Chained to the Kitchen Sink?

March 01, 2010

Chained to the Kitchen Sink?

Any comprehensive apologetic for the Christian faith in a late-modern Western context will need to include a response of some sort to the widely-held suspicion that Christianity (both Christianity in general and conservative Christianity in particular) is responsible for perpetuating a domestic enslavement of women.

The criticism is a common one in our own day, and is grounded in at least a century and a half of Marxist and Feminist critique of bourgeois morality and traditional patriarchal social arrangements – arrangements for which Christianity is frequently perceived as providing the ideological legitimation. 

Women and Housework in Marxist and Feminist Perspective

Whilst the early writings of Marx and Engels were frequently quite conservative in the stance which they took toward the ‘woman question’,[1] some of their later pronouncements on the subject were scathingly critical of the way in which capitalist societies tended to exclude women from the offices, factories and mines of the industrial economy, confining their work to the domestic sphere. 

In his famous 1884 work on The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State,[2] for example, Engels argued that:

The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree. (p152)

Nearly a century later, in The Feminine Mystique – one of the formative texts of the second wave of feminism – Betty Friedan sounded a similar note.  In writing about the ‘trapped wife syndrome’, she depicted the domestic work of suburban middle-class women as a kind of enslavement, leading to a metaphorical death. 

Much of the force of Friedan’s critique came from the particular social and economic circumstances of post-war suburban America.  The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century had created a separation between work and home which the middle-class dormitory suburbs of the post-war era had turned into a gaping gulf.  In the post-war suburban home, complete with electric power and running water (hot and cold) and a dazzling array of new labour-saving devices, work that would have once required a long, full day of strenuous physical effort could be knocked over in a couple of hours. If the cottage industries of pre-industrial society had been killed off by the superior efficiency of the capitalist offices and factories, and even the domestic labour of the home had been so transformed by the fancy new electrical goods in the kitchen and the laundry, then the economic function of the home (and of the housewife) was effectively transformed from one of production to one of consumption. 

Thus, a big part of Friedan’s critique was – in effect – a critique of consumer capitalism, and the way in which the social role created for the suburban housewife pulled her out of the productive economy and oriented her economic existence entirely toward consumption.[3] 

But the malaise Friedan described was not merely an economic one: linked with the predicament of economic dependence and the lack of access to paid work was the question of personal identity and significance.  If the day’s activity was made up of a series of seemingly trivial acts of consumption and (unpaid) labour in the isolation and invisibility of the private sphere, then a demoralising, unutterable question lurked threateningly in the shadowsIs this all?’[4]

Whilst the changes of the last fifty years have made the world of paid work far more accessible to married women with children than it was in Friedan’s day, and popular discourse about women’s work is frequently framed these days in terms of ‘choices’,[5] there are still influential voices raised in criticism of women who exercise their choice by staying home to look after a house and take care of young children. 

In a widely-discussed 1995 article, Linda Hirshman railed against ‘choice based feminism’, arguing that women were in fact making bad choices in choosing to stay at home and be responsible for child-rearing and home-based labour.  This line of attack was further developed in her book Get to Work, in which she argued:                                                                                                                                       

Bounding home is not good for women and it's not good for the society. They aren't using their capacities fully; their so-called free choice makes them unfree dependents on their husbands. Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education are lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos…  Child care and housekeeping have satisfying moments but are not occupations likely to produce a flourishing life.[6]

In a later article, Hirshman placed the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of conservative Christians:                          

The aggressive domesticity is not coming only from a bunch of women who can't manage all the demands on their time. Time and again, when I could identify the sources of the most rabid criticism and Google them, male and female, they had fundamentalist religious stuff on their Web sites.[7]

Pointing the finger at conservative Christians as the source of this domesticity is not a new development. In her epoch-defining 1949 work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir was sharply critical in her description of Christianity as ‘express[ing] and serv[ing] a patriarchal civilisation where it is befitting for woman to be annexed to man … [as] his docile servant.’[8]  Twenty-one years later, writing with conscious indebtedness to de Beauvoir, Mary Daly argued that Christianity was every bit as guilty as de Beauvoir had alleged.[9]  According to Daly, the relationship between patriarchal Christianity and the domestic situation of women was an example of ‘the familiar vicious circle in which the patterns of a particular kind of society are projected into the realms of religious beliefs and these in turn justify society as it is’.[10]

Mother and daughter                                                                                                                 


How should we respond as Christians to this sort of criticism of the choices of women who step out of the paid work force to work at home, and to the allegation that conservative Christianity is the chief ideological culprit for their (allegedly) socially retrograde choices?

One possible response as a Christian woman might be to distance oneself as far as possible from the ‘aggressive domesticity’ of the ‘fundamentalist religious stuff’ that can be found on the sort of websites Hirshman speaks of, and attempt to show that Christian women are as liberated as the next person.

It is possible without too much difficulty to point out examples of Christian women who work full-time in highly paid and socially prestigious jobs as lawyers, doctors and engineers, entrusting the care of house and children (if they have them) to stay-at-home husbands or to paid cleaners, cooks and child-care workers.  It is easier still to point to the numerous Christian women who occupy a place somewhere among Catherine Hakim’s ‘adaptive’ majority,[11] combining part-time or full-time work with some combination of formal and informal childcare arrangements.

Hand in hand with these sorts of empirical observations, one could point out how little detailed instruction is to be found in the Bible about who should do the washing up and who should take out the garbage,[12] how emphatic the relevant biblical texts are about the involvement of fathers (not just mothers) in the raising of children,[13] and how numerous are the examples of women in the Bible who are engaged in some way in the social and economic affairs of the public sphere, or who appear to exercise control over considerable financial resources.[14]  More broadly, one could make the hermeneutical point that the biblical literature was written into a cultural context quite different from our own, and that the contemporary application of Scripture needs to take some account of that difference.[15]                                                                                         

One positive of this approach is that it undermines the facile equation sometimes made between Christian faith and the social arrangements of 1950s Western suburbia.  The model of family held up as the ideal in the 1950s was not an exact reflection of social arrangements in Biblical times, nor of those that pertained in the majority of societies across most of history.  Nor – it must be said – does a Christian understanding of life and work harmonise automatically and comfortably with the consumer capitalism underlying the social arrangements critiqued by Friedan in early 1960s suburbia.[16] 

But a one-sided repudiation of the ‘domesticity’ that critics like Hirshman deride has its limitations as an apologetic response.  If our only apologetic is an earnest attempt to prove that Christian women are (or can be) just as devoted to career as their non-Christian counterparts, then we run the risk of implicitly granting the premises of the critics – that the only really ‘socially productive’ work is paid work in the public sphere; that unpaid work at home is always and necessarily a form of enslavement or a self-indulgent flight from the responsibilities of real, adult work into the idle life of a professional consumer; that it is impossible to live a ‘flourishing life’ as a person whose daily work is the unpaid labour that takes place within the home; and that genuine equality and mutual respect between men and women is impossible without equal participation in the paid work force and equal representation in the corridors of public power. 

The rebuttal of those premises is a task that requires not only the theoretical arguments of Christian men and women who work as public intellectuals, but also the lived practice of those Christian women who choose unpaid work in the domestic sphere over participation in the paid workforce.[17]  These women have the opportunity, through the manner in which they live that life, to show three powerfully attractive, counter-cultural realities that serve as a vital apologetic for the truth and transformative power of the gospel.

  • The value of economically invisible goods

When a Christian family make the decision to live on one income rather than on two, they are making a lifestyle choice that challenges the implicit assumption of many in our culture that the most valuable goods are those that can be purchased with money – that the path to individual happiness is the maximisation of income and consumption, and that the continuing well-being of our society requires the maximisation of economic growth.

In our saner moments, of course, most Australians today have an inkling that there is a flaw in this assumption.  But while most people in Australia may acknowledge in theory that we have become too materialistic, we do not necessarily apply this criticism to our own decisions or modify our behaviour accordingly.  Clive Hamilton’s Affluenza documents the extent to which contemporary Australians elevate the level of their perceived needs to keep pace with (and frequently to outstrip) the rising of their incomes, giving rise to an enslaving combination of compulsive shopping, escalating household debt, overconsumption and waste.[18]

Whilst the circumstances of families vary enormously and decisions about whether to live on one income or two rightly depend on a whole range of issues that differ from family to family, all families who choose to live on one income instead of two are making a decision that demonstrates that there is something that they value more highly than the financial security they could have had or the goods they could have purchased with the additional income.  A decision of this sort made as a Christian is one way to demonstrate in action the value that we place on caring for and instructing young children, or visiting the elderly and infirm, or evangelising in the local school as an SRE teacher, or contributing to the social capital of the local community by voluntary charitable work.[19] 

The goods that are achieved and safeguarded by these activities are of the sort that (according to traditional economic analysis) contribute scarcely if at all to the measurable wealth of the family or the productivity of the wider community.  The act of choosing them over the easily-measured wealth of a second salary is a serious and counter-cultural statement of values that has the potential to demonstrate important aspects of the transformation in thinking and lifestyle brought about by the gospel.

  • The worthiness of culturally devalued status roles

In a culture hungry for status, the choice to adopt the life of a stay-at-home mum is frequently a choice that involves a serious ‘downshifting’ in status.[20]  Ann Crittenden writes about the change in status she experienced after leaving a successful career to stay at home and care for her child for a time:

It was at a Washington, D.C., cocktail party, when someone asked, ‘What do you do?’ I replied that I was a new mother, and they promptly vanished. I was the same person this stranger might have found worthwhile had I said I was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, a financial reporter for the New York Times, or a Pulitzer prize nominee, all of which had been true. But as a mother, I had shed status like the skin off a snake. I gradually realized that mothers—and everyone else who spends much time with children—were still in the same boat that women had been in only a few years earlier. After fighting hard to win respect in the workplace, women had yet to win respect for their work at home.[21]

Crittenden goes on to mount a powerful argument that the real social worth of the work done as a stay-at-home mother far exceeds the social status accorded to it among the urban elites of modern Western culture:

Being a good-enough mother, I found, took more patience and inner strength—not to mention intelligence, skill, wisdom, and love—than my previous life had ever demanded.

The dominant culture of which I had been a part considered child-rearing unskilled labor, if it considered child-rearing at all. And no one was stating the obvious: if human abilities are the ultimate fount of economic progress, as many economists now agree, and if those abilities are nurtured (or stunted) in the early years, then mothers and other caregivers of the young are the most important producers in the economy. They do have, literally, the most important job in the world.[22]

It would be wonderful to see a world in which arguments such as these gained some traction and the social status of motherhood rose to reflect something more in keeping with its social worth. 

In the mean time, Christian women who choose to take a downward step from the relatively high social status of the paid work force into the relatively low status of a stay-at-home mother – and who take that step freely and joyfully – have the opportunity in so doing to demonstrate the way in which following the Jesus of Philippians 2 can set a person free from slavery to the opinion of the world.

(iii) The security of a deeply rooted identity

In the culture of late modernity, work outside the home is not only a source of social status; it is also, in the minds of many, a core constituent of personal identity and self-worth.  Rather than define ourselves in terms of our roots or our relationships, our tendency is to define ourselves in terms of our work.  For many women in our culture, decisions about stepping out of and back into the paid work-force are freighted with more than just economic consequences – they are questions about what will become of our very identity.

The parallel between the place that work and career occupy in determining our social status and the role that they play in forming our sense of identity is no accident – the more seriously we take the quest for social status, the more inclined we are to internalise the voices around us that categorise and value us according to career and salary, and make them the measures and the markers of our own sense of self.

The result is a tragically brittle and vulnerable sense of identity, that feeds our anxious competitiveness and workaholism when we are in paid work and exacerbates the feelings of emptiness and devastation when unemployment, retirement or childbirth take us (temporarily or permanently) out of the paid workforce.  Beverley Shepherd writes:

The attempt to justify our existence and prove our acceptability through achievement and activity … leads to an unending cycle of grief – unending because no achievement or amount of activity can fully satisfy our need for acceptance… We may talk about wanting to get off the bullet train of Western society, but the reality is that we are afraid – afraid of being a nobody.[23]

In a context like this, we have the opportunity through the decisions we make (and in the way in which we articulate the struggles and consolations that we experience in the midst of them) to demonstrate the power of a gospel that confers on us by grace the priceless gift of adoption into the sonship of Christ, making us sons and daughters of the living God.  

When our decisions about work and motherhood arise out of a deep and secure sense of our identity as children of God, and when they are accompanied by a faithful confession of Christ and a clear articulation of the gospel, they have the potential to be an apologetic act, replying to the questions and criticisms of the non-Christian world with practices that adorn the gospel by showing the lived outworkings of its transformative power. 

Retro housewife


As long as this world lasts, there will always be an ideological divide between the followers of Jesus and the society in which we live.  At times, there will be elements of the surrounding culture’s critique that serve in the providence of God to provoke the church to go back to Scripture and unlearn traditions that obscure its faithfulness to the gospel.  But the main way in which the New Testament teaches us that we will need to relate as followers of Jesus to the world around us is as light to darkness – ‘like stars in the universe, as you hold out the word of life’ (Phil 2:15-16).

Whatever intellectual response we make to our culture’s claim that Christianity enslaves women in the drudgery of unpaid domestic labour, our apologetic response can never be a merely intellectual one; nor should it simply be a wholesale capitulation to the ideological premises of the cultured despisers.  An indispensable dimension of our apologetic response is the lived apologetic of those Christian women who choose the path of unpaid work at home and do it in a manner that shines out as a clear contrast to the enslavements and obsessions of the surrounding culture.

The daily work of a stay-at-home mother, however menial some aspects of it may be, and however meagre may be the rewards of financial remuneration and social status that derive from it, has the power to function as a witness to the truth and power of the gospel, to the glory of God.

[1] E.g. Engels’s comments on women’s participation in the paid workforce in his 1844 work, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

[2] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972).

[3] Cf. John Kenneth Galbraith, Economics and the Public Purpose (Houghton-Mifflin, 1973), p233.

[4] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, (New York, W.W. Norton and & Company, 1997), p15.

[5] E.g. the ‘Preference Theory’ of British sociologist Catherine Hakim that was influential in the framing of Australian social policy during the Howard era.

[6] Linda Hirshman, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (New York: Viking, 2006), p2.

[7] Linda Hirshman, ‘Mommy Rage: Unleashing the Wrath of Stay-at-Home Moms’,  For a similar attack on Christians as the chief ideologists for the domestic enslavement of women, see Peter R. Taylor, ‘Oppression and Religion’,

[8] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Mallovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2009), p189. 

[9] Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, 3rd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986).

[10] Mary Daly, ‘The Spiritual Revolution: Women’s Liberation as Theological Re-education,’  in Andover Newton Quarterly 12 (1972), pp163-172.

[11] Cf. Catherine Hakim, Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century: Preference Theory (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp6, 157-192.

[12] E.g. Michael Schluter lists a number of ‘markers’ that biblical teaching sets down for family structure, then goes on to add: “Within this framework there is room for diversity of cultural expression. For example, biblical norms do not specify how housework and earning power are allocated within the household, or the role of parents in choice of a child's marriage partner.” ‘How to create a relational society: foundations for a new social order’ in Cambridge Papers 16/1 (2007), at

[13] E.g. Ephesians 6:1-4 and Proverbs, passim.                                  

[14] E.g. Judges 4; 1 Samuel 25; Proverbs 31; Luke 8:3; Acts 16; 18:1-3; Romans 16:1; 1 Corinthians 1:11.

[15] Exactly what sort of account should be taken is of course a hotly controversial issue among Christian readers of Scripture.  Advocates of a more egalitarian understanding of gender roles will frequently argue that contemporary Bible-readers are entitled to distance themselves from the cultural values of the biblical writers; more conservative Christians (including the present writer) reject this approach, but still recognise that different social circumstances can make for differences in application – e.g. the differences between how one might apply Ephesians 6:5-9 in a modern capitalist workplace, compared to the way the instructions would originally have been applied within a slave economy.

[16] Cf. Michael Schluter, ‘Beyond Capitalism: Toward a Relational Economy’, in Cambridge Papers 19/1 (2010), at

[17] Of course, many of these same false assumptions are also commonly reflected in the work- and life-practices of men, and can be usefully challenged by the counter-cultural practices of Christian husbands and fathers.  But because of both biological differences between the sexes and biblical teaching on gender roles, the particular choice to reject paid workforce participation (temporarily or permanently) in favour of unpaid domestic responsibilities is one that is far more commonly made by Christian women than by Christian men, and it is this phenomenon and its apologetic problems and possibilities that this article is focused on.

[18] Clive Hamilton, Affluenza (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2005), pp1-130; see also Clive Hamilton, Growth Fetish (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2003) and Ross Gittins, The Happy Economist: Happiness for the Hard-Headed (Crows Nest: Allen and Unwin, 2010).

[19] Cf. the brief report (based on analysis of the 2006 Australian census) at

[20] Christopher Bantick,

[21] Ann Crittenden, Price of Motherhood: why the most important job in the world is still the least valued (New York: Henry Holt, 2002),  pp11-12.  See for a similar experience in the Australian context.

[22] Cf. The similar comments from economists Lawrence H. Summers and Shirley Burggraf quoted at p.2, and the analysis of Jennifer Roback Morse in her book, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work (Dallas: Spence, 2001).

[23] The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, ‘Hurry Sickness: Diagnosis and Cure?’ (2003), at

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