Working Women


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

May 12, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 31:10-31; Luke 10:38-41

        Many of you probably remember an old television show called “Leave it to Beaver” where ideal stay at home mom June played by Barbara Billingsley has a house so neat and orderly that one of the characters says to her: “Your kitchen always looks so clean . . . like you never do any work in here.”  Educated and bright, she spends her days dedicated to her home, husband, and children. And although the show’s script never said it directly, this matched the 1950s idea of the quintessential homemaker pushed by the Bible thumpers of the day.

         Happily for many of us, Betty Friedan happened along and shook middle class white women into reality. But the real reality is that women have always worked––in fact, I think, worked more than men. A recent study by stated that if the typical stay-at-home mother in the United States were paid for her work as a cook, day care center manager, laundry facilities operator, van driver, facilities manager, com-puter operator, housekeeper, psychologist, and chief executive officer, she would earn at least $138,095 a year; that’s based on a 92-hour workweek not including overtime. And you wondered why we felt so tired!

         The truth is, of course, is that women have always worked and worked hard. Look at the list in Proverbs. You wonder what’s left for her husband to do. There’s a new debate, now ignited by articles such as the 2012 one pub-lished in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton discussing whether women can “balance”––what a word, balance––power careers and having families. And we know that the question of “balance” as it’s euphemistically called is rarely asked of men.

         All you have to do is look on the internet and read such websites as “Teens 4 Christ” and Focus on the Family and you’ll see that the old traditional attitudes casting themselves as “Christian” are still rampant. In fact, they’re downright frightening because along with the stay at home mentality they have, they promote an uncritical acceptance of remolded first century values in our time.

          Having grown up in the fifties, I found solace in this little story in Luke’s gospel. It validated my enormous need to read and study rather than scurry around like some little mouse. It said to me in that context that I could sit at the Master’s feet just like anyone else and ask any question I wanted, something as a girl society tried to tell me not to do. And not being placid, that’s how I used this story when con-fronted with fifties’ thinking.

          Now, of course, I look at it from a slightly different viewpoint. Probably put here by the Gospel writer to con-struct a bridge between the actions of the Samaritan and Jesus’ teaching on prayer––what follows is Luke’s version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer, it looks at two sides of life for us all––action and contemplation––and suggests that they are really only two dimensions of our total being.

           The personages of Mary and Martha occur also in the Gospel of John in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Their characteristics are much the same as in the reading from Luke. Martha is the more outspoken one and Mary the quiet one. John’s Gospel locates them in Bethany; Luke just calls the place “a certain village.”  

            The early Christian commentators on this passage used it to contrast the active life with the contemplative life, seeing the latter as preferable using the words of Jesus that Mary had “chosen the better part.” What is most interesting from the perspective of some commentators is that Jesus went to the home of two women.

          Although Lazarus is the focal point of the story in John, there is no mention of him here, and until the New Testament canon was put together in the fourth century, the various Gospel were read to different audiences which had no real knowledge of other Gospel writings. Be that as it may.

          It seems a bit crazy at times to think or be concerned about old 1950s issues, but they are resurfacing in this new century. Little by little, women are losing certain rights which were assumed to be theirs. Since the Supreme Court’s de-cision in Roe v. Wade, the radical right has pushed forward to reassert control over women’s bodies and minds. Look at what just happened in Georgia this past week.

           Paul, for instance, is read for the statement attributed to him as the writer of Ephesians stating that women should be subject to husbands rather than his greetings to women prominent in the early church, such as Appia and Priscia, organizers of house churches, or Junia, imprisoned for her witness and labor. America’s largest retailer––can you guess what company that is?––permits its pharmacists to decide whether they want to sell birth control pills and has a policy of not selling Preven, the so-called “morning after” pill.

          All these questions and issues we argue about seem really nutty to women of the Third World who slave and labor 18 to 20 hours daily to feed their children, who may risk rape when they try to work, and who are highest casualties of war. Today is Mother’s Day, the day set aside for honoring our mothers and their role in raising us. It should be more than simply the third most popular card and flower day.

          As we look in American stores, we should look at the real value of women’s work by paying a fair price for goods rather than items made in third world sweatshops where women are exploited and given work for which there is barely enough pay to support their families, not to mention being able to buy what they make for us in the developed countries.

          So, who can find a capable woman? All around us capable women are struggling to raise their families, many of them working for just the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or $290 weekly before taxes. That’s the staggering sum of $15,050 annually. Obviously overpaid. And, of course, many of these low-paid women come home and take care of their children.

           As a society, we really need to rethink what our priorities really are. It seems to me that being  pro-family means paying people what they’re worth, having decent child care at affordable prices, not to mention a health care system that includes all families––single people are families, too.

          When we read the passage from Proverbs, we should remember that it ends with the admonition to give the cap-able wife, as she is called, “a share in the fruit of her hands,” something that is often forgotten. Women often do not get their share in the fruit of their hands but find themselves like Martha, doing all the work and not receiving any of the re-wards, certainly worthy of complaint.

         We should not think that these issues are modern and reflect only our time. In the sixth century before Christ, Sumangalamata, a maker of hats and umbrellas, caretaker for her family, abandoned it all to follow the Buddha. She wrote:

At last, free,

At last I am a woman free!

No more tied to the kitchen

Stained amid the stained pots

No more bound to the husband

Who thought me less

Than the shade he wove with his hands.

No more anger, no more hunger,

I sit in the shade of my own tree,

Meditating thus, I am happy, I am serene.

         Although we may not be called to abandon it all to go sit under a tree, we are called as men and women to follow the path Jesus of Nazareth took, one that combined thought and action, one that called for the radical equality of all, and one that opens us to new ways of experiencing the reality of God. For each of us, the path will be different; the question we face is how we respond to the call of the Spirit of God.

          Let us pray: Creator of the Universe, Creator of each of us, bring us into your presence and help us to respond to your call for our lives. May we remember our mothers on this day by moving forward to bring dignity and justice to all mothers, to all women, reflecting the truth taught by Jesus of Nazareth. Amen.