It's not me - it's God
Back on my trad momfluencers bullshit!
Trad momfluencers decry women actively seeking power and agency outside of the home. Trad momfluencers actively seek power and agency outside of the home via their social media platforms. Therein lies a contradiction central to my continued fascination.
Readers of Momfluenced (still very much available for purchase lol) will be familiar with Kelly Havens Stickle - she’s an Anne Shirley lookalike who makes aprons, calico dresses, and espouses her love of God, self-sacrificial motherhood, and homemaking from her Instagram account, which has nearly 60k followers.
In the above post, Stickle writes about her ambition. But of course, she doesn’t use the word ambition because ambition is a worldly word used by cranky feminists determined to seek out “unnatural” lives outside of the domestic sphere. No, it’s not ambition that drives Stickle to stage photographs of herself demurely reading the bible by candlelight so she can share it with her followers via either her phone or her computer—objects she’d never feature in her photos—which rarely reveal anything that could be identified as coming from this century.
Social media will never know the real us. Social media will never tell us who we are. Only being nestled in the goodness of God will do that. I am created to write books, and to pioneer a genre of film that’s very spiritual, in a time that’s heavily focused on the outward. And despite my love for the home, I’m not meant to stay home-bound forever, but to travel at times as an artistic missionary.
Stickle does not want to write books because she feels the need for self-expression or intellectual stimulation. She apparently has no desire to be viewed as someone with interesting thoughts or a certain level of expertise. If it were up to her, she’d be perfectly content “home-bound forever.” It’s just that God has bigger plans for her. And one of those plans involves Meta, a company complicit in harming women seeking abortion care, a company implicated in negative mental health outcomes for women and girls, and a company which harvests our personal information in order to fuel capitalism.
Of course, most of us use Instagram and other social media platforms owned by corrupt tech companies to share what we believe to be useful, educational, or inspirational content because where else would we share those things? It would be absurd to hold Stickle to a standard I myself certainly can’t pretend to aspire to.
But despite knowing that we’re all making moral compromises by giving our time, attention, and money to companies like Meta, I find the interplay between supposedly selfless servants of God and an app most notable for its commitment to performance and self-presentation - bewildering. For me, a Godless (but not godless) cynic whose work is at least partially tethered to showing up on social media, the allure of living a life devoted to a higher power lies in getting to cut ties with my anxieties over being continuously translated by an audience. Isn’t that the point? Or at least part of the point?
Trad momfluencers frequently promise their followers the bliss of simplicity and certainty by espousing devotion to God and adherence to essentialist constructions of gender. All women can be free from doubt and live in our truth, they claim, once we accept our “natural” roles as caretakers and helpmeets. And in this particular post by Kelly Havens Stickle, apparently that sense of rightness and moral clarity will extend all the way to our participation in the attention economy. Just as I (obviously) believe that encouraging women to relinquish their agency, autonomy, and personal freedoms for the sake of upholding and perpetuating heteropatriarchal nuclear family ideals is harmful, so too do I think that absolving Christian trad momfluencers of any sort of complicity in the ethically ambiguous spider web that is social media prevents us from holding them accountable for their actions.
I’ve written before about how trad momfluencers are powerful storytellers and savvy wielders of influence, and Stickle is no exception. In the following passage, she demonstrates that maybe she too is aware that her self-branding seems at odds with her identity as someone solely interested in submission to God.
Only He can leads us on, stone by stone, above the wide ocean sea of the wilderness of this world, into what He made us for.
Instagram is like one of those stones under my feet. A door I can’t seem to close.
It’s not that I want to be on Instagram or take any personal satisfaction in staging photo shoots or highlighting the most aesthetically enviable parts of my life, Stickle seems to be saying, It’s just that God wants me here. On Instagram.
Stickle absolves herself of any accusations of vanity, artifice, or self-interest by firmly identifying God as the one in control of her life and actions, but she does this on Instagram, an app inextricably linked to commodification of the self.
White Christian women have been utilizing both their faith and their gender to access power and cultural influence for centuries. Think of Susan B. Anthony, who fought for white women’s right to vote at the expense of Black men’s same right, or Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who forged careers as writers; writers espousing particular tenets of whiteness, domesticity, and femininity. Think of Magda Goebbels, who accessed power through both her adherence to Nazi ideals of womanhood and through her marriage to Joseph Goebbels, or Eliza R. Snow, who grew to great prominence by teaching Mormon women to obey and submit to their husbands. Or Phyllis Schafly, whose fierce professional ambition was to prevent access to other women pursuing their own professional ambitions, and who pursued political power under the guise of famously “asking” her husband’s permission to do so.
Many of these women have been explicitly recruited by men to help halt or impede feminist progress. In her article, “#AmplifyWomen: the emergence of an evangelical feminist public on social media,” published in the Feminist Media Studies journal, Corrina Laughlin writes that evangelical men like Jerry Falwell “strategically deployed evangelical spokeswomen to help spread their anti-feminist vision.” Laughlin quotes Susan Faludi in noting that many of these women, particularly in the wake of second wave feminism, “were voicing anti feminist views—while internalizing the message of the women’s movement and quietly incorporating its tenets of self-determination, equality, and freedom of choice into their private behavior.” It was and continues to be a classic case of Do as I say, not as I do.
Perhaps Stickle is aware of the incongruity central to her platform, perhaps she’s like all of us in that she’s ambivalent about her social media usage and wants not to be. Or perhaps she simply wants to assure her followers that by clicking “purchase now” on her handmade dresses, they’re not participating in mindless consumption like the rest of us lemmings filling our virtual carts with Christy Dawn dresses, status sweaters, and Oak Essentials face balms - they’re connecting to the glory of God via one of His messengers here on
But sometimes…we need to see someone else express it. Someone to show how to let go and smile despite the growing pains. Someone to say, look at the goodness of God!! With His help, I’ll be that once more. ♥️
Here’s the thing though. When I scroll Stickle’s feed, I’m looking at the goodness not of God, but of a life. Stickle’s life. And Stickle’s intentional crafting of her account is what makes her life look good. If you’re a Christian struggling to surrender to God’s calling, struggling to banish ugly thoughts, or struggling with your faith in His plan (for you or the quickly burning planet), Stickle is #relatable in sharing her experience trying to work through a “very real difficulty” that God made “light and straight.” She’s #aspirational by way of hand-kilned or hand-kilned-looking pottery and an evidently blissful marriage (thanks to wifely devotion). She’s #authentic in her performance of vulnerability. But despite checking off every box in the momfluencer handbook, Stickle stubbornly denies her status as a momfluencer by reminding us that nothing she does or says is off her own volition, not really. It’s always God’s idea first. Stickle isn’t on Instagram to sate herself on external validation via likes and adoring comments; she’s not on Instagram to make a few bucks on gingham aprons. She’s not even on Instagram because creating and sharing beautiful images feels nice sometimes. She’s merely being a good Christian woman by not only submitting to her husband and God, but by doing so in a public sphere, for an audience of 57,000 people.
I’m not alone in finding the intersection of evangelicalism and influencing worthy of further inquiry. Christian women of power and influence are also considering the sticky intermingling of personal branding and spreading God’s gospel, like in this Twitter thread, initiated by Beth Moore, who is a prominent Christian speaker, author, and entrepreneur. In the tweet, Moore writes: “As we platformers consider some things that need crucifying with Christ I vote personal branding. It's gross.”
Again! I’m struck by the inherent contradiction of this statement! If one is a “platformer,” one can not help but engage in personal branding. A platform is built by a persons’s individual choices concerning the messages she wants to share and how she wants to be perceived. This is her personal brand. God-inspired or not.
Perusing Moore’s Instagram grid, I’m able to get a clear sense of her central messaging, her expertise, and her general vibe. This is her personal brand.
And listen, I too find the job of personal branding “gross.” If I didn’t think it was at least marginally important to my career, I wouldn’t do it. It’s both a time suck and often a psychological minefield I’d prefer to avoid. Plus aforementioned point about Meta being evil. I think there’s something disingenuous about claiming to be free from accusations of “gross” inauthenticity vis-à-vis personal branding simply because you’re backed by a higher religious authority.
A commenter on Moore’s Twitter thread wrote: “Makes me sick. Tears fill my eyes as I think about my place & my people. Bc brand building says : Holy work, faithfulness, is not enough.”
And she’s right! In order to cultivate a large online following, “holy work” and “faithfulness” are not enough. Even the Godly among us are forced to mess around in the muck of self-performance on social media. No one is exempt.
Would Kelly Havens Stickle have over 50,000 followers if she posted unvarnished, artless photos of biblical passages, or even if she simply posted photos of flowers (even if those flower photos were well lit and framed!)? Would she have held my fascination for so long if her Instagram platform was not a highly curated performance of her own selfhood? What would followers and oglers like me have to latch onto if Stickle didn’t have a clear personal brand? Not much.
Yet, in our pursuit to proclaim the message, there is the temptation to uplift the name of the messenger. Many women struggle with the idea of platform building because of the temptation to build ourselves up in the minds of others. When used with the proper motives, however, a platform is an excellent way to build up the kingdom of God.
I’m caught up on the mention of “proper motives.” Who determines what is proper or not? If my goal with my social media platform is to make mothers and women feel validated and empowered in anti-caregiver-America, is that a proper motive? If my goal is to sell my book so I can contribute to my household financially, is that a proper motive? Even if the answer is “yes,” how does the goodness of the motive justify my collusion with a company devoted to parting all of us with our time and our money?
Whiting counsels her readers to ask themselves a series of questions to determine whether or not their platforms are serving God or themselves, and one of those questions is “Am I looking to be sent or to be seen?” Instagram is nothing if not a platform explicitly designed for people to showcase themselves, to be seen. Avoiding “being seen” on INSTAGRAM will not lead to a flourishing social media platform, and this means that everyone, even if they’re being directed by God and God alone, must do the sometimes unsavory work of creating a personal brand. And if that work leads us to scrutinize our actions and interrogate our motives, that’s a good thing! We could all afford to be more thoughtful about our usage of social media, and the whole “God made me do it” rationalization feels like a deliberate shutting down of personal reflection.
In addition to emphasizing her role as God’s servant as rationale for maintaining her social media presence, Stickle also frequently underscores her submission to her husband as critical to her peace and wellbeing. Here’s an excerpt from a caption to another Instagram post, which showcases a painting of Stickle and her husband embracing.
These paintings express the joy and rest in perfect submission to our husbands as unto Christ. As women, when we embrace our divinely appointed roles as helpmeets, cultivators of beauty, and caretakers of the home, we find perfect rest. We feel secure and “held” by God because then we are in alignment with His perfect design.
Again and again, Stickle’s focus on women’s “natural” roles as wives and mothers in the domestic sphere is at odds with her own Instagram platform, which is firmly situated in the market sphere of capitalism. We’re always selling something on social media, whether that something is a product, a service, or a worldview.
And despite framing herself as merely a messenger, and first and foremost as a wife and a believer, Stickle is a “charismatic authority” for the tens of thousands of women who follow her on Instagram. Corrina Laughlin, in her article about evangelical women asserting authority online, cites Max Weber as defining a “charismatic authority” as dependent on “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Kelly Havens Stickle’s performance of a woman unshaken in her religious faith and moral code, has made herself, whether she wants to be or not, a “charismatic authority” other women can aspire to emulate. It is her “exceptional sanctity” that allows her to be God’s mouthpiece, and without her artistic eye, the specificity of her prose, and yes, her personal branding, she would not be as successful.
Trad wives’ messaging continually proves alluring to many of us (even atheist, feminist women), because they claim to have discovered the key to ultimate security and contentment, and they argue that this glorious certainty is based on some sort of ancient or timeless truth, or a belief in a time when gender roles, motherhood, and marriage were “simpler.” Without considering intersectional identities, they argue that all women and mothers could find complete happiness if they simply surrendered to God and husband, if they just gave in to their femininity and a commitment to childrearing and domestic work, if they stopped fighting so hard for egalitarian partnerships, systemic support for care work, and cultural respect.
And in a country that’s only getting more complicated, exhausting, and impossible for women and mothers, trad momfluencers are dangerous because they’re offering respite from [gestures wildly] life in 2023. And this respite is contingent on an exclusionary, harmful amalgamation of religion and politics. Jeanna Kadlec, author of Heretic (which I can’t recommend highly enough), in an interview for The Cut, highlights the impact of not just explicitly trad wife accounts (like Stickle’s) but also “Christian girl autumn” accounts, and underscores how even “basic pumpkin-spice-latte bitch” accounts are ultimately ideological.
The values that are underpinning their life and everything they’re saying are gender essentialism, biblical manhood and womanhood; you have to have children, there’s a right way to do a marriage. You just have to be able to discern that beneath the pale Instagram filter.
Trad wives and “basic pumpkin-spice-latte bitches” alike argue that women and men would all be better off if we stayed in our own gendered lanes, which are good and right, largely because they’re rooted in a hazy “back when.”
But back when exactly?
According to religious scholarsand Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the Christian concept of “complementarianism,” which emphasizes traditional gender roles and a woman’s submission to her husband’s authority, isn’t nearly as “traditional” as we think it is. The term itself was coined as recently as 1988, and in this New Yorker piece Barr notes that, “It isn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the aftermath of the scientific revolution, that gender roles harden in western Christianity.” Following the Industrial Revolution, women’s brains were viewed as scientifically limited in their capabilities, and it was deemed not only Christian to devote oneself fully to domesticity as a woman, but in keeping with supposedly biological limitations. There’s nothing “ancient” in assuming women are best at domesticity and men are best at leadership, unless you think a bunch of 19th century eugenicists or a few dudes threatened by second-wave feminism represent antiquity.
Another Christian woman who preached about women’s natural submission to their husbands was Elisabeth Elliot, who came to prominence a bit before the term “complementarianism” was coined, and who made her name speaking to conservative women about gender equality being at odds with God’s plan. Despite complementarianism clearly mandating that a woman’s proper place is in the home being led by her husband, the definition conveniently provides a loophole for some women (like Stickle and Elliot) to work outside of the home, provided this work is telling other women not to follow their example.
In “hard” forms of complementarianism, women rarely work outside the home, have conclusive authority over important household decisions, or teach men in church. (They are permitted to teach children and women.)
They are permitted to teach children and women.
At first read, it might seem as though the men who came up with complementarianism don’t view the ideas of children and women as powerful. Why else would they allow women to influence those ideas? But it’s the opposite. Conservative Christian men have always recognized the potential for women to help subjugate other women. They understand that women’s ideas and their ability to disseminate those ideas - matter.
It matters that trad momfluencers argue that wives “owe” their husbands sex as part of their marital duty, it matters that they’re spreading anti-trans rhetoric, it matters that they’re encouraging women to “bridle their tongues,” and it matters that trad momfluencers sell their followers on a blissful existence divorced from nuance, context, and moral ambiguity.
Christian women devoted to spreading their religious beliefs have always found ways to circumvent sexist mandates that women’s work stay confined to the domestic sphere, but social media has made it easier than ever for them to perform a version of “authentic” Christian womanhood that goes beyond leading quietly by example IRL. On Instagram, Kelly Havens Stickle and others are able to use their carefully curated personal brands to sell their followers a vision of life made specific and aspirational by lighting, staging, photographic composition, and the showcasing of life’s highlight reels. Without the layer of performance necessary for creating a compelling personal brand, trad wives could not make their internalized misogyny look so pretty, so joyful, so aesthetically pleasing. It is impossible to be “authentic” on social media, even if God is pulling the strings.