Lesson 1 - Women Under Pressure

The Lay of the Land

Encampment

Here, Kate explains the phenomenon of encampment, which is the first of three unique challenges women face as we try to navigate the competing demands of career, motherhood, and identity.

Our culture is constantly trying to squeeze women into camps—from the “leaning-inners” to the “have-it-allers.” Encampment threatens to reduce a woman to her “tribe,” and the result is that we are left with a very narrow sense of identity based almost entirely on the roles we play.

And then the added challenge is that, no matter how intentional or how multidimensional or how nuanced a woman might be, she’s always running the risk of being labeled.

Kate Harris

Helen Hayes

One of the problems with encampment is that it pits women against each other and forces us into competition with one another, creating a culture of judgment that puts everyone on the defensive.

Reflect:

  • How have you experienced “encampment”? Think of a time that you’ve been labeled based on how you live your life.

  • What are some of the ways that our culture has put women on the defensive through encampment and competition?

Embodiment

The second challenge women face is embodiment. While both men and women are constrained by their physical bodies, the capacity for women to bear children defines the embodied female experience. Men physically cannot have the same experience. Kate illustrates with her memorable example of monthly “postcards” from Idaho. Just the potential for motherhood is a challenge for women who are trying to discern their various vocations in the world.

Perhaps you’ve had thoughts that sound like this:

Should I get a nursing degree so that, one day, I can work part time and take care of my kids?

Should I get my MBA in 10 years when my kids are older?

Should I refuse this promotion in case I become pregnant next year?

This issue is compounded by the limitations our physical bodies place on us. To be an embodied creature is to experience an existence characterized by finitude—that is, we are not in-finite. Our bodies limit us, and, as Kate explains, they can sometimes feel like an impediment to our calling. Our bodies, it seems, get in the way.

In the ancient world into which Christianity was born, lots of people considered the body a kind of prison. The whole point of spiritual enlightenment, it was thought, is to escape the body and to transcend the material world. But Christianity always resisted this impulse in the strongest possible terms. The Bible is unequivocal in stressing the goodness of bodily existence. Here’s how the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it:

The body belongs to a person’s essence. The body is not the prison, the shell, the exterior of a human being; instead a human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ a body and a soul. . . . People who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall

Reflect:

  • How has motherhood—or the prospect of motherhood in the future—shaped your understanding of yourself (including your understanding of your body) and of your place in the world?

  • Many people in the ancient world were tempted to escape their bodies, and perhaps we can well understand why they thought that way. How have you experienced your body as a hindrance? How has your body limited you?

  • Even though our bodies limit us, the Bible is clear that bodies are the handiwork of the good and wise Creator. In what ways do you experience the goodness of embodied existence every day?

Expectation

The third unique challenge women face is expectation, which Kate describes as “unprecedented, unrelenting, and unrealistic.” As Kate explains, women in our culture often feel harried by a stream of unending expectations of what women “should” be doing. The result is enslavement to a “posture of striving,” as Kate calls it, as women chase after an illusory and ill-defined concept of success.

These expectations will run women ragged unless they can find ways to examine them—and re-orient them—in light of what Scripture says about a woman’s identity and value in the sight of God. In particular, if left unchecked, they’ll drive women either into fear or fantasy. Kate puts it like this:

This is pendulum that we swing on because of these hard-to-pin-down expectations. But it is precisely these three challenges [of encampment, embodiment, and expectation] echo so loudly in our lives and experience as women, that we have to do a better job grounding ourselves in a biblical view of vocation sufficient to account for them.

Kate Harris

Panel on Expectation

As we will see, Kate will challenge women to remember that a biblical view of calling is much more comprehensive than their “camps” or what society expects of them.

Reflect:

  • What are some of the “unprecedented, unrelenting, and unrealistic” expectations that our culture places on women? How have you experienced these in your own life?

  • Kate argues that the enormous pressure of expectation placed on women can drive them either to fear or to fantasy. What are some of the fears that can derive from oppressive expectations? What are some of the fantasies?

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