Welcome back to Katie’s Bookshelf!
Life’s busy, really too busy to waste time on bad books– and The Sisters of Katie Luther are here to help! Feel free to eavesdrop on Sandra Ostapowich, Holly Scheer, Ellie Corrow,and our special guest reviewers, Bethany Kilcrease, Tabitha Moldenhauer, and Annie Riley, as we use the technology available to regularly e-chat about books we’ve chosen to read and discuss together. These reviews are informal, probably a little snarky, but always informative, and designed to help you determine what is worth your consideration. Pull up a chair, a cup of tea, or something else if you prefer, and help yourself to our conclusions as we explore what is on offer.
Our book this time is the new one by sisters Rosie Adle and Rebekah Curtis, LadyLike: Living Biblically. When asked about themselves, they just wanted you to know that they are baptized in Christ (that’s the kind of bio we like!). This book was recently released by Concordia Publishing House and is a joint effort of the sisters, with the contributions of each merged into a unified whole. The sisters chose not to identify who wrote which chapters, likewise, our comments this time are merged and not really identifiable by individuals either. (Seriously, we all worked on an anonymous GoogleDoc together. We don’t even know who wrote what. Any given sentence was probably written and edited by multiple people.) Therefore, it goes without saying, we all stand by the review as a whole.
We decided to handle this book slightly differently than we have the few other books we’ve reviewed, because we’re new enough to this that we’re still finding what we feel works best. But more importantly, this is a book that has been been met with immediate and widespread acclaim from some LCMS circles. Each of us read the book separately and had individual concerns about the tone and content. These concerns increased after we saw any criticism of the book met with extreme defensiveness from LadyLike supporters (including some supporters who hadn’t even read the book!). Upon hearing from other women who were afraid to say anything publicly — that this book had them reconsidering everything from their initial rejection of feminism to their place within our Church — we decided LadyLike needed to have a different treatment than our previous bird’s eye overviews. Any criticism here is in no way a personal attack on Rose and Rebekah; we count them as sisters in Christ, and we greatly appreciate all of their efforts. We simply seek to express our concerns about the book to potential readers.
First, we’d like to commend Curtis and Adle for taking on this project. It’s about time there was an accessible book for Lutheran women, by Lutheran women, that takes on meaty theological topics. Thank you. There are a lot of ladies today (ourselves included), who have been frustrated with the lack of resources for thinking women available from a Lutheran perspective, and even more so by the generically Evangelical options at the nearest Christian bookstore.
The format for LadyLike is interesting: it’s divided up into many very short chapters that mostly stand-alone, but are loosely grouped together thematically. This means the busy person who can only get uninterrupted reading time in short spurts is almost guaranteed the chance to absorb a complete thought from the authors before the quiet is broken. This is particularly fitting and appropriate for busy mothers. There are quite a few themes and chapters that we appreciated (Bridezilla of Christ; Put Your Name On It; Here Comes the Bride; The Fallen Ones; Widows and the Redemption; Hey Mister Pastor Man; Marthas, Marthas; Eight, Nine, Ten – Last, but not Least; Actually, God Might Give You More Than You Can Handle; Sophia, Sophronia, and Babylon; Being Special Is Special!; Mirror, Mirror; When Life Gives you Lemonade; A Righteous Life).
This book consistently extols motherhood and unpaid work in the home, an emphasis often lacking in writing for women. Additionally, there is an essay about being single, whether never married or widowed, that is both compassionately written and reminds the reader that whatever gifts given are good because they come from our gracious Giver, whether we particularly want that gift or not. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the authors vigorously argue against women’s ordination, but their approach is compelling, and that chapter should be widely-read. We also appreciated their willingness to call out the God-will-not-give-you-anything-you-can’t-handle bogus theology. The insight in “Mirror Mirror,” that hating your looks and idolizing them are flip sides of the same coin, is helpful.
If we engaged every chapter in the book (as we originally envisioned) we’d be here all day, and this review would be 10x longer than it already is. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of essays in the book that are very well worth your time.
One of the biggest points of contention we have is that, from the outset, the PR machine and the book set the stage with false alternative after false alternative. Right in chapter 1, the two alternatives to be believed are listed, “Patriarchy is the earthly arrangement God ordained” (Kindle Locations 135-136) or “…patriarchy [is] the root of all evil and the reason we live in a sexist world filled with harassment, stereotypical expectations of women, and unequal pay for equal work,” (Kindle Locations 155-156). Where does that leave the readers who believe in the Scriptural arrangement of headship and submission between husband and wife in marriage, but don’t think that any and all women should be under the authority of all men? Or of the reader who does not believe that patriarchy is the root of all evil and the reason we live in a sexist world, because, as a good Lutheran, she knows that sin is the source of evil in the world? Since she’s not an advocate of patriarchy as laid out in the book, she must be a feminist, who entirely rejects patriarchy, laying the blame for all manner of evil upon it, right?
It should be understood that frequently in the LCMS, feminism — especially as defined (or not) in LadyLike — is always entirely and necessarily bad. Evil, in fact. Curtis even said in her Issues, Etc. interview (a comment that won soundbite of the week) that she doesn’t believe anything good has ever come out of feminism (see also “Products of Our Time”). This approach fails to make distinctions between eras,waves, approaches, and goals of feminism throughout history. Is the feminism we’re to reject the same feminism that earned the right for women’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, the ability for women to legally own property in their own names, better healthcare for women, better working conditions in sweatshops frequently populated by women (and children!), or the second-wave feminism of Gloria Steinem (“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”) and Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), or third-wave feminism which actually respects women choosing to leave careers (or not start them in the first place) to stay home and raise their own children? Or are we to reject all these things?
In addition to the false alternatives presented in the book there’s issues with argument by assertion. For example, the book assumes that separate gendered spheres are built into the order of creation, but never actually argues the case. Curtis and Adle appear to assume that the type of gender arrangements popularized by sit-coms in the 1950s originated in the Garden of Eden and remained essentially unchanged until feminism and the Sexual Revolution reared their ugly heads.
In the historical narrative laid out by the authors, prior to the advent of feminism in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century (“Products of Our Time”), women lived happy, satisfied lives around the home and hearth as they raised large families — large (“The More, the Merrier?”), because wives both stoically yielded to their husbands’ marital appetites at all times and spurned even the thought of birth control (“The Sixth Commandment: Not Just for Men”). Men, on the other hand, worked outside the home through their vocations as “breadwinners” (“Out of Order”). Men occupied the public sphere while women led quiet but fulfilling lives in the private sphere (“Not Fair”). Yes, there was sin; husbands abused wives and wives disrespected husbands (“Submission Impossible”), but at least society operated according to the patriarchal order of creation (“Out of Order”), until feminism threw everything into chaos (“Products of Our Times”).
Unfortunately, this is a highly romanticized image of gender relations that really only flourished among the middle and upper classes from about 1850 to 1950. Prior to the industrial revolution and related developments, both men and women contributed to the family economy. Financial reality also meant that most couples married primarily for economic reasons, and large families meant more workers to help in the family business. The growth of industrial capitalism eventually enabled middle class men to financially support their families by working outside the home, without the help of their wives. In fact, the confinement of wives to the domestic sphere was a marker of upward mobility, since it indicated that a man was able to support his family on his own. Of course, the ideal of separate gendered spheres was never a possibility for the lower, working class, where women had to supplement their husband’s incomes even after industrialization, often performing or assisting domestic work in the homes of middle- and upper-class women.
Moving on from history, the authors use the recurring example of pie-eating throughout the book (“The Pie-Eating Contest”) as an analogy for “doing or having it all” as a woman, which means tending to a husband and at least one child, keeping home, and (most importantly for this analogy) holding down a job. According to LadyLike, once women make a decision to eat the whole pie (because who wouldn’t? Pie is delicious!) they must eat the whole pie no matter what or they lose the contest. It’s all or nothing again, even though those aren’t the only real alternatives available, not to mention that it’s a crass generalization of the supposed feminist ideal. There’s no contest. Adults are quite capable of moderating the activities they take on and can decide to stop eating when full or satisfied, and even re-evaluate the idea of eating the whole thing. Or perhaps women may wisely decide from the outset to have a reasonable allotment of pie each day. They write, “The brainiest of women may well be called upon to give up a promotion, a degree, a paycheck, or just the freedom to go to the store whenever because some miserable person would be less miserable if she were more available.” Absolutely. Most women, whether working outside the home or not, and even feminist or not, regularly have to balance the needs of their families with everybody’s wants, and attempt to reach a workable compromise. Yet, this chapter gleefully pits working moms against stay-at-home moms.
Ironically, they also write, “Pursuing and monetizing one’s interests is a totally unnecessary dessert after a healthy meal of basic physical wellness and met needs, and just eating icing will eventually make us every bit as sick as never cleaning the toilets.” (Kindle Locations 341-342). Dessert is always unnecessary, that’s why it’s called “dessert!” That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for a lady to enjoy dessert, without forcing herself to devour an entire pie in one sitting, or to stuff her face with platefuls of icing. Just like Adle and Curtis, other women are free to pursue and monetize their interests without inevitably falling prey (just as they have not) to some ambiguous “pressure” to do it all.
The format with each author writing her own essays separately, and not identifying who wrote which, has some downfalls — namely that there are some internal contradictions from one chapter to the next. Sometimes it seems as though Adle and Curtis brainstormed a list of topics, and then each wrote their own perspective on them. According to one chapter in LadyLike (“Brains for Women”), the only women who should be in this “office of celibate” are those who are what contemporary society would call “asexual,” who have no desire for sexual intimacy. “There are some people who have no desire to engage in sexual intimacy. There is nothing wrong with them; ‘It is good for them to remain single,’ (1 Corinthians 7:8), and that is all that needs to be said on the topic,” (Kindle Locations 2507-2508). According to this chapter, the only women who may freely pursue an education and work outside the home are those in the “churchly office of celibate.” We were a bit confused by this idea, because Lutherans don’t actually have such a churchly office.
Yet another chapter (“Marriage: Not Actually the Most Christianest Thing Ever”), separates virginity from celibacy and does not speak of it in terms of holy orders. Rather, this chapter, understands celibate women as those who simply haven’t been given the vocation of being someone’s wife. “Failing to recognize celibacy as a gift muddles it in a kind of pseudo-mysticism that says, ‘If I want to be married and I’m not, I don’t have the gift of celibacy,’ as if celibacy were not a situation of fact. It is not a lack of calling or position. Celibacy is a positive, substantive gift and, like all true gifts, it is selected by the Giver, not the receiver,” (Kindle Locations 1001-1004). Here, here! These women’s service to their neighbors and church are encouraged, because they don’t have a husband or family who would take priority over such work. So while we appreciate this explanation of the celibate/single life, it does illustrate the difference in tone and contradictory nature of some chapters.
The tone of the book is at times biting and sarcastic. While sarcasm is a tool, in the written word to a broad audience, the truth of the words can be lost because of the way it was communicated. It can even come across as just plain bitter. While we’re sure neither Adle nor Curtis are unhappy with their vocations and life choices, there’s a lot of, “This is the way God ordered the world, so grit your teeth and figure out how to be content with your lot as a woman, and move on with your day,” sentiment expressed when they write things like, “This is what the devil would have for all of our loved ones. He wants us to think it is better for us to ‘use our brains’ or even ‘serve the Church’ than wipe down the toilets of those no-good jerks we live with, not to mention whatever other nasty things they need done,” (Kindle Locations 337-339). Of course, life is never all sweetness and light, and one may resentfully (and frequently!) think such things to herself. But to put such thoughts in a book, repeatedly, makes a reader wonder about whether contentment has been achieved.
In this line of thought, one seriously problematic chapter (“To My Friend Who Has No Babies Today”) was previously published on the blog, He Remembers the Barren. In this chapter, Curtis writes, “I sin your sins. When I see all the world’s human trash with its ill-bred and empirically worthless children, I seethe to think of the pearls cast before them while your clean neck and graceful wrists and industrious fingers are bare. When another teenager turns up pregnant, I want to rage at God for what I can only see as unimaginable injustice and just plain poor planning. I want to make it right. I want to distribute the world’s children sensibly by my own self-righteous fiat. I want YOU, you smart, talented, dutiful, faithful Christian person, to be a mother of nations. NOT THEM,” (Kindle Locations 1081-1085). This can be understood as an attempt to empathize with women suffering from infertility and a hyperbolic expression of sinfully angry indignation at the injustice of unmarried, pregnant teens, while married women long for babies, and the sinful covetousness that may often accompany it.
While there have been quite a few rave reviews, we’ve also heard from multiple women who were upset, insulted, and deeply hurt over some of the ideas put forth in some of the essays. These women had, until reading LadyLike, considered themselves confessional, traditional-minded (certainly not feminist!), faithful Lutherans. They found their educations, life situations, working status, etc. called (or at least strongly hinted as) sinful and were unnecessarily burdened by a false Law that God does not enunciate in Scripture.
Would we recommend and for whom?
This book is well suited to reading with a group of sisters who can discuss issues as they arise and delve into what the Bible and history say about femininity. The authors themselves have said this is not a scholarly work. The book is contradictory in places. While some of the essays (as noted above) are very well done, some struggle to rise above opinion pieces. If a sardonic tone isn’t your thing, this may not be a book for you. We respect Curtis and Adle and we respect what they’ve written. This review has been critical in part because of that respect– the ideas presented were worth engaging and not just with blind praise. None of these comments have been intended as personal.
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