Dreams without Boundaries

Dear Kimberly,

Last weekend, the film discussion group that I attend regularly viewed an advance screening of Amelia, the story of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, who was the first woman (and first person after Charles Lindbergh) to fly solo across the Atlantic.  Amelia Earhart helped form and was the first president of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of women pilots.

(I know how much you enjoyed seeing Hillary Swank portray Alice Paul in Iron-Jawed Angels, so I know you’ll enjoy seeing her play another strong woman here.  She actually seems to become Amelia Earhart in this portrayal.)

At the end of the film, after her attempt to fly around the world had ended in tragedy, the screen is filled with clouds as though we in the audience are soaring high above them, and we hear a voiceover in which Amelia says, “What do dreams know of boundaries?”

I remember hearing my parents talk about Amelia Earhart during my childhood, even though I was not quite two years old when her plane disappeared over the Pacific.  When I heard stories about her from time to time during my growing up years, I remember admiring her determination not to let discriminatory attitudes toward girls and women block her dreams.  Not that I ever wanted to fly (my brother became the pilot in the family), but I knew I didn’t ever want to be confined by traditional roles or told that “girls can’t do that.”  Like her, I didn’t want to believe my dreams had boundaries.

After seeing the movie, I looked at the Amelia Earhart official website and found this quote from her:

…now and then women should do for themselves what men have already done — occasionally what men have not done — thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action. Some such consideration was a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do.

Ways Religious Teachings Can Put Boundaries on Women’s Dreams

From the very beginning of this blog, Kimberly, you and I have talked about the importance of society’s recognition of  women as persons in their own right, without gender-based limitations imposed from the outside. I’ve been thinking a great deal about our most recent discussions about how certain religiousteachings have hindered the full potential of women. As you emphasized in your Sept. 20 post, no feminist who wants to bring about changes in attitudes toward women can afford to dismiss religious questions and issues as irrelevant.  Religion is too much a part of most societies.  And it can be either a positive or negative influence in attitudes toward women.

In analyzing how religion operates (not any one religion in particular, but religion in general), I thought we might find it useful to look at some specific ways it has operated to put boundaries on the dreams of girls and women.

Greer Litton Fox’s Categories of Control Strategies

In one of the earliest issues of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, sociologist Greer Litton Fox  wrote that while acknowledging the existence of cross-cultural variations, “there are three basic strategies used to regulate the freedom of women and to exert control over their behavior in the world.” The strategies she outlined were confinement, protection, and normative restriction. (See “‘Nice Girl,’”: Social Control of Women through a Value Construct.” Signssummer, 1977, Vol. 2, no 4, pp. 805-817).

The confinement strategy requires that a woman be restricted to her home and forbidden access to the world outside her home except on rare occasions in which she may leave the home accompanied by a male relative — an extreme example being the Taliban’s treatment of women where it has been in power. You may recall my April 20 post where I quoted from the documentary in which a young man studying at a Taliban school told the filmmaker, “Women are meant for domestic care, and that’s what they should do. The government should forbid women from wandering about outside.”  That is the confinement strategy for keeping women in their appointed place.

Professor Fox’s second category, protection, is a cultural control strategy that allows women some limited access to the world, but their movement within that world is strictly regulated and circumscribed by rules. They are under a type of guardianship.   An example would be the laws and customs of Saudi Arabia which forbid women to drive cars or to interact with men except for close male relatives. Shopping is done in females-only malls. According to the Human Rights Watch, “the impact of the ‘guardianship’ system, which requires Saudi women to obtain permission from male guardians before they can carry out a host of day-to-day activities, such as education, employment, travel, opening a bank account, or receiving medical care,”  can have negative consequences, such as when male guardians will not permit women to have surgery.  A 50-page 2008 Human Rights Watch report pointed out that women in such a system are considered “perpetual minors.” (In the United States, a type of protection control strategy also once lay behind the denial of a woman’s right to vote, own property, keep her own wages if employed and married, obtain a college education, and other grievances that were listed at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention.)

The third control strategy that Greer Litton Fox lists is normative restriction. “This form of control over the social behavior of women is embodied in such value constructs as ‘good girl,’ ‘lady,’ or ‘nice girl.’ As a value construct the latter term connotes chaste, gentle, gracious, ingenuous, good, clean, kind virtuous, noncontroversial, and above suspicion or reproach” (p. 805).

She writes that the three strategies are distinguished by the degree of interaction with the world that  is permitted and whether the control is imposed externally (the first two categories) or internally (normative restriction).

In other words, social control of women can be exercised through a society’s insistence on seclusion, or through segregation and protection, or through a system designed in such a way that women will internalize certain societal norms about how they should act even apart from external coercion.  The one idea behind all of these strategies, however, is that persons born female should be limited in ways that males are not.

Religious Control and its Effects on Women

In her Signs article, Greer Litton Fox was not talking about religion specifically but about culturaldifferences in the social control of women.  However, the system of beliefs, values, laws, and customs that constitute culture certainly includes religion and in many cases is based in large part on religious beliefs and practices.

Since you and I are writing as committed Christian feminists whose faith is very important to us, Kimberly, I think it’s important to acknowledge honestly that certain teachings and biblical interpretations in our particular tradition have had detrimental effects on girls and women.  Since both of us have had some background in the subculture of conservative Christianity specifically, we’ve both  had the experience of hearing sermons or reading books that teach women’s subordination (if not actualinferiority), no matter how much the words are couched in theological terms like gender complementarity (equal in worth but divinely ordained to be separate in roles).

For example, Litton-Fox’s first two categories of confinement or protection might not be required by actual laws or taken literally in the sense of forbidding Christian women to leave their homes, but we’ve both heard sermons that sound very much like what I found in a very old commentary on 1 Timothy 2:12 (“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”). Here are the comments on that verse:  “St. Paul shows what is the only proper sphere in which woman should work, and in which she should exercise her influence and power: while men’s work and duties lay in the busy world without, women’s work was exclusively confined to the quiet stillness of home.”

Litton-Fox’s construct of the “nice girl” inner-control mechanism (normative restriction) comes into play, too.  The commentary refers to the admonition in verse 15 that tells women to “continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.” The commentator writes that this shows “the beautiful Pauline conception of a true woman, who wins her sweet and weighty power in the world by self-effacement”  (Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Zondervan, 1940, Vol 8., p. 188).

Now of course, the qualities of modesty and humility (if that’s what the writer means here by the termself-effacement) in contrast to an overbearing spirit of arrogance are certainly good qualities for anybody, but to separate them out as being uniquely required of women is where the problem comes in.  You wrote about this in your discussion of pride in your March 31 post.

There is no denying the effect such teachings continue to have on girls and women today.  Imagine a bright, gifted, ambitious young girl being told she has no right to teach in church if men or present, no right to be an ordained pastor, no right to aspire to any career beyond homemaking and caring for children and a husband (to whom she must submit).

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, Kimberly!  You heard those teachings and questioned them yourself as a teenager.  I remember one of your earliest letters to me (a few months before we started this blog) in which you said that growing up, you had been taught to be a “Titus 2 woman, which meant the older women taught the girls in the church about proper ‘Christian womanhood.’” You went on to say, “We learned women only taught women (and they taught them to be submissive homemakers!).”

(For our readers who may not have a Bible handy, the Titus 2:3-5 passage under discussion says this in the NIV translation:

3  Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. )

I loved the part of that letter where you said (after having read some Christian feminist writings), “I have to tell you I sort of smiled today when I thought about the value of older women guiding younger women in feminism” (italics added).

Again, it’s important to stress that there is nothing wrong and everything right about loving one’s spouse and children, practicing self-control, kindness, and purity of heart, thoughts, and motives. But to disregard the historical and cultural context in which the passage was written and to use it to insist on segregated gender roles and a wife’s subjection to her husband is what causes the problem (which has been compounded by the King James translation that instructed older women to teach younger women that they were to be “keepers at home.”)  Teaching women of all times and in all places that God intends them to be restricted to the gender roles and rules of a patriarchal culture “so that no one will malign the word of God” might well have the opposite effect today.  You and I have both met women (and some men) who have been “turned off” by Christianity because of what they have heard it teaches about women and the limits it places on them.  Highly educated, capable young women in our day are not likely to respond well to mentors who instruct them to forget any aspirations beyond homemaking (which would be totally unrealistic anyway, if for no other reason than the constraints imposed on families by today’s economic situation).

Internalized Control through “Normative Restriction”

I hope in our future letters we can discuss more fully how normative restrictions — the built-in, internalized beliefs based on teachings some of us have heard — continue to affect women, even after they have tried to disregard them or have come to look at them in different ways.  Sometimes I hear women say they still find lingering doubts popping up and find themselves thinking, “What if they (conservative Christian interpretations) are right and I’m disobeying God and sinning by disregarding what I was taught?”

Of course, internalized control affects those of other faiths, too.  Do you remember the “Shattered Dreams” section of my April letter about the Muslim school teacher and his 11-year-old daughter in the Swat Valley in Pakistan as they prepared for their last day of school before the Taliban closed it?  The young girl highly valued her education and said she wanted to be a doctor.  Recently, the interviewer, Adam Ellick, did a follow-up story for the New York Times with a video about the family’s experience as refugees after being forced out of their home.  During all the time that Ellick was filming the two videos, the wife was never seen because of the religious custom of a wife’s not being permitted to be seen by men outside the family.  She was not allowed to be filmed and remained in another room throughout the interviews.  “Not even my lifetime friends have seen her,” the teacher told Ellick.  Then to Ellick’s surprise, one day the teacher asked the interviewer to drive the entire family to a relative’s home.  The wife/mother got into the car, never said a word, and was fully covered in a burqa.

Ellick wrote: “For Mr. Yousafzai [the teacher], the situation highlighted one of the prevailing conflicts in his life: he’s undeniably attracted to the personal freedoms in the West, but also loyal to his own religious traditions.” This is an excellent example of how “normative restrictions” — internalized religious norms in this case — can govern our lives and cause struggles within.

Later during Ellick’s interview and second video filming, Mr. Yousafzai brought his wife out briefly — but just for an instant, and only her back could be seen, never her face.  Yet it was a first step and took great courage on the husband’s part, Ellick wrote.  (Incidentally, Malala, the young girl, has given up her dream of becoming a doctor.  Now she says she is determined to be a politician and bring change to her country.)

More to Discuss

I hope we can continue discussing the inner struggles we and other women have had because of the normative restrictions we’ve incorporated into our very being, Kim, often without even realizing it.  How have internalized ideas from what we’ve been taught is “God’s will for women” affected our aspirations, our self-esteem, our decisions, our relationships, our feelings of self-efficacy?  And equally important, what are some ways we as Christian women can draw upon our faith, our feminism, and our theological and biblical scholarship (not isolated proof texts) to help other women learn that questioning and seeing other ways to understand their faith does not mean they are turning their back on God?

As women, we all need to learn that we can indeed live out our dreams.  As Amelia Earhart said, “What do dreams know of boundaries?”  And since I started this letter with some quotes from her, let me end with another one.

On the Wednesday, October 21 NPR program On Point, host Tom Ashbrook interviewed Susan Butler, author of “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart” one of the two biographies on which the movie was based. During the program, Tom Ashbrook played a clip of Amelia Earhart speaking her own words (from a PBS documentary).  “I’ve had practical experience to know the discrimination against women in various forms of industry,” she said.  “A pilot’s a pilot.  I hope that such equality could be carried out in other fields so that men and women may achieve equally in any endeavor they set out.”

That’s a good note on which to end.  But there’s so  much more to talk about, Kim!  As always, I’ll look forward to your thoughts about all this.

Your friend,

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.


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