When my sister and I were little, we participated in a program called Keepers of the Home. It taught young girls how to cook, sew, scrapbook, crochet, and prepare for managing a household one day. It taught us our “God-designed” place in the world: home with our families.
As a preteen, I attended a church group that followed a book called Appleseeds. The book advertises that it teaches girls “to live pure lives, how to get along with friends, and the importance of good manners, including modesty and how to dress.” There, I learned skills like how to fold napkins and set a formal dinner table because these were things a young woman needed to know for her future as a homemaker.
In church, I was taught that to be feminine was to be gentle but also subservient, unambitious, and focused on marriage. My home church ingrained in me the idea that a woman must serve her husband above all else if she is to fulfill God’s calling in her life. A woman is a follower, not a leader.
In high school, I was required to take math and science courses, which I did not look forward to––dissecting a frog was gross. Plus, I thought, why bother learning about physics and chemistry if I’m just supposed to stay home?
But then something changed in me.
I actually liked science. I remember one day I was flying on an airplane, and I looked out the window at the plane’s wing, thinking, “Wow, I just studied in physics class about how wind speed and air pressure lift up an airplane into flight.” I was stunned. I had learned something about God’s complex and beautiful creation and could see the physics of that in real life. This experience inspired me to learn more.
Every day at school, I’d bring a list of questions to ask my science teacher, even if they were unrelated to our current topic in class. I became addicted to learning more. It was thrilling to tackle a challenge and master a subject I previously found daunting. And, I discovered, I was good at it!
I worked hard and won first place at my school’s science fair three years in a row. My high school physics teacher was one of my greatest female role models growing up, and I’ll never forget when she told me, “You should study science in college. We need more girls like you. We need Christians in science, and we need women in science. You can be a leader for this generation.” This was a new idea to me. I wondered, could I be a leader?
My high school science classes made me question whether I wanted to be the female icon heralded to me by my community and church. What if I didn’t want to be a homemaker? I began to question whether the subservient, unambitious, and marriage-focused female I was told to be was really the intention behind many controversial Bible verses about women and marriage.
I began to question what I had been taught when I was younger. Why would God give me skill and passion for science but then call me to a life where they would not be used? Even further, why would a good and loving God give women only domestic skills but men a range of vocational talents and potential life callings? Why would men have a world of options, but women have only one?
In college, I read every article I could find on interpreting the Bible according to history and culture. I began appreciating the beauty of the gospel far more when I learned about Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, the power of Galatians 3:28, and the misinterpretations of concepts like headship. Why was I not taught this before?
The more I read, learned, and prayed, the more I discovered that Jesus welcomed women and included them in his ministry in a unique way for his day. I realized that gender roles are social structures, not God-designed requirements. I grew to see the hypocrisy in the modern-day church, preaching love and respect but denying women access to fulfilling their life callings.
I began to see how often Christians quote Ephesians 5:22 for wifely submission and completely ignore the verse prior calling men and women to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21, NIV). Mutual respect and submission put the focus on Christ and emphasize that husbands do not stand between their wives and God.
Toward the end of college, my sister gave me the book Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. From Inspired, I learned how “we dishonor the intent and purpose of the Epistles when we assume they were written in a vacuum for the purpose of filling our desk calendars with inspirational quotes or our theology papers with proof texts. . . . The Epistles were never intended to be applied as law.” Evans shows that the first Christians hearing Paul’s letters would be shocked that he addressed women as equals and suggested mutual submission as opposed to the complete authority and subordination expected in their culture.
I think Paul would be sad to see Christians use Scripture to justify patriarchal traditions and gender roles, magnify the male voice over the female, and denounce egalitarian interpretations of the Bible as heretical.
By cultural and theological influences, I was perfectly conditioned to become a homemaker, but God called me elsewhere. I decided to major in physics in college, despite it being a male-dominated field. I felt God’s call into the world of science, and I followed. I broke social norms to serve God, and I found myself and God again.
But new ideas come with the burden of constantly defending them. As I began identifying myself as egalitarian and strongly pursuing my career, I had college friends try to convince me otherwise. I heard, “Sure, you can have a job, but your husband’s career will take priority,” and “Be careful, or people will think you’re a feminist.”
I once told a friend’s mom that I planned on staying a career woman, and she answered, “Oh, but you’d be such a great mom one day,” as though career and motherhood are mutually exclusive. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, but when you have kids and love them dearly, everything changes. You’ll do anything for them,” as though I have to have kids, or as though having a career means I’d love my kids less. How could my love for science inherently make me a bad mother one day?
I knew that my career decisions could one day impact a future family. I was taught an idealized image of the husband coming home from work and seeing the wife cooking a full dinner––that would not happen in my life. The traditional dynamic where the wife is the primary caregiver for the kids––this was also out of the question. I’ve heard people’s concerns that my desire for a job means I would be neglecting “wifely responsibilities.” I have to constantly remind myself the lessons I have learned and remember that I am here because God called me.
I once had a dear friend say that they assumed I’d “faze out of the whole career thing” for the sake of family someday. Sometimes that is what women want and are called to do, but it should not be expected or required. The power and beauty of homemaking is in the freedom to accept that calling. It took time for me to realize that I didn’t actually want what traditional Christian culture told me I wanted, and that’s okay. I love scientific research and finding God in my work, and I feel confident that this is what God wants me to do with my life.
However well intended, people’s comments dismissed my dreams and ambitions as though others knew God’s calling for my life better than me. Now, I read articles from CBE International, see women like my sister who encouraged me in my journey and is also a strong egalitarian, or listen to podcasts like Faith and Feminism, and I’m encouraged. There are so many Christian women who don’t fit the traditional mold of gender roles and spread the truth of biblical equality. (Not to mention that many of these women have careers and children!)
There is no single calling for all women. This is a realization that cannot be taught or persuaded. A person must want to grow, and a Christian should want to learn new ideas because pursuing truth requires accepting that we can be wrong.
I’m glad I took the leap of faith into my career. Now I am a college graduate, an atmospheric physics researcher, a scientist for a federal contractor serving NASA and the Department of Defense, and a young woman following God’s call.