In the 1920s, many American universities and libraries were closed to women. It was assumed they had no need of higher education or creative pursuits. Their role was simply to support men in their endeavors. This historical context helps us to see that Virginia Woolf’s words in her 1929 book A Room of One’s Own are particularly bold:
“Literature is open to everybody…. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind,” she wrote.
Today, we can scarcely imagine not allowing women to write books, study at university, or be allowed into a library. And yet, similar restrictions on women can be found in one last hold-out in our culture: the church.
True, a growing number of churches ordain women and allow them to lead. And often, women have been the backbone of the church—unseen yet providing structure and support without which things would likely fall apart.
And these days, women are allowed not only into universities and graduate schools, but seminary. In fact, by some reports, they now outnumber male students. A 2006 New York Times article said 51 percent of U.S. seminary students are women.
And yet, most of those seminary grads were leading small churches or in associate or assistant pasturing roles, while their male counterparts were leading large churches.
Even in mainline churches, which have been ordaining women for several decades, women are not always welcomed in the pulpit. There are still restrictions on what women actually do, even if the “opportunities” are there.
Even women who are ordained find the going tough. Barbara Brown Taylor’s excellent memoir, Leaving Church, tells her story of ministry (see review below). She was ordained in the Episcopal Church, but eventually hit a level of compassion fatigue that made her decide to leave the priesthood. She realized in part it was her own perfectionism that burned her out, and decided that she could minister more effectively, and with greater joy, if she were not an “official” member of the clergy.
There is one other group that places restrictions on women—unfortunately, it’s women themselves. We neglect our own spiritual, intellectual and professional growth to focus on the care of others—spouse, children, aging parents, even needy friends. We fool ourselves into thinking that this is the “godly” thing to do. Really? Do godly men act this way? Many of us do not have, as Woolf said, a room of our own, a place to nurture our creativity, our true selves, our inner life, our conversation with God. In order to pour ourselves out, we need first to be filled by God.
You may not aspire to go to seminary. But I hope that you aspire to think and to grow. Handling the mundane details of motherhood, from diapers to driver’s permits, can sometimes be a lock on our minds, as Woolf would say. I remember when my daughter was a toddler, calling my husband at work to complain, “I’m losing brain cells by the minute!”
The work of managing a home and parenting is important, but when it becomes the sole focus of our lives, we shrink. We choose to shun the freedom we have to be our own person. Many of us need a dose of what I call sacred selfishness—to tend to our own souls because they have value. Self-care may make us a better mother or spouse, but that’s not the only reason to engage in it.
What does this look like in practical terms? It varies, depending on the woman, and the season of her life. For some women, it means working outside the home—developing skills and connections that give her life texture. Or working from home—having a little business that provides both income and confidence. For others, it means volunteering in their community or their church. When my children were small, I volunteered at church to help write the newsletter. In that season, working on something that stayed “done” in a way cleaning and cooking and diaper-changing did not was sheer joy.
For those of you who are in an intense season of giving, it may be as simple as having someone else take over care-giving for awhile – not just once but regularly.
All of us need to carve out time to be alone, time to rest. In solitude, we remember that our roles—consuming as they may be—do not define who we are. If you are, like me, a working mother, this can be difficult. How does one carve out time in an over stuffed week? For me, a better word (and less violent) than “carving out” is “delegating.” The work of running a household is a full-time job. But it does not have to be the full-time job of one person. It should be shared between all members of the family. My productivity as a writer, not to mention my sanity (and my income), rose substantially when my children and spouse took over some of the housekeeping duties.
Have you locked yourself out of spiritual and intellectual growth? What steps will you take today to unlock your mind, to embrace freedom? How will you care for your own precious soul?