Yes, I understand the idea uses the term “mother” metaphorically, in the general sense of someone who is nurturing and creative. But I think that’s a problem, for at least two reasons.
First, saying that all women are mothers minimizes the significance of, well, actual mothers. Even using that term loosely — as a professor, I embrace the mothering role I sometimes play in the lives of my former students, for example — but mother” simply is not synonymous with “woman.”
Second, it threatens the notion that women can contribute significantly to the world in ways other than being a mother. And the women who feel the pain of childlessness more intensely on Mother’s Day need to be encouraged that motherhood is not the only way to an abundant and fulfilling life.
Things can get a little sticky for some of us when Mother’s Day rolls around, a tension that increases within contexts that emphasize the role of motherhood as part of a religious tradition, especially my own evangelical tradition, which particularly cherishes the role of motherhood. As a woman who desired children but was unable to have them, I want the church to honor mothers in many ways, not just by handing out carnations on Mother’s Day. Likewise, because not all women are mothers, perhaps churches could find ways to honor these women on other days, in other ways for the contributions we make to the church and the world.
In fact, a brief look at history shows that childlessness can be used by God for significant contributions to Christianity. I have only recently come to see that childlessness can be for some women a calling, and I look to the example of seven childless women who were important to the Christian church and to the world.
For example, most Jane Austen fans know that she was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman and never married. Less understood is how Austen’s solid and ever-increasing Christian faith heavily informed all of her works. While the surface concerns of her novels are love and romance, the worldview underlying Austen’s views on marriage, family, and society is thoroughly Christian, grounded in the conviction that there is such a thing as objective truth that we should all strive to know while exemplifying Christian virtues such as patience, humility, and kindness.
Another example of a woman whose childlessness allowed her to bring the world other gifts was a contemporary of Austen’s: Hannah More. As I wrote in a biography on the 18th-century English writer, reformer, and abolitionist, after breaking off a long engagement, More used the financial resources she gained from a settlement given to her by her former suitor to pursue a successful writing career. Motivated by her Christian faith, More turned her pen to the cause of abolition and other social reforms. Living a long life as a single woman (she died at age 88), More helped bring about countless improvements in British society, from teaching children of the poor to read, to reforming female education and eventually helping to end the slave trade. She died a wealthy philanthropist who willed her considerable wealth upon her death to more than 200 missionary and educational charities, some of which still exist today.
Many Christians know the name of Richard Baxter, the 17th-century Puritan theologian and preacher whose work wielded tremendous influence on the Protestant tradition. But many don’t know what a crucial role his wife Margaret Baxter played in his ministry, including using her personal wealth to finance rooms and chapels where her husband could deliver sermons English authorities had outlawed, because his ministry didn’t conform with the strict requirements of the established state church, and she even joining him in prison when his illegal preaching landed him there. The equality and mutual submission that marked the Baxters’ (childless) marriage provided an example of complementary partnership that was surprisingly modern then and remains so today.
Rather than getting married and having a family, Evangeline Booth chose lifelong service in the ministry founded by her father William Booth. She began her tenure in the Salvation Army as a teen and quickly became known for her tenacity, whether facing outbreaks of urban riots or ministering to soldiers on the front lines of World War I. Booth was the first woman in the Salvation Army to earn the title of general and was awarded the U.S. Army’s Distinguished Service Medal, a rare honor for civilian women.
Henrietta Mears was a leading figure in the Sunday School movement that profoundly shaped the 20th-century church. Mears never married or had children, but as director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood she shaped the Christian education of thousands of people, including the famous evangelist Billy Graham.
The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who contracted lupus in her 20s and fought the debilitating illness the rest of her life before dying at age 39 in 1964, never married. Her scathing and brilliant short stories and novels exposed the hypocrisy and blindness of what she called the “Christ-haunted” South, characterized by a Christianity that was more cultural then genuine. It was an indictment that extended by implication to the entire modern, in-name-only church. O’Connor’s sacramental vision, shown in her fiction, letters, and prayer journal, continues to inspire powerfully Christian artists, readers, and thinkers today.
And then we all remember how Rosa Parks’s simple, heroic act in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person rippled across the nation. But it’s important to remember that Parks acted, not just a citizen and not just as an African American woman, but as a member of her church. Parks was raised in the church, married in the church and went first to her church upon her arrest. The church stood with her and amplified her bravery.
Countless other woman of faith have contributed to the church and the world in ways they likely couldn’t have if they had also had children to raise. A recent article at Christianity Today shows the significant role in Bible translation around the world played by women who chose not to marry and have children.
These women were not mothers. Just like countless other women are not mothers. Just like I am not a mother. Their childlessness is part of their stories — and this fact needs to be told when we remember them.
All women are not mothers. We honor women who are mothers by recognizing just how singular and significant that particular role is. And we honor women who aren’t mothers by recognizing that a woman doesn’t have to be a mother to contribute meaningfully to the world.
And there is no place better equipped than a church that can model a robust community in which separate and distinct callings can flourish side by side.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”