Carolyn McCulley with Nora Shank. The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home (2014).
I am very grateful to Rachel, who recently presented me with this book. I found I had to read it with a sharp pencil, as it sparked so many ideas and provided such sound advice to women in all walks of life. There should be a famous one-liner about the impact of giving people books, don’t you think? Something along the lines of “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you give him a book, you change his brain.” Or something like that. (I’ve tried to rewrite this saying before, somehow my versions haven’t caught on.)
The project of McCulley and Shank, admittedly a very ambitious one, is “an overview of women’s work throughout many eras, an exploration of what it means to be made a woman in the image of God who is to be fruitful at home and work, and some ideas about how to apply these concepts in various stages of life” (6).
I appreciated the ability the authors demonstrated to be relevant to both sides of common identity dividers among women: the married and the unmarried, the mothers and the childless, the working mother and the stay-at-homers. The ability to achieve this relevance in a genuine way is no doubt due to the fact that the book is a collaborative effort between a single working woman and a wife and mother. Wisely, the authors observe that “It is very easy to confuse what we do with who we are . . . we can feel more like walking demographic labels than women of diverse life experiences” (78-79).
The book begins with a historical overview, primarily demonstrating how the home was formerly a center of both economic and domestic activity. This section also debunks a common idea that the women of the past were valued only for caring for their children. “Women of previous generations would be surprised by . . . idea that a mother’s role is to be a ‘full-time-playmate-for-little-kids.’ Most cultures throughout time viewed children as an addition to the family’s productivity” (28). Intriguing elements of this section are the discussion of the impact of industrialism, the world wars, and Social Darwinism on the role of women. The authors also examine the lives of several well-known women, which helps throughout the book as they seek to cast a vision for feminine productivity. These figures include Kate Luther and also Sarah Edwards, whose colonial culture held no thought “that the home was a separate sphere from ‘real’ life” (35).
The truth is, as women living in modern western culture, our choices about work are inevitably loaded with tensions and “scrutinized more often than those of men” (79). It seems to me that our current cultural ideal is the skilled woman with the successful career . . . who also happens to be married, an involved parent of several children, and running a beautiful and efficient home (when she’s not at the gym). And so, as McCulley observes, “we don’t have enough time to do it all” (61) and “we live tired” (69). Also, I think we live Guilty. McCulley and Shank do a wonderful job of showing how women’s work has come to take place simultaneously in different spheres: “Now they had to figure out how to rear a family and provide for themselves while working in different locations” (44).
To work outside the home or not, as a mother, is a loaded question also and the discussion surrounding it is too often unhelpful, divisive, and judgemental (79, 135). Interestingly, the descriptive term the authors use for the stage of life where this tension is most keenly felt is “the Balancing Act” (130). The authors quote a survey that found “84 percent of mothers said that staying home to raise their children is a financial luxury to which they aspire. What’s more, more than one in three women resent their partner for not earning enough to make that a reality” (135). “If we,” say McCulley and Shank, “put a stake in the ground that all lawful and edifying work matters to God, then we can go and ask God for wisdom to make good decisions” (135).
In the final section of this book McCulley and Shank have a section of practical advice for women at work–in any sphere. The section on midlife and how to be a good coach (144-156) was particularly helpful. Also, what to do with an “open nest.” I wish I had time and space here to interact with McCulley and Shank’s fascinating discussions of the purpose of the home [relying heavily on one of my favorite books of all time, Andi Ashworth’s Real Love For Real Life], ambition [“Ambition is really a desire to grow” (93) and “The challenge is how to prioritize the various ambitions that you have” (94)], and rest [“Anyone who overworks is really a slave . . . Sabbath is a declaration of freedom” (quoting Tim Keller, 75)].
I am left wondering, would it be more helpful for women to altogether abandon thinking of our lives in terms of career? Isn’t it more true that we work in different ways in different seasons–and that the ideal of meaningful feminine work is neither the domestic goddess nor the brilliant, dominant CEO? Our “calling as a ‘helper’ is a way women uniquely bear God’s image in our relationships and in our labors” (63). What we really must do is find, in each season, what meaningful work in our various spheres God has for us to do. The conclusion may not be novel, but the vision is inspiring.