Carla Unseth

The Uncomfortable Inconvenience of Single Women

As a single woman missionary, I have always enjoyed learning about other single women missionaries, and felt somewhat empowered by the impact they have had in missions. In fact, single women have formed a powerful force in the world of missions for many years, so I was surprised to learn recently that the first time a single woman missionary was sent was in 1822. This woman was Betsey Stockton, who also was the first African American missionary from the United States. She served in Hawai’i as a teacher. Previous to this, there was concern over sending a woman without a protector. She would have to live with a married couple, but this caused concern as well – first that she would be treated as live-in househelp or a nanny, or that she would be viewed as a second wife by local people. As a single woman I appreciate that other missionaries wanted to protect the focus of a single woman, rather than relegating her to the role of domestic servant. But I think this concern also speaks to the uncomfortable inconvenience that single women pose in many Christian circles.

Single women are an inconvenience in Christian circles because they don’t fit the traditional mold of womanhood. When we talk about what the Bible says to women, we usually focus on whether or not the Bible says that women should submit to their husbands, or if women should have careers outside of the home. However, for single women these questions are a moot point – she can’t submit to her husband or stay at home. She must work to support herself. The fact that it is necessary for a single woman to live outside of “traditional” womanly roles makes them an uncomfortable periphery to the theology of womanhood. 

I recently watched the documentary Eve in Exile, by Rebekah Merkle, and I went away with the distinct feeling that, as a single woman, I once again was an inconvenience to the theology of womanhood that was presented in the film. This documentary is based on a book by the same name, and gives the highlights of the book (disclaimer: I haven’t read the book, and I only watched the documentary once, so my observations are based on a limited understanding of Merkle’s theology). The book and movie are intended to be a response to modern feminism in a return to a Biblical theology of womanhood. While there were a few good points in the movie, I went away with a heaviness of heart that was difficult to explain. It took me some time to pinpoint that the heaviness came from the feeling that, if this theology is correct, then I have no place in it. As a single woman, and as a working woman, I can’t attain true womanhood if Merkle’s theology is truly Biblical.

Though Merkle doesn’t say it in the film, I would guess that her view is what is called “complementarian theology”. Complementarian theology is the idea that God has made men and women with different roles and different ways of reflecting God’s image to the world. Those who teach complementarianism are quick to say that this does not mean that men are “better” than women, and abuse that happens in the name of submission is wrong and does not reflect a Biblical view of the relationships between men and women. They are also quick to underline that this does not mean women need to look like the 1950s perfect housewife. Merkle says both of these things in the film, speaking about how men and women are equal in value, and that we shouldn’t define womanhood by how it looked in a particular era.

However, this is where a complementarian theology of womanhood (and the film) falls short. Though it is stated that womanhood will look different in different cases, virtually no examples are given besides women working in the home. In fact, the movie Eve in Exile is pretty much exclusively scenes of women in the home – gardening, preparing food, even remodeling. Merkle’s four-part theology (subdue, fill help, and glorify) hints at a broader view of womanhood than just working in the home, but falls back on examples of marriage and family, such as bringing “glory” by helping to translate into reality her husband’s desires in their kitchen remodel. While Merkle throws in a few gratuitous remarks of “this applies to single women too”, her main point is clearly that, in response to modern feminism, Christian women need to see the value and purpose in caring for the home and family.  

The difficulty for me as a single woman is that I both do agree and yet cannot agree with the basic premises of complementarian theology. I believe that God has made men and women different, with different roles and different ways of expressing His image. I also agree that working in the home is a high and noble calling. And yet, as a single woman AND as a woman with a calling outside the home, I cannot live in this way. If God wants women to be married, then why would He not answer my prayer for a husband? If God wants women to work in their home, why would He call me to a ministry outside of the home? It seems contradictory to say that God has made me for one purpose, and yet called me to the opposite.

After watching this film and reflecting on my feelings of inconvenience and discomfort, I feel as if we need a definition of Biblical womanhood that is broad enough to encompass all women, not just married women and stay-at-home mothers. We need a theology in which single women are not an inconvenience that must be explained away, but rather where single women are a natural part of the definition of womanhood. I hope that I can begin, over the next few blog posts, to give a small picture of what that would look like. In this blog post, I haven’t looked at the Scripture passages that support any particular view of womanhood, but I hope that I can explore those passages and think about what it means to be a woman from God’s perspective – a woman in all stages and walks of life. In doing so, we can move from seeing single women as an uncomfortable inconvenience, to celebrating the value of all women in God’s kingdom.