Single Evangelical Women and Church Experience
Lea Taragin-Zeller reviews Katie Gaddini
The Struggle to Stay is a beautiful book about single women’s experiences in evangelical churches. Written in an accessible and engaging manner, deftly weaving four captivating stories together with a rigorous analysis of Christianity, gender and politics, it is a fascinating read that draws on more than fifty interviews with evangelical women in New York, London, and California.
The book charts the importance of evangelicalism for many single women, especially those living in fragmented urban settings. For them, attending church is so much more than a “bundle of beliefs, a box to tick on a census form, or a set of rituals and practices.” The Struggle to Stay showcases the full force of relationality in their religious life, a life where longing for community, for meaning and for God are fused together. It is precisely this all-encompassing form of religious life, though, that produces the deep pain that is documented in this book.
As women become more involved with church life and dream to take part in its leadership, they are constantly let down and pushed to the margins. Despite endless efforts to devote their lives to Jesus, practice purity and find a nice Christian husband, the “Ideal” woman, skillfully described in this book, continues to be far from reach. As single women fail to live up to the evangelical norms they try to emulate – a modest (but beautiful), selfless and unambitious model of evangelical femininity – they are pushed to the margins of evangelical life, margins that are clearly drawn on lines of exclusion, which cut across age, beauty, marital status, race and class. It is at this point in the book that the double-bind of belonging is vividly clear—their religion is both a source of comfort but also of deep suffering.
Katie Gaddini, The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church. Columbia University Press, 2022. pp. 304 $31 (hardback)
The book begins with the question: Why do women stay? But the other question that echoes throughout is, Why do women leave? The book is not devoted to either of these choices. On the contrary, the quest to capture both experiences is one of Gaddini’s true triumphs. Following many of the women in this study (both in the US and UK) who define themselves as “Christian-ish", this work pushes forward conversations about fluid religious identities that are constantly made, remade, and undone. Highlighting this fluidity is a particular triumph when coming from a sociological perspective, which has historically built on the secularization thesis (the premise that religion is in terminal decline in modern settings) and an intellectual lineage that typically situates religion in opposition to feminism.
But Gaddini refuses simple narratives that pit feminism against religion. On the contrary, this work is a tribute to the study of gender and religion from which it emerges. It offers a vivid reminder of how religion and gender constitute each other in such an intimate and bodily fashion, that trying to pry one away from the other leaves wounds that can never truly heal, and it does so through accounts of individual women’s experiences.
Gaddini’s intimate account of single evangelical women is set up against the backdrop of Christian #MeToo and Trumpism, where politics, gender and evangelism all collide. In a context where structural sexism has deep roots, this book features how women on the path to leadership within the church are disciplined and dismissed aside, while emphasizing the emotional tolls these carry. As women desire to become church leaders and craft a community where women are treated equally, many churches fail to make the changes they hope for. Women are constantly denied the leadership positions they aspire to, the safe spaces they need, and they are often abused on the way. Still, they hope.
Hope is typically seen as a positive force which orients individuals towards the future by making life more bearable in the present, but Gaddini deems this emotional position as cruel. Drawing on Lauren Berlant’s work on “cruel optimism,” the book highlights the cost of desiring something that is actually an obstacle to one’s flourishing. Stuck in low-paying positions while men continuously get promoted within the church and women get fired for being “too” feminist, The Struggle to Stay sheds light on the cruel optimism produced by Christian leaders who “dangle promises of equality but keep them out of reach”.
Gaddini’s exploration of the way women show resistance in a patriarchal religion is enriched by her own experiences as a pastor’s daughter who struggled to make the changes she wanted to see in the church and who found her way out. Weaving together the personal and the political, the concerted focus on emotions opens up fresh ways to think about affect, religion and feminist politics. Gaddini’s analysis of the dark side of cruel optimism is not unique to single evangelical women in the church. She skillfully shows how this false optimism can keep us treading on paths that cause us harm, be it a bad relationship, perpetual dieting, or a job with no real future.
This book is a gift to the general public who will be introduced to social theory through skillful storytelling that weaves together feminism, religion, and resistance. This book is an excellent ethnography that demonstrates very effectively how a feminist lens can bridge the personal and the political in the study of religion, an intervention that is truly necessary amidst a renewed wave of culture wars that center on gender. But the truest mark of a success is that it is a book about pain, written beautifully.
Lea Taragin-Zeller is a cultural anthropologist with research interests in religion, medicine, gender and reproductive politics. She is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies and Public Policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an affiliated scholar at the Reproductive Sociology Research Group (ReproSoc), University of Cambridge. Lea has published in leading international journals, such as American Anthropologist, Medical Anthropology, Science Communication, and Public Understanding of Science. Her book The State of Desire: Religion and Reproductive Politics in the Promised Land (NYU Press) ethnographically analyzes the ways Orthodox Jews reorient conflicting social, religious, and national desires amidst shifting forms in Israel’s reproductive governance.