Thoughts on Secretariat: What it Means to Be a Woman

Daniel and I went to see the new movie Secretariat yesterday. After seeing the previews for weeks, we were really anticipating this weekend’s release of the movie. And it did not disappoint. Even though we knew the outcome of the story, we still were on the edge of our seats with each horse race. The character development was compelling and the acting was pretty good too. Overall it was a clean movie and worth our time. We would see it again.

However, like all movies, there were some themes to deconstruct as we drove home from the theater. The most obvious for us were the choices of the main character Penny Chenery Tweedy. Granted, I do not know her personally, nor do I know all of the details of this story. So I tread lightly and only with the limited information provided to me by Hollywood. The movie begins with Mrs. Tweedy and her family. She is a wife, mother of four children, and she works in the home—or as they call her in the movie, she is a housewife. That’s not an uncommon profession for late 1960’s America.

In the aftermath of her mother’s death, and in an effort to preserve her father’s legacy, she decides to take over the family horse farm, and specifically help train a horse for racing. This poses a problem. Her family lives in Denver, Colorado. Her parents live in Virginia. Her husband, who is portrayed as a downer to her efforts to save her parent’s legacy, wants her home. He tells her that her family needs her, but she tells him that this is something she needs to do. As the movie progresses we learn that she gave up a career to raise children. This, in her mind, seems to be her chance to make something of herself. To branch out on her own and live her dream. Because of this tension in her own life (family versus dreams) there is conflict between her and her husband throughout the entire movie.

Horse racing was a man's world during this time. But she worked hard to make a name for herself as a woman who knew what she was doing. At the end of the movie, after her horse has made it farther than anyone but her thought, her husband comes to her and essentially said, “you have taught our daughters what it means to be a woman.”

It’s a striking statement. But notice the time period of the movie. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. The Vietnam War was underway. And the women’s rights movement was going mainstream. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique was published ten years prior in 1963, asserting that women who were housewives were unfulfilled and trapped. In 1972, Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine. Nowhere does the movie imply that Mrs. Tweedy adheres to feminist thinking, but it is interesting that her transformation comes in a time where women across America were attempting to burst out of the supposed drudgery of caring for a family and home.

Her story is not unlike so many stories of women in that time period, and even now. The prevailing thinking being that ultimate fulfillment is in doing what is best for me individually—living my dream. I have heard people say that times are changing again. Instead of wives and mothers wanting to seek fulfillment outside of the home, young moms of my generation are now rebelling against what their mothers did. All this liberation and freedom rhetoric didn’t deliver and they want out. But is it enough to simply rebel against what generations previous did, even if it means more women are staying home?

There has to be something more. Simply rebelling against the radical feminism of past generations will not be enough to sustain us when the culture shifts in fifty years. We shouldn’t want to go back to the days of June Cleaver. We need to go back even farther, to a Garden in the Middle East, when God made Eve and called her a suitable helper for her husband. Without that framework for our marriages and families we will not be able to stand against the culture.

None of this makes sense without the Gospel. Jesus Christ’s work in the life of a woman changes her desires. Without Christ we want to seek our own way. We want to find fulfillment in things that will make much of ourselves. This doesn’t mean we don’t have interests or dreams. Those are good and right things. But once we are in Christ those dreams align with his mission and his purpose for us, and his glory in the world, not ours. Christ’s work in our lives frees us to live with reckless abandon for our husbands, children, friends, and family.

It is certainly true that Mrs. Tweedy by her actions taught her daughters something about being a woman. But if we want God’s good design for women to be proclaimed in our world we need to do more than just teach by our actions. We need to embrace the command in Titus 2:3-5 and teach and train specific things of God, not for our own glory, but for the fame of God’s great name.