The Struggle to Stay
Why Single Evangelical Women Are Leaving the Church
- ISBN: 9780231196741
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: March 2022
Rarely do I pick up an academic book that I cannot put down, but The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women Are Leaving the Church was a welcome exception. I found myself invested in the stories of the four women Katie Gaddini chose as primary conversation partners in her ethnographic study of why single evangelical women are leaving the church. The voices and experiences of Carys, Jo, Liv, and Maddie enriched Gaddini’s vivid descriptions and thoughtful analysis of their evangelical world. In her quest to answer the question, “Why do women stay in a religion they consider oppressive,” Gaddini explores what attracts women to evangelicalism, the benefits they gain from being enmeshed in these communities, “the costs of being an evangelical woman,” and the complexities surrounding a woman’s decision to stay or to leave (x, xiii).
Gaddini conducted over six years of research, including more than fifty interviews with evangelical women to tell “the story of what it means to be single and female in evangelical Christianity” (xii). Her own story as a former evangelical, along with her participant observation in numerous evangelical spaces, also informed her work. The stories of these women are weaved seamlessly into the narrative as Gaddini takes the reader on a journey into evangelical culture: churches, conferences, small groups, coffee shops, and all.
There, readers find themselves confronted with the push and pull of evangelicalism for single women. In the evangelical church, single women find community, belonging, and religious identity. Some also find new purpose or healing from past hurt. At the same time, single women encounter opposition, restriction, and unreasonable expectations, even in churches that claim to support women in leadership theologically. Practically, women are not given access to power and leadership, which can lead to frustration, self-doubt, anger, and hurt. Gaddini concludes:
“In white evangelicalism, the price of belonging includes embracing traditional femininity, heterosexuality, marriage, and sexual purity. It includes waging battle with an amorphous power regime whose effects are always felt but never transparent. It includes invisibility and continual marginalization, made even worse if you are not white, middle class, or straight – and if you remain single." (221-222)
In short, evangelicalism is an intricate dance in which men and women have distinct parts, and when one finds herself out of step, it can be incredibly confusing and painful.
Gaddini argues that it is this sense of being out of sync—of feeling “invisible” and/or marginalized—that leads many single women to leave evangelicalism (xxi). “Single evangelical women desire to be valued and treated equally within their religious communities . . . they want the freedom to express who they are without the pressure to conform . . . they desire more acceptable ways of being (217).” Their singleness. Their ambition. Their sexuality. All three of these characteristics impede a woman’s ability to stay in evangelicalism.
Many single evangelical women have grown tired of working for change, of holding out hope, and of being hurt by the church. Rather than continuing the “struggle to stay,” they are choosing to leave evangelical Christianity or to leave the Christian church altogether. “Data from both the United States and the United Kingdom” show that “single women in both countries are now the group most likely to leave white evangelical Christianity (223).” Gaddini’s research helps scholars begin to understand why.
While the entire volume is instructive, chapter 6 was particularly powerful. Here Gaddini analyzes the ongoing hurt, pain, and isolation felt by single evangelical women who find themselves inhabiting the “borderland,” noting that “women who experience marginality and remain in the church incur wounds that never heal, that structurally cannot heal, as long as they stay in such spaces” (172). She describes how such overwhelming pain drives some women to leave while fueling others to remain and fight.
Gaddini’s book contains one factual error on page eighty-five, where she asserts that Focus on the Family was founded in 1997. Since the actual founding date is 1977, this is most likely a typo, but the incorrect date impacts how one reads and understands the enormous influence of James Dobson on evangelical culture, especially for readers unfamiliar with his longstanding organization. Another small thing that could have made this book even stronger is the inclusion of additional social scientific data (or even the information immediately pertinent to her research). What percentage of the women that Gaddini interviewed have left evangelicalism? What percentage redefined their relationship to evangelicalism in some way? While these numbers would only be representative (and may have been difficult to track), they would also illustrate Gaddini’s larger point that “leaving and staying are not static categories; instead, they bleed into each other, tied up with the powerful drive to belong and the complexity of religion itself (224).” These are minor matters in what is a strong contribution to the scholarship of women, evangelicalism, and the gendered nature of power in religion.
In addition to her compelling argument that many single evangelical women find the personal costs too great to remain in the church, Gaddini models great care and empathy in her treatment of evangelical women, which encourages readers to do the same. Her goal of understanding, not dismissing or mocking, is evident and laudable. Gaddini relates the complexities involved in navigating competing identities, a reminder that people’s lives are not easily discerned and categorized and nuance is needed in one’s analysis of those same lives. This results in a volume ripe for use in the classroom at both the undergraduate and graduate level, and for those outside and inside of evangelicalism.
Gaddini’s self-reflection about the personal cost of both evangelicalism and her research into it is also worthy of emulation. That one’s scholarship can be painful (and healing) when it draws out former identities is an often-overlooked component of scholarly research. Gaddini navigates this insider-outsider world with incredible skill. Thus, the content, form, argument, and method employed all commend The Struggle to Stay for use by scholars of religion as well as a wider audience.
Mandy McMichael is associate director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance at Baylor University.Mandy McMichaelDate Of Review:November 2, 2022