A Woman’s Place: Where Is the Niche for Single Christian Women in Fiction?

I read an interesting quote from Edna Ferber a few years ago that really struck a chord:


“Being an old maid is like death by drowning, a really delightful sensation once you cease to struggle.”

third finger left handOwing to the stigma that many churches continue to place on single women, and owing also to the influence of so many well-meaning people who think a woman cannot serve God without being married, and, most infuriatingly, the portrayal of women in Christian fiction, I used to live in terror of remaining single. Somehow my entire self-worth depended upon a ring decorating the third finger of my left hand. Then one day I started to question why I would willingly subject myself to such an archaic way of thinking. Why fight against (and exhaust myself over) what was clearly God’s will? I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing with my life; clearly, singleness was not a punishment.  Why not glory in my singleness and accept it as a gift from God?  Why did the lack of single heroines (who remain single) in Christian novels affect me so much?  Part of the frustration, I realized, came from the difficulty in knowing my place.

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Christian woman

It's not just me -- wonderful, vibrant young Christian women like my friend Brittany have shared these exact feelings.

In today’s world, young Christian women have a harder time than ever knowing their place. We have the non-Christian world telling us just to live as we please and not to worry about rules, morals, or other people, which we know is the wrong way, but which can also entice us in a weak moment. They present to us an entire vastly-skewed value system over and over and over, and we have to fight a daily battle to keep ourselves from submitting to it.  Then we have eighty different versions of how we should live coming at us from the Christian world. Some pastors say we shouldn’t even be allowed to teach Sunday school because of our gender, whereas others tell us even the pulpit isn’t off limits. Some people tell us we aren’t fulfilling our destiny unless we marry and bear a “quiver-full” of home-schooled children. Some say we should go to college, others that we shouldn’t. Some say we should only live either at home with our parents (and under their authority) or with a husband (and under his authority). Some ways of thinking seek to liberate us, others, seemingly, to enslave us. Few people seem to agree about a single Christian woman’s place in the world.  As though the matter were not complicated enough, Christian fiction further skews the issue.  In books, particularly in Christian fiction, a female character’s reward/ultimate goal/ultimate achievement/etc. is finding the perfect man.  Very seldom do you find a successful, moral, and likable woman in Christian fiction who remains single (in fact, I’m drawing a blank trying to come up with just one example).  According to the majority of authors, falling in love is an essential element of a happy ending.

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This lack of clear direction for women and misunderstanding of our place in society embittered and frustrated me for years. Why is it so clear what a Christian man’s place in the world is, but so murky for a Christian woman? Why is singleness so heavily fought against and so stigmatizing?  My best guess is, it’s yet another plot of the enemy’s. By causing confusion, he can snatch young women away from the embrace of a loving God, and thrust them into an abyss for the rest of their lives. By leaving them unsure of which way to follow and what their identity is, he can mislead them into the wrong way, or even no way at all. It’s a pretty clever idea (Yes, I called Satan clever. Do not underestimate our enemy.)  Sadly, a great many Christian authors are unintentionally helping this tactic gain strength.

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Janette OkeSometimes, I just want to sit and read a book about a person I can identify with.  I am, in short, a lively single female Christian schoolteacher.  Sure there’s plenty more to me, like passion, intellect, and my many eccentricities, but those are the rough basics.  And here is where Christian fiction has consistently failed me.  Not just me, of course — single Christian women are a growing demographic, thanks largely to the way the world has wrecked havoc on men (don’t even get me started).  Janette Oke’s perfect women who marry unbelievers, get saved together, and then produce seven children just don’t resonate with me, or with the majority of the women like me.*  Francine Rivers’ flawlessly beautiful Christian women who fall head over heals in love with men who positively worship them also don’t resonate with us.*  The unending sea of nearly identical books with cover art of shyly smiling Amish girls just make me (and the women like me) gag and dry heave.  Where is our niche in fiction?  Why have we been left out?

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The struggle was at one point so painful that I used to cry myself to sleep at night.  I would read a book, a Christian book that ought to uplift me, and close it feeling that there must be something horribly wrong with me.  I am certain that this was never the author’s intention.  Then, a short while after moving to Korea, I found myself realizing just how wonderful life can be when you cease to struggle against singleness.  When I finally gave up on the notion that Christian girls need to be married, I learned to enjoy the benefits of being single (this doesn’t mean that the pain completely went away, just that I learned to live with it and move beyond it to greater things). As I have since continued to learn, I don’t need a man to “give me the world” – God already did! I don’t need a man to “complete me” – again, God already did! If He wants me married, than He can send the guy at the right time, and I will be happy to oblige. In the meantime, I am serving God and loving my life, without the burden of obsessing over that naked third finger.  I’m living right, AND being single, just as many other young women are.  When will Christian fiction catch up?

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* I use Oke and Rivers as examples of authors who are accidentally stigmatizing many of the women in the single Christian demographic.  I do not believe for one minute that either author intends this consequence of their work — in fact, from what I know about both of them, I believe them to be kind and loving people in real life.  Please do not read into this post a criticism of either woman’s character — I would never do that.

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About HistoryGypsy

I'm a high school history teacher and author of upcoming novel Sidhe Eyes. I live in gorgeous Qingdao, China, where I spend much of my free time studying the fascinating and frustrating Chinese language, eating odd things, or taking long walks along the Yellow Sea. At "While We're Paused" I have the pleasure of blogging about things that catch my interest: good books, language, history, poetry, writing tips, grammar rants, random humor . . . I don't like to get in a rut! Some of my favorite writers include (and this is by no means an exhaustive list): Dorothy Sayers, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Jules Verne, Baroness Orczy, Geoffrey Wawro, John Lynn, Bill Bryson, the Bronte sisters, John Christopher, J.M. Barrie, O. Henry, Roald Dahl, and Robert Graves. I usually find myself reading no less than three books at a time!

Posted on August 7, 2011, in Authors, Books, Characters, Christianity, Stephanie Thompson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. You know, I’ve never really thought about this bias. I’ve avoided the fiction in Christian bookstores for a long time, merely glancing at the covers portraying gentle Amish women on my way to something else.

    Perhaps even more rare than being a single Christian woman is having always been single. A mid-life singles group at my church is 90-95% divorcees. I love them and am extremely grateful for their fellowship, but there remains that one piece which still sets me apart: never married, no kids.

    Your observations make me want to dig into the genre to see if there are any buried treasures. Perhaps we’ll have to make our own!

  2. Wayne the Shrink

    It’s endemic to the protestent culture. We ignore that which makes us uncomfortable, like Paul’s statement that he would rather we all be single and dedicated totally to God. We have so strongly reacted to the Catholic tradition that we reject that which is good, in this example, monistaries and nunnarys, where single adults can live and focus on God and still have a useful place in society. Sadly, the Catholics in America seem to have gotten away from the social usefulness to a large degree,

    This separation is historic, having an unconscious effect on anyone raised in the protestent Church and on those who grow up in this society generally. It thus is reflected in the fiction that is written without the writer even usually realizing it.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this! It really uplifted me as a single Christian women. I am twenty-eight and very happily single, but I receive a lot of flack from my brothers and sisters and Christ about my singleness. I get tired of people asking me why I am so “picky with men” and don’t want to join my place in society by having a family and bearing seven Christian children. I use to read a lot of Christian romance novels (like Lori Wick and Janette Oak), but like you they just left me with this empty ache and discontentment in my heart. In the last couple years I have learned to embrace my singleness and see this season as a gift that God has given me. There are many things I have been able to do and people I have able to reach as a result of being single. Its not that I no longer desire a spouse, but I am no longer focused on the pursuit. I believe if I am meant to marry it will just happen when I am doing the work that God has put before me. I believe created women to be equal partners and many times these Christian romance novels depict the women as lowly and overly-submissive. The Word doesn’t just say that women should submit to their husbands. Many forget the passage that follows, which says, “Submit to on another with the fear of God.” I will say I really love Franscine River’s Redeeming Love, which was a modern adaptation of the book of Hosea, but it was not so much because of the romance of the story but the large interest it gathered for women to begin reaching out to girls in prostitution.

  4. Wayne the Shrink

    Actually, in Ephesians it’s immediately before where Paul says “Submit to one another as unto God”. One example of this is “Wives, submit to your husbands”; the other example of this is “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church, sacrificing Himself that she may be made perfect” (my sloppy paraphrase). We husbands have the more difficult task. We are to sacrifice ourselves so our wives improve. I so doing we improve.

    One of the things earlier writers (Christian) who’s writing has survived down the ages have had was an excellent understanding of the Scripture. This is often lacking in “Christain” writers today. That’s one thing I like in “Among the Neshelim” – a very clear understanding of Scripture and a very indirect useage of the same. Not often found in “Christian” writing today.

  5. Thanks, Wayne. Yes, i realized that the verse I quoted was right after Paul tells the wife to submit to the husband and tells the husband to love his bride sacrificially as Christ loved the church (Kat-ish paraphrase). My point was that it takes compromising equally on both sides to make a marriage work. It is really hard for most of us women to hold our tongues and be submissive,even when we know the other person may be right :). I agree that God’s calling for man to love his wife as Christ loved the church is a much more difficult calling. It seems an almost impossible task to love in a manner like Christ – a love that covers over all wrongs. All I know, is that these tasks God calls the wife and husband to in Ephesians are not easy; and that is one reason why young women and men should not rush into the holy estate of matrimony before they are ready to fulfill that calling as a spouse. In another passage in Colossians 3, Christ tells the women to submit to her husband “as is fitting in the Lord’. It interesting to me that when Paul follows telling the husband to love his wife, he also says, “do not be harsh with them.” It is much easier to submit or be obedient to someone who is gentle instead of harsh. Perhaps then, this this gentleness is a little glimpse of what Paul meant in Ephesians when he said the husband should love his bride as Christ loved the church. I appreciate your feed back. I am still learning much about the Bible and our roles as men and women in the church today.
    I just ordered “Among the Neshelim” from Amazon last week. It should be in the mail tomorrow or Tuesday! I was stalking amazon until finally I saw it came out on print. I am really looking forward to reading it!

  6. Wayne the Shrink

    Thinkhmm – “Get the to a nunnery” – well, in the Middle Ages, probably yes. That was about the only place a woman could be independent and stay functional if she wasn’t independently wealthy. The Church was liberating then. Now society has changed, even if attitudes in the Church may not have changed as much as we wish. Women have many legitimate roles in society. It’s the Church that is containing and restraining now.

  7. It’s great to read your comments, everyone. Sorry that I couldn’t respond sooner — sadly, the internet is very persnickety here in jolly old China.

    I suppose the answer to my post is that I’ll just have to be part of the solution. After Sidhe Eyes, stay tuned for a book about a single Christian female who stays single. I vow to write that book!

  8. I tell my students that the only way to have a good marriage is to be really and truly OK with staying single for the rest of your life. You can always decide to say, “Yes,” if it ever becomes justified. But life decisions made out of desperation often lead to disaster.

  9. “Leota’s Garden” by Francine Rivers. Heroine stays happily single 🙂

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