldn’t somehow be “sad” or “pathetic.”
    Through my High School years I encountered other women, single and amazing, who inspired my respect and admiration. I remember going down on a missions trip to Southern Mexico in High School and being thrilled to get to meet Virginia Embry, a missionary down there from our church. As I had grown up praying for her and hearing about her in Sunday school, she merited almost celebrity status to me. Ms. Embry had spent most of her life working with the Zaputec community there, translating the New Testament into their language. She was had chutzpah and deep relationships with the people there. Here was another future I could imagine for myself, happiness, fulfillment and success imaged in ways I had never considered before.
    Finally, there was a woman who worked with our youth group named Faye Tharp. She was on staff, doing a lot administrative work, mentoring and pastoring the girls and occasionally preaching in youth group. Faye was in her mid thirties and open about the fact that she had wanted to be married but that simply hadn’t happened, yet looking at her, there was no obvious “reason why” as I had sort of expected. She was slender and beautiful, intelligent, kind, capable and deeply in love with Christ. For the first time in my life I think I realized that I too may not get married, even if I do all the “right” things. This scared me, but as I looked at Faye and all God was doing with her and how full and rich her life was, even without the marriage she wanted I became less so. It looked hard, but it also looked do-able and good. I remember how when she was in Chicago for her new job with Focus on the Family and visited me at Wheaton, and we had an amazing talk about the challenges and gifts of singleness and celibacy as adults, a conversation that strengthened and encouraged me.

    I realize this post is probably much too long, but I just wanted to share a few stories of alternative futures as modeled by some amazing women of Christ that have blessed me. As a youth minister and student, almost thirty, single, celibate and no prospects of that changing in the near future I hope that I can model a healthy, wholistic alternative vision of what it means to live a full Christian life to the youth I work with. I think that the best way these alternative futures are modeled is in relationship, hence the need for families and single people, couples with children and those without to have fellowship together as the family of God. When we separate into groups depending on “life stage” we rob girls and boys of seeing adults whose lives are on a different trajectory than their parents– of course they assume that what they see modeled is the norm, or the only way to live a full, good life.

  10. Peggy

    Thanks for sharing, Christine! May you lean far enough into Jesus to feel God’s love and grace and mercy … and be set free from all worries … so that you may live full — whatever your circumstances may be.

    I am so grateful that you had such wonderful mentors. I knew many wonderful “single” women, but am at the end of that generation who were blazing trail … and happy that there have been some who have benefited from that work!

  11. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these reflections and provocations, sisters. Indeed, they are sufficiently rich that I can offer just the following thoughts for now:

    1. Throughout my career I have witnessed the phenomenon of many more impressive single Christian women, particularly in their late 20’s and into their 40’s, than impressive single Christian men. The ratio is better at Regent than other places I know of (such as your typical congregation or Christian organization), but still: What’s going on that such women don’t have an equal number of male counterparts?

    2. The desire for marriage and family continues to be reported much more frequently and as much more important by women 25+ years old than by men. Pregnancy is still entirely women’s domain. And “providing for your family” financially through paid employment is still an imperative in many men’s sense of self in a way I just never hear women echo, while staying home to nurture little ones is not terribly frequent in male conversation I hear, either. So the piecing together of advanced education, career initiation, marriage, and family (that is, the typical challenge of people aged 20-40) continues to look ‘way different depending on sex.

    3. We have to imagine various futures, therefore, realistically. Too many women throughout my lifetime have been sold the “Supermom” ideal: You can do it all, you can have it all, you can be it all–and look great all the while! So if you’re post-feminist or post-post-feminist or whatever you might be nowadays (I’m still a feminist), tell us what life paths might look like for women in a highly competitive and ever-changing economy; in a social environment in which men are delaying marriage waiting to be sufficiently established in life before a man will ask a woman to join him forever (and also, in many cases, waiting for Ms. Perfect–or, at least, Ms. Even-Better-Than-What-I’ve-Seen-So-Far–finally to arrive); and in a culture in which parenting actually seems to take more time than ever, what with our greater worries over kids’ safety, and self-esteem, and opportunities for development, and quality of education–all of which means we don’t just let them play by themselves for hours anymore, but instead arrange and then drive them to this activity and that tutorial and this team practice and that recital….

    4. So many of us are so afraid of unhappy marriages and of divorce–for all sorts of legitimate reasons, of course–that we’re waiting until we get our acts together and potential spouses get their acts together before we consider marriage. Yet there is a gathering case being made for young marriage: growing up together, learning and deciding and making commitments together, adapting to each other willy-nilly in the sheer reality of each other’s constant gravitational field while each is still quite malleable versus two well-established single people finding it more and more difficult to find someone whose equally well established and very particular preferences about EVERYTHING fit with one’s own.

    Lots to keep thinking about, talking about, and taking action over. Again, however, the simple point I was making is that those of us farther down life’s road can help younger ones by giving them as wide and as creative a range of vivid and realistic alternative life patterns as we can.


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