Working Women/Women’s Work: A View from Washington
By Hannah Cleeton
Professional women must perform a balancing act the church doesn’t prepare them to handle.
A recent profile of the 114th Congress by the Congressional Research Service found women hold 108 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, up from 82 seats in the 109th Congress 10 years earlier.1 As it becomes more common for women to run for and hold public office, that number will continue to climb.
The statistic does not take into account women who work behind the scenes in the various House and Senate offices, as I do. In my office alone, 14 of the 23 staffers are women. They author legislation, provide policy advice, and direct press activities. Suffice to say, the role of women in leadership positions in the federal government has grown and will likely continue to do so.
Yet, the church remains woefully behind in training women to be leaders. A working woman will constantly be torn between the responsibilities she carries at work versus those at home with her family; this is one of the greatest challenges she faces.
Secular society still places the burden of “homemaking” primarily on the female partner, a cultural norm that is magnified within the church. The prevailing tradition within the Christian community continues to be the promotion of women as homemakers, leaving those who choose a different route left to figure things out on their own.
Christian women serving in the federal government stumble blindly upon choices and problems unique to career women, and they approach these issues with little or no training from the church. As more and more women enter the world of politics and civil service, today’s church leaders should take note and consider how they can better prepare Christian women to serve their country without damaging relationships with husbands and children.
When I started in the U.S. Senate as an intern, one of the top women in the office gave me a piece of advice. In the course of casual conversation, she looked at me rather sadly and said, “Never give up your personal life.”
Keep in mind, this woman is a force of nature whose career is an explosive list of accomplishments. She has done everything from serve in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to work in the Department of Defense during the Bush administration. And yet, one of the first things she ever shared with me was, “Never give up your personal life.”
She never elaborated, and never brought it up again. Perhaps she was warning me to strike a balance that she had not. The exchange impressed upon me the difficulty of pursuing both a career and a family.
An article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter for The Atlantic in 2012, and recently revisited by the Washington Post, highlighted the struggle for balance. Slaughter was the first female director of policy and planning at the State Department, taught law at Princeton University, served as dean for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and is currently president and CEO of New America, a nonpartisan think tank.
Her article described the incredible challenge facing women who want to pursue high-powered careers and also maintain some semblance of raising a family. Faced with the recurring choice of meeting work-related obligations from a demanding job and being a part of her husband and sons’ lives at home, she wrote: “The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be.”2
Choosing between family time and a career is commonplace for the working parent and can be an agonizing choice, one with important ramifications. How and when those choices should be made requires serious thought and should be accompanied by support from a body of believers.
Intentional or not, the church still places much greater emphasis on the role of women in the home. While there is nothing wrong with that path, there is certainly biblical precedent for women to be leaders in government. Deborah led the nation of Israel into 40 years of peace, and still managed to be a partner to her husband. Church leadership would benefit greatly from not only reminding young women that it is acceptable to follow a “Deborah” path, if that is what God has called them to do, but also from training those same women in the skills they will need to make godly choices and balance their lives.
I speak from experience when I say the choices are hard. As the number of women dedicating their lives to the political arena continues to grow, it is vitally important that the church and its leadership take a more active role in informing women about the costs and benefits of a career in public service, as well as how to address accompanying issues in the context of Christ.
The Christian women I have the privilege to work with in D.C. are incredible individuals. I know women who have been instrumental in protecting Christian values through policy initiatives, who want to work in the White House and State Department, who seek to heal race relations in local communities, and who will one day run for office. If Christian women are to succeed in the political realm as agents of change for policies and practices aligned with Christian values, then their training should begin in the context of Christ. It is imperative the church and its leaders embrace the prospect of training and supporting these women as they face a new set of challenges.
1Jennifer E. Manning, Ida A. Brudnick, Women in Congress, 1917-2015: Biographical and Committee Assignment Information, and Listings by State and Congress (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2015).
2Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” The Atlantic, July/August 2012; accessible online at www.theatlantic.com.
Hannah Cleeton is a staff assistant in the U.S. Senate.