Womanly contentment vs. discontentment, advice from 1896

By Elizabeth Prata*

I was destined for great things, my mother promised. Women can do anything, my mother said. We should be feminists, my mother urged. Folks in our family are successful- entrepreneurs, professors, businessmen, doctors. So that was proof.

I was indeed on that trajectory when Christ interrupted my plans, humbled them, humbled me, and plucked me from the secular notion of success and began the long road of transforming my mind into acceptance of Christian success.

It took a long while of shaving, sharpening, and altering before I ceased to yearn for the worldly conception of fame, honor, and prosperity. Perhaps that is why I'm so sensitive to unsuitable Christian female yearning. Perhaps there are still vestiges of the old yearnings in me still. Likely both.

It's been discouraging to see the speed with which women who claim to be Christian push and clamor for secular notions of worldly success. They set aside the Bible's promises, commands, and duties for what they think will be greener grass. They know not that the grass will wither and burn. The biblical framework for female duty and contentment is no longer enough, if it ever was, and swing out sister there they go into the world of fame, popularity, and prosperity.

Discontent! Feminism, First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave, wave upon wave of secular assault has taken its toll. It has infected women. Gangrenously killing the healthy flesh even while it races about the body calling for more, ever more yearnings that suck the blood from healthy tissue and turns it dead as it stands.

Discontent is a killer.

Satan whispers to women that being a wife and mother isn't enough. That unless you are a leader, out there, in front, you're behind. That staying at home means you are missing all the opportunities, all of them! ... for what, he doesn't say. He just stirs up discontent with where women are now, with what they have.

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

If there is great gain in contentment, there is great loss in discontentment. It's safe to say that is a corollary.

How long has this discontent in women been present on earth? Since the beginning. Eve had a conversation with the serpent, and suddenly she was discontent because she wasn't like God, she didn't know good and evil. She yearned for more.

In researching for this essay, I discovered an incredible, hilarious, and bulls-eye essay about the poison of "Discontented Women". It was written in 1896 in the height of the Suffragette movement of First Wave Feminism. Its author Amelia Barr was a mother, widow, and novelist. (1831-1919). The 10-page essay is found easily online in lots of places, and I am also going to quote liberally from it below. It was published in the North American Review in 1896.
Discontent is a vice six thousand years old, and it will be eternal; because it is in the race. Every human being has a complaining side, but discontent is bound up in the heart of woman; it is her original sin. For if the first woman had been satisfied with her conditions, if she had not aspired to be "as gods," and hankered after unlawful knowledge, Satan would hardly have thought it worth his while to discuss her rights and wrongs with her. That unhappy controversy has never ceased; and, with or without reason, woman has been perpetually subject to discontent with her conditions and, according to her nature, has been moved by its influence. ~Amelia Barr, 1896
Puritan Thomas Boston argued that discontent is actually a violation of the Tenth Commandment, expressed in his monumental sermon "The Hellish Sin of Discontent." He wrote:
Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr
Question: "What is forbidden in the Tenth Commandment?" Answer: "The Tenth Commandment forbiddeth all discontentment with our own estate, envying, or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his." ... [Discontent] is the hue of hell all over.
"But, but", women say, "changing diapers and wiping noses is boring! Tedious! Monotonous! Being out in the world is better!" Mrs Barr replies,
In the van of these malcontents are the women dissatisfied with their home duties. One of the saddest domestic features of the day is the disrepute into which housekeeping has fallen; for that is a woman's first natural duty and answers to the needs of her best nature. 
It must be noted that this revolt of certain women against housekeeping is not a revolt against their husbands; it is simply a revolt against their duties. They consider house- work hard and monotonous and inferior, and confess with a cynical frankness that they prefer to engross paper, or dabble in art, or embroider pillow-shams, or sell goods, or in some way make money to pay servants who will cook their husband's dinner and nurse their babies for them. And they believe that in this way they show themselves to have superior minds, and ask credit for a deed which ought to cover them with shame. For actions speak louder than words, and what does such action say? 
In the first place, it asserts that any stranger — even a young uneducated peasant girl hired for a few dollars a month — is able to perform the duties of the house-mistress and the mother. In the second place, it substitutes a poor ambition for love, and hand service for heart service. In toe third place, it is a visible abasement of the loftiest duties of womanhood to the capacity of the lowest paid service. A wife and mother can not thus absolve her own soul; she simply disgraces and traduces her holiest work.
Mrs Barr pulls no punches!

Mrs Barr continues:
Suppose even that housekeeping is hard and monotonous, it is not more so than men's work in the city. The first lesson a business man has to learn is to do pleasantly what he does not like to do. All regular useful work must be monotonous, but love ought to make it easy; and at any rate, the tedium of housework is not any greater than the tedium of office work. ... And as a wife holds the happiness of many in her hands, discontent with her destiny is peculiarly wicked. 
Lest one think that Mrs Barr was writing from a catbird seat, she emigrated to New York from England with her husband, leaving her home country behind forever. Her husband's business prospect failed, they moved from New York to Texas, where her husband and four sons promptly died of yellow fever, she lost many other of her 12 children, she managed on her own, eventually moving back to NY and began teaching and writing novels and poetry. She never remarried.

Mrs Amelia E. Barr wrote out of necessity, working so as to put food on the table for her children.

Mrs Barr said in her autobiography,
"In my life I have been sensible of the injustice constantly done to women. Since I have had to fight the world single-handed, there has not been one day I have not smarted under the wrongs I have had to bear, because I was not only a woman, but a woman doing a man's work, without any man, husband, son, brother or friend, to stand at my side, and to see some semblance of justice done me."
She did it, and she did it cheerfully and wholeheartedly. In 1850, without air conditioning, without kitchen appliances, without word processors, without a smart phone, and with 12...9...6...3 kids under her feet. She wrote:

Don't fail through defects of temper and over-sensitiveness at moments of trial. One of the great helps to success is to be cheerful; to go to work with a full sense of life; to be determined to put hindrances out of the way; to prevail over them and to get the mastery. Above all things else, be cheerful; there is no beatitude for the despairing. ~Words of Counsel: 9 Tips for Success, Amelia E. Barr

Mrs Barr concludes her essay Discontented Women,
In conclusion, it must be conceded that some of the modern discontent of women must be laid to unconscious influence. In every age there is a kind of atmosphere which we call "the spirit of the times," and which, while it lasts, deceives as to the importance and truth of its dominant opinions.
Many women have doubtless thus caught the fever of discontent by mere contact, but such have only to reflect a little, and discover that, on the whole, they have done quite as well in life as they have any right to expect. Then those who are married will find marriage and the care of it, and the love of it, quite able to satisfy all their desires; and such as really need to work will perceive that the great secret of Content abides in the unconscious acceptance of life and the fulfillment of its duties — a happiness serious and universal, but full of comfort and help. Thus, they will cease to vary from the kindly race of women, and through the doors of Love, Hope and Labor, join that happy multitude who have never discovered that Life is a thing to be discontented with.

Happy is the woman who unashamedly says "I am a wife." "I am a mother." If we are not ashamed of the Gospel, we are not ashamed of any element within it, including the role He has given us to reflect His glory and image. 'Just a mom'? Might as well say 'Just a Christian,' when in fact being a woman, a wife, or a mother is all, because we have all, in Christ.


Further Reading

I heartily recommend the full Amelia Barr essay Discontented Women. And these other items as well

Some Puritan works on dis/contentment

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs,

The Art of Divine Contentment by Thomas Watson

The Crook in the Lot by Thomas Boston,

Thomas Boston sermon titled The Hellish Sin of Discontent.

The Art and Grace of Contentment compiles several Puritan books, sermons, and articles on contentment into an eBook on Amazon.

Modern essays on dis/contentment-

Destroy Her with Discontent: Satan’s Aim for Every Woman

The Three Sins Behind Your Discontent

Discontent with Discontentment

This essay was first published on The End Time in May 2018 under the title On Discontented Women. It's been lightly edited.