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Dreaming Better Dreams: The Home, Marketplace, and American Dream

January 16th, 2017 | 18 min read

By Hannah Anderson

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump, a business man with no experience in public service, will officially become the President of the United States. Loud, often insensitive, and with serious moral liabilities, Trump seemed the unlikeliest of candidates during the campaign. Pollsters breezily predicted that Hillary Clinton (despite her own set of liabilities) would finally break the glass ceiling to become the first female President of the United States.

But like the unexpected twist in a reality television finale, Trump won. And just like reality television, Trump’s win tells us more about ourselves than we’d like to admit, revealing us to be a people who overly rely on the marketplace to deliver our deepest hopes and dreams. While the autopsy of the election highlighted concerns of systemic racism and entrenched sexism, more telling is what prevailed over these concerns. Candidate Trump ran on a platform of nostalgia linked tightly to the American Dream; a vote for him was a vote to “Make America Great Again” and by extension, to make our own lives great again. The promise of flourishing came in two parts: It was distinctly “American” (as defined by an establishment understanding of America) and it was a “Dream” of financial prosperity to be fulfilled by revitalizing the American marketplace. In this sense, a profane, twice-divorced, real estate magnate with a history of shady business ties could only become President of a nation whose vision for human flourishing rests, not on just government, stronger homes, or unified communities, but on the marketplace.

The Dominance of the Marketplace

The dominance of the marketplace was first signaled during the election (if only in photonegative) by the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ message of income inequality. (In its own way, Trump’s securing the Presidency was fueled by similar populist concerns although his success is due more to salesmanship than actual policy.)  Despite the sense that the American marketplace is failing to make good on the American Dream, the two major political parties eventually delivered candidates shaped first and foremost by that marketplace.

On the face of things, Secretary Clinton’s bid may have appeared less market-driven, often highlighting traditionally domestic or feminist concerns (so intent was Clinton to capitalize on domestica that she even positioned herself as a universal abuela); but her entanglement with Wall Street elites confirmed her marketplace credentials. Such ties are no surprise when you remember that Clinton is a product of second-wave feminism. Hers is a femininity that can only find full expression on a career path.

Trump is shaped by the marketplace in more visible ways, but it’s the less visible that are more telling. If Clinton’s feminism is a product of market forces, so too is Trump’s sexism. Not only does Trump (by his own admission) feel a sense of ownership over women’s bodies; he actually owns certain women’s bodies, buying and selling them through a network of beauty pageants and pornographic ventures. Simplistic appeals to “the Patriarchy” can’t account for the form Trump’s misogyny takes. In less market-driven societies, patriarchy shrouds women’s bodies and restricts them from society. Where the marketplace dominates, it does the exact opposite.

Market forces have also shaped the candidates’ family lives. For Clinton, professional success meant holding onto a marriage wracked by betrayal. For Trump, it meant procuring and divesting himself of spouses the same way he disentangles himself from failed business ventures. Divorce is simply another form of declaring bankruptcy: File, take your loses, and move on. Meanwhile, both Clinton and Trump have a record of discounting domestic work (traditionally done by women) as beneath them. In a world shaped by the marketplace, women are most valuable, it seems, as they become extensions of the marketplace—either as product or as merchants themselves.

In this sense, the 2016 Election was less a statement about gender equality or traditional family values than it was about how the marketplace dominates our collective understanding of human community.[i] But how is this possible after four decades of culture wars? How is it possible that neither feminism nor “traditional family values” has reformed or at least contained the marketplace? Why does the marketplace continue to dominate our vision of human success even as it fails to fulfill it?

The Problem of Separate Spheres

Christianity teaches that human society can be traced to the Garden of Eden with the creation of the first man and woman. After God makes the man and woman in His image, He commissions them to steward Creation:

“So God created mankind in his own image,

   in the image of God he created them;

   male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

Known as the “Cultural Mandate,” this text contains multiple strands, woven together in such a way that to lose the stitch of one means the unraveling of the whole. Not only do men and women depend on each other, but the dual initiatives of the Mandate—to fill and subdue—depend on each other as well. The work of birthing, rearing, and protecting new image bearers cannot be disconnected from the work of broader cultural formation, nor can either be accomplished by men or women alone.

In our modern context, however, these two initiatives are anything but integrated, with western society operating on an assumption of distance between home and marketplace. Sociologists point to the Industrial Revolution as to where these two spheres diverge. As labor became specialized, the locus of engagement with broader society moved away from familial hearth to the factory floor and office cubicle. In this paradigm, home takes on a defensive posture as a retreat from the evils of the world, its primary function being nurture and caregiving. Home is a place of work and productivity, to be sure, but a particular kind of industriousness that finds fulfillment in the immediate nuclear family. Home is private. The marketplace is public.

But as men turned their attention away from home to the marketplace, they took their social power with them. The home became weakened, not because what home offers is unimportant, but because those who spent the most time there are themselves the weakest members of society: women and children. Over time, the gap between the two spheres grew, leading to such an isolation of home from the power of broader society as to pave the way for second-wave feminism.

This is the feminism of Hillary Clinton, a feminism that finds fullest expression in attaining equal power with men in the marketplace, a marketplace that since the Industrial Revolution has a distinctly male-shape. So instead of breaking the power of the marketplace, one could argue that feminism has strengthened it by channeling whatever power still resided in the home to the marketplace.

The marketplace has become so strong, in fact, that for a woman to opt out of it (or not succeed in it) means losing many of the benefits afforded her through the advocacy of second-wave feminism. Because second-wave feminism has focused on equalizing power in the marketplace, a woman who does not operate in that sphere can become even further disenfranchised. Consider how little a Clinton-esque feminism empowers and honors women who devote themselves to domestic work or women whose social poverty, lack of education, or familial instability keep them from climbing the corporate ladder. While feminist initiatives seek to shatter the glass ceiling, they miss the fact that achieving equal pay means little for the single-mother making minimum wage; equal pay simply means equal poverty. For her, initiatives that strengthen marriage and home would be of more lasting benefit.

In many ways, feminism’s inattention to building home and family is its Achilles’ heel. Within human society, female fertility make women niche providers; insisting that female success comes only as women distance themselves from home and family undercuts the one form of power that women hold that men don’t. Consider how second-wave feminism’s commitment to abortion as a major platform issue may have actually cost Hillary Clinton election as the first female President of the United States. When white evangelical women were given the choice between a self-confessed sexual predator who gave them only the slimmest chance to overturn Roe v. Wade and the possibility of the first female President, they chose the man.

Given this, we have to ask whether the glass ceiling continues to exist, in part, because feminism has failed to actually be feminist enough? Is it possible that women struggle to succeed in society because feminism has propped up the dominance of a marketplace that historically rewards male achievement? Have we leaned in so far that we’ve toppled over?

Unfinished Business

Some feminists recognize the dilemma. In her bestselling book, Unfinished Business, Anne-Marie Slaughter highlights how the marketplace does not reward (and often, punishes) caregivers—roles traditionally held by women. Slaughter notes that “not valuing caregiving is the taproot, the deeper problem that gives rise to distortion and discrimination in multiple areas of American society.” Because so much of caregiving happens in the home, we can also infer that not valuing the home is the deeper problem that gives rise to societal injustice.

Slaughter offers helpful critique and suggestions to forming communities that value both competition and caregiving, including making the home a place where men feel welcomed and affirmed. The idea that men need to be invited back into caregiving may strike some traditionalists as a feminization of men; but only because home has wrongly been associated with feminine weakness. Consider how a stronger male presence in the day-to-day operations of the home may actually shift social power back toward the home because men would bring their privilege with them.

With this in mind, Slaughter promotes the concept of employer-sponsored “family leave,” an issue that made a somewhat unexpected appearance in the Trump campaign platform. But even here, underlying presuppositions reveal themselves. Slaughter’s understanding of family leave tends to minimize the role that gender plays in family formation and overlooks the unique challenge of being female in the marketplace. On the other hand, Trump’s proposal of six weeks of paid maternity leave (extended only to women) further perpetuates the notion that the work of building home is a feminine concern. It also reveals a decidedly mechanistic view of a woman’s body as a piece of equipment that simply needs time to cool down before engaging in other forms of work.

Family leave policies that actually empower families are those that understand the how and why of family—honoring both the necessity of complementary gender and the importance of family to human flourishing. Ultimately, the goal of family leave is to stabilize the family unit as it undergoes major life transitions, whether they be from the womb to the bassinette or the hospital bed to eternity.

The Problem of the Isolated Home

Given second-wave feminism’s neglect of the home, advocates of traditionalism rightly push back arguing for the significance of caregiving. But too often they also make the mistake of maintaining separate spheres, all while giving these spheres an oddly gendered cast: Woman at home, man venturing out into the marketplace. Some traditionalists even support these separate spheres by appealing to the biblical text.

Rebekah Merkle, a writer in the Reformed tradition, typifies the conservative evangelical response to feminism. In her book, Eve in Exile, Merkle identifies the inadequacies of feminism and promotes a vision for female flourishing based in the home. Merkle does not discount engagement with the marketplace entirely, but views the home as a realm of distinctly feminine rule, basing her paradigm on a reading of Titus 2:5 that encourages older women to teach younger women how to be “keepers at home.”

From this posture, Merkle offers a vision of family life that celebrates the artistry and skill necessary to care for image bearers. While Merkle understands the significance of imago Dei identity, she views the home as women’s unique point of entry into larger society and thus encourages women to cultivate the domestic arts. She posits that once cultivated, these skills will naturally overflow into the marketplace.

But Merkle misses the effect separate spheres have had on the American home. It is true that the home is intrinsically valuable; but it is not true that our society values what happens in the home. Missing this leads Merkle to oversimplify women’s angst toward domestic life as merely the rejection of maternal instinct and gendered design rather than a response to the weakening of home in broader society. The home has not lost influence to the marketplace simply because of female disinterest but because so many men abandoned it first.

In other words, the woman-at-home paradigm misses the point that the very boundaries of home will limit a woman’s ability to flourish because a market-driven society doesn’t honor the home except as a potential source of consumption. This paradigm also fails to resolve the dilemma of the woman whose gifting doesn’t find expression in domestic arts or the woman who has no one to care for other than herself. Again, the question is not in which sphere a woman belongs so much as why are the spheres isolated from each other in the first place?

Merkle is not alone in her emphasis on of separate spheres, though. Much of the culture that grew up around the Religious Right promoted “focusing on the family” as a citadel of Christian values. Co-opting the idea of home as a place of retreat from the broader world, the “Christian home” became one that protects its members from the corruption of godless society by isolating them from it. But this mindset has done little to stop the rise of the marketplace; and if anything, it’s furthered it. Such isolationism may actually increase the gulf between home and marketplace because it ensures that the values being protected in the home can never reach the marketplace. Or at the very least, only half of the human population will be able to carry these values into the marketplace.

Further, withdrawing from society to protect the family has the potential to actually weaken the family itself. Unless father and mother run a home-based business (which is increasingly possible), father, in most cases, must leave the cocoon of family and venture out into the world alone. Mother takes an increasingly prominent role in the home, in some cases becoming teacher to the children. But if the home is also understood as a feminine realm, what affect does this have on children raised in an isolated, feminized environment?

Again, the question is not so much about gendered roles as what happens when the home and marketplace operate as separate spheres–of why traditionalism has been as ineffective as feminism to strengthen the home and reform the marketplace. Consider the number of white evangelical women—many of whom have been steeped in the rhetoric of home and hearth—who voted for a man whose choices negate the significance of the very thing they have committed their lives to. Whatever bundled set of values led them to vote for Trump, the sanctity of an intact home, marital faithfulness, and the nuclear family was not one of them.

Consider as well, how the majority of evangelicals now operate with a notion of separate spheres as it relates to public morality. According to a survey conducted by PRRI.  72% of white evangelicals now say that personal immorality does not disqualify a candidate from public office. In other words, most evangelicals believe that what happens in the home has no affect on what happens in the marketplace. While some have called this the “Trump Effect,” it would be an oversimplification to believe that evangelicals simply changed their minds to support their preferred candidate. Evangelical voters aren’t hypocrites; they are simply acting on what they’ve been taught: Home and marketplace have no bearing on the other. Ironically, traditionalists’ insistence on separate spheres[ii] may have actually led to the election of a pornographer and twice-divorced serial adulterer to our nation’s highest office.  

The Way Forward

Part of the reason that neither feminism nor traditionalism has successfully checked the marketplace and delivered the American Dream is that neither has a view of human vocation that integrates the call to fill the earth with the call to subdue it. And neither has sufficient vision to see men and women as equally necessary to both these tasks. If feminists call women away from the home, traditionalists called men away first. The result is the weakening of our homes to the benefit of the marketplace; and because home is where we learn how to care for and live in relationship with other human beings, the weakening of the home ultimately means the weakening of human society.

Thankfully, Christian thinkers are beginning to question these established dynamics, especially as they relate to separate gendered spheres of work. In her book, A Woman’s Place, Katelyn Beaty, a former managing editor at Christianity Today, establishes a woman’s call to steward the earth, not simply in her gendered identity, but in her identity as an image bearer. Heavily influenced by Andy Crouch’s vision of culture creation, Beaty begins by asking the right questions: What does it mean to be human? What is necessary to flourish as human beings? What role does work play in individual fulfillment and broader culture formation?

But even as Beaty takes the necessary first step, the next steps get trickier. Because evangelicals have long relied on traditionalism, it will be easy for them to overcorrect. Once you see the flaws in one approach, it’s easy to simply swing to the opposite. A Woman’s Place hints at this dilemma. Even as Beaty affirms the goodness of family, she notes that many women admit being restless at home. Beaty suggests that this is because a woman as an image bearer is called to “a kind of work beyond her immediate family.”

And here’s where it gets tricky: What does it mean for a woman to work “beyond her immediate family”? In the widely accepted paradigm of separate spheres, engaging in work beyond the immediate family means moving into the marketplace. After all, the home is private and the marketplace public. But if we follow this track, we find ourselves once again perpetuating the dominance of the marketplace.

The harder work is upended the paradigm of separate spheres entirely, recognizing that both marketplace and home have public and private dimensions to them, dimensions that routinely overlap. Some of the women (and men) most successfully navigating this dilemma are those who have found a way to integrate home and work through entrepreneurship and freelance work. The emerging gig economy takes many forms and is giving men and women the freedom to pursue a kind of work beyond the immediate family while ensuring that they also maintain the ability to make decisions that strengthen and build their immediate families. They are not leaving the marketplace so much as limiting the power it exerts over their homes.

As the Trump administration prepares to move into the White House, one of its key members is Kellyanne Conway. Conway, the first woman to run a Republican Presidential campaign, will be counselor to the President, advising him on matters of policy as well as working to execute the administration’s priorities. She is also the mother of four children 12 and under. When asked about how she plans to balance such a demanding position with family life (Conway had once said that it would be a “bad idea” for her as a mother to work in the White House), Conway replied:  â€śI would say that I don’t play golf and I don’t have a mistress so, I have a lot of time that a lot of these other men don’t.” Despite its wit, Conway’s response hides a deeper message: the assurance that her family will not get in the way of her work in the marketplace. But perhaps this is exactly the problem. Home should limit the marketplace.

In God’s wisdom the work of filling the earth and subduing it are connected; only when they are integrated can we make sense of them individually. Like puzzle pieces that exert tension on each other, keeping each locked in place, family gives larger purpose to the work we do in the marketplace even as the marketplace extends the influence of our families.

And now, we’ve come full circle on the American Dream. The American Dream is more than the promise of financial stability, working at the same company for forty years to retire with a pension. The American Dream is a dream of personal and generational success, the ability to make a better life for you and your children.  A dream that you could develop your unique skill set and have the freedom to capitalize on it. A dream that you would not have to choose between the good of your family and the good of your community. A dream we will only reach as we restore the strength, not of the marketplace, but of our families and homes.


[i] Consider how little concern President-elect Trump shows in divesting himself of his business interests before entering the Oval Office.  Trump is on record as stating that “The President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Here is either a man who is profoundly and irredeemably corrupt or a man who lacks a category for public life apart from the marketplace, who sees no difference being the President of the United States and being the president of Trump Inc.

[ii] We must entertain the possibility that some traditionalists advocate for separate spheres as a means of preserving male power. If the marketplace is dominant over the home, and if men have ruled the marketplace for decades, greater integration would necessarily lead to a weakening of male power. To call men back to the home and create pathways for women to successfully engage in broader society, would disrupt carefully protected power differentials.

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Featured image via Gage Skidmore