I grew up at a time when my home country, Lithuania, had been annexed by the Soviet Union.
As I was raised in a family of Christian believers under considerable pressure from atheistic Soviet authorities, our attitude toward celebrations sanctioned by the government was not overly enthusiastic, to say the least.
But International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, should have been the easiest one to relate to.
One always knew when the day came. From the early morning until late evening, you’d see the traffic of men of all ages, each with some flower arrangement, to be presented to the women in their lives.
This was the day for women to be admired and praised.
IWD was a unique day of the year – as expressed in a sad joke in the form of a retort, “Shut up, woman, your day is on the 8th of March.” Women may have had their special day, but at other times they needed to stay in “their place.”
In the Soviet version, an emancipated woman’s place included most domestic duties in addition to being a productive worker — an expectation familiar even in our supposedly enlightened Western cultures which espouse gender equality, such as the U.S, and one that has only increased in the wake of Covid-19.
Perhaps that is why I was rather suspicious of IWD for a long time – it seemed to be all words and no substance.
With the passing of time, however, and especially when the Soviet empire collapsed, I kept thinking about women’s experiences, and particularly about Christian women’s experiences.
My own research led me to explore the challenges faced by single women in evangelical communities, including the various disadvantages they faced both within and outside the church.
Their financial situation would almost invariably be considerably more precarious than their coupled sisters. They would also often need to learn to live with the perennial question of why: “Why is she unmarried? What is wrong with her? Is she too picky, or inherently defective?”
Such questions – and the audacity to even say them out loud – arise out of a deeply held conviction that singleness is an exception, and coupledom is the norm.
And, indeed, if one embraced the narrative of “traditional family values,” which was shaped and promoted in Victorian Britain or “the golden age of the family” of the USA in the 1950s, one would quickly take it to be an unquestionable truth.
One could also point out that marriage and having children were fundamental for the people of Israel in the Hebrew Bible – although the shape and purpose of marriage then was rather different from what today is imagined by those who talk about “traditional family values.”
But the teaching of Jesus, though rooted in the prophetic tradition, would have seemed truly baffling to his contemporaries when he celebrated those who chose to forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God.
And so, a number of early Christian women chose – very actively, and very unusually for their times – to remain unmarried, even though it meant going against the imperial policy requiring all Roman citizens to be married.
For many of them, their Christian allegiance meant losing their previous identity and economic security and joining an alternative support system — a new-order family called the church.
There were various factors that made virginity attractive as a viable alternative to marriage.
Freedom from marriage and sexual intercourse presented an opportunity for a woman to exercise much greater control over her own affairs, her own time and her environment. It also meant control over her own body and freedom from such risks of marital life as pregnancy and childbirth.
But above all, those who chose to stay single became an embodiment of the Christian conviction that the kingdom of God was, in some ways at least, already present.
The independence of such women did make the (male) church leadership increasingly uncomfortable.
Not only were these women traveling and organizing their lives as they saw best fit for the purposes of serving the kingdom of God, but they were also challenging the accepted notions of what it meant to be a woman.
The very act of claiming power over one’s body meant that these women were seen – and saw themselves – as transcending the confines of gender and sexual difference.
We live in a very different world today, yet there is something important we need to learn from those early pages of Christian history.
Parts of today’s church are still uncomfortable with the growing presence of single people and the role taken up by single women in particular.
As the number of single people continues to rise, single women in the church should be enabled to flourish as full persons in and of themselves, rather than being treated as second-rate people.
Only then will the IWD be a meaningful date.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for International Women’s Day (March 8). The other article published to date is:
Assistant Principal at the Scottish Baptist College, UK, and Senior Research Fellow at the International Baptist Theological Study Centre, The Netherlands. Her newest book, Singleness and Marriage After Christendom: Being and Doing Family, is published by Wipf and Stock Publishers.