When Gender Roles Become Straitjackets

Dear Kimberly,

I’ve been concerned that some of our recent conversations might strike our readers as irrelevant during this current economic crisis.  It’s one thing for us to talk theoretically about whether or not women should make a career of caring for the home and children while men earn income in the workforce; it’s quite another to face up to the realities of today’s marketplace where such choices may not even be possible.

The percentage of women in the workplace has fallen in recent years.   Noticing the trend, some writers have claimed that more and more women have chosen to opt out of paid employment to devote themselves to homemaking instead.

Not so, say recent government data.   True, many women are leaving jobs, but so too are many men.  As Louis Uchitelle, an economics reporter for the New York Times, has written:

“After moving into virtually every occupation, women are being afflicted on a large scale by the same troubles as men: downturns, layoffs, outsourcing, stagnant wages or the discouraging prospect of an outright pay cut. And they are responding as men have, by dropping out or disappearing for a while. . . .While men are rarely thought of as dropping out to run the household, that is often the assumption when women pull out.” (“Women Are Now Equal as Victims of Poor Economy,” New York Times, July 22, 2008)

Maybe instead of saying women are leaving jobs, we should be saying that jobs are leaving women — and men.  And in these troubled times, finding new jobs of any kind, much less at comparable pay, has become extremely difficult.

Out of Touch Pastors

And yet, in spite of all the economic woes, some preachers (such as the one whose sermon you described) insist on telling wives that God doesn’t permit them to shoulder part of the economic load by earning income — and telling husbands they are less than men if they shoulder part of the household load, especially if it involves staying home to care for the home and children.

How couples divide up these respective responsibilities is up to them, not some judgmental preacher who knows nothing about their situation.  Furthermore, what a couple decides may vary at different periods of life as determined by variable circumstances, different preferences, and the growing maturity of children as they move toward the time they will be independent.  There’s no one-size-fits-all pattern for marriage and parenthood.

I was appalled to hear that the preacher you mentioned indicated that couples who mutually work out an arrangement in which the husband stays home to care for children while the wife works at her career (regardless of reasons) may be considered candidates for church discipline — perhaps even excommunication! For a pastor to claim such dictatorial power over people’s everyday lives and personal decision-making smacks more of cult-like authoritarianism than it  conjures up an image of a loving community of believers representative of Christ’s body, the church — a community in which the pastor nurtures and guides and steers clear of issuing orders and threats.

I once heard a pastor say that if a wife works outside the home, it means that the couple is “living beyond their God-intended means.”  Again, it shows a pastor out of touch with reality.  His comment is based on the assumption that work is done only to make money, with no hint of understanding that a woman might want to contribute her knowledge and abilities to make the world a better place, or because she loves her profession — or wants to fulfill her dreams, as you have often expressed it in your letters.  Such a statement about “God-intended means” also assumes that all two-earner families are spending their money extravagantly and that one earner could be expected to be paid adequate income to provide for a family in these times of income freezes, pay cuts, and constantly rising costs — even for such essentials as housing, food, clothing, health insurance, transportation, and a college education.  With few exceptions, such a living wage just isn’t happening in today’s economy.

Those who insist that gender roles are ordained by God for all times and places — and that such roles are rigid and unchanging — are robbing couples of the freedom for which Christ has set us free and are imposing a legalistic interpretation of Scripture.  Couples should not be made to feel guilty for trying to find what works best for them in their particular situation.

What Heterosexual Couples Can Learn from Gay and Lesbian Couples

As I write this column, the Connecticut Supreme Court has just overturned a ban on same-sex marriage, making Connecticut the third state to legalize marriage for gay and lesbian couples. (The other two states are Massachusetts and California.)  As legalization of same-sex committed relationships occurs more often, whether through civil unions in some states or marriages in others, social scientists are studying how these couples are handling the everyday details of their lives together. On the basis of the evidence in thus far, some scholars are concluding that heterosexual couples may have much to learn from these same-sex couples who are legally committed to each other.

A same-sex couple, just like a heterosexual couple, must work out issues in their relationships, including how they deal with power issues, personal conflicts, and how they handle various household, child-care, and income-earning responsibilities.  Studies are showing that since such couples cannot automatically fall back on prescribed husband-wife roles and  a traditional division of labor based on gender, they by necessity have to make arrangements that work for their personal situation. And as a result, same-sex relationships tend to be more egalitarian. These couples have also been found to handle conflict more satisfactorily than heterosexual couples who are governed by traditional gender-role and power expectations.

Rigid Gender Roles as a Procrustean Bed

According to an ancient fable, the robber Procrustes engaged in a cruel practice toward those who had the misfortune of becoming his victims.  He placed them on a bed of a certain size and forced them to fit its dimensions either by stretching them mercilessly or sawing off their limbs.   An insistence on inflexible gender roles to which all persons must conform, regardless of their own personalities, interests, and preferences, can feel very much like a Procrustean Bed.

That was what I meant in my last post (September 30) in which I said I wanted to talk more in this current letter about your remarks about the loss persons can feel when they begin to experience society’s messages about how they should feel, act, and be on the basis of gender.  You were talking about a study in which fathers were reminded of their own loss as they watched their sons enter a school environment where their previous tenderness was expected to be hidden under an exterior of toughness — even though it was hard. The quivering lip and misting eyes must be held in check, since “big boys don’t cry.”

Dar Williams’s Song, “When I Was Boy”

In her concerts, contemporary folk singer Dar Williams often includes a song she wrote titled,”When I Was a Boy.” It captures the sense of  freedom and openness to adventure that both girls and boys experience as young children but which boys are permitted to retain throughout life. Young girls, however, are expected (or required ) to give up such freedom as they move into young womanhood.

So in her song, Dar looks back on her childhood days, fondly remembering them as the time when she, too, enjoyed  exhilarating freedom and daring adventures and, in essence, “was a boy.”   She could fly high in her imagination, fight, climb trees, imagine she was a pirate, ride her bike fearlessly (even topless, until a neighbor says she must put on her shirt), and go out at night to catch fireflies.

But as she grows to be a young woman, she begins feeling the loss of who she has always been.  In a clothing store, she gets the message that her body is supposed to objectified by dressing for the eyes of men rather than for her own comfort and activities. And as she is leaving an event with some friends one night, she is told it’s not safe unless she has a man to protect her.  So she tells her male companion about her early life “as a boy” and concedes the war of the sexes, admitting that he, being male, has won the contest to be his true self and enjoy a status superior to that of females.

But he surprises her with his “Oh no, no, no.”  He tells her that when he “was a girl,” he and his mother had enjoyed their long talks and time together. And he liked to pick flowers.  And he had felt free to cry and to be tender and kind.  The song ends with his saying he and she are just like each other.  In other words, they had both lost something because of society’s gender constructs.  (Dar recorded “When I Was a Boy” on her album, The Honesty Room, and the song is also available in MP3 format for purchase as a single online.)

“Summer’s End”

Years ago, I saw an award-winning television drama on a similar theme when it was broadcast on PBS.  Titled, “Summer’s End,” and written by Beth Brickell, it has also been broadcast on Showtime, A & E, and Nickelodean and shown at numerous film festivals, garnering honors all along the way.  I had been trying to find it again for years, because I had so identified with the 10-year-old girl featured in it.  The drama depicts one day in the child’s life.  It takes place in a small town shortly after the end of World War II — another reason I identified with it because I was that same age around the same time, and my childhood activities were much like hers.  I mention it here, Kimberly, because it makes the same point as Dar Williams’s song made.

In “Summer’s End,” a mother has made an appointment with a beautician to rid her “tomboy” daughter of her pigtails  (I had pigtails, too) and give her a permanent wave so that she can be acceptable to other girls and their mothers as she enters the sixth grade at summer’s end.  The mother, who accepts and abides by traditional gender roles without question, believes that by making the girl more ladylike, she will be shielding the child from social ridicule.   But instead she breaks the little girl’s heart. The child just wants to be herself and follow her own interests, curiosity, and activities.  It is clear that the mother’s message is not about hairstyles but about gender-role conformity. It is the girl’s father who understands and comforts her as he tells her that “being a boy isn’t so easy either.”

I was recently able to view this drama again after an Internet search showed me that “Summer’s End,” along with another of Beth Brickell’s short dramas, “A Rainy Day,” are now combined on a DVD called Mothers & Daughters: Sometimes a Difficult Relationship.   Try to watch the DVD sometime if you have a chance.

(The other story on the DVD fits with our recent discussions, too, and shows how a child can be harmed by a mother who makes housekeeping and parenthood her total career and gives her child too much attention, discouraging the little girl’s independence. The mothering becomes smothering.  You can watch the trailer for both short films here.

Well, I guess I should move from Summer’s End” to “letter’s end” and bring this to a close! I think we’re talking about topics that touch a nerve for a lot of people, and it’s always so good to hear the comments that our readers add to the conversation, as you said in your last letter.  I’ll sign off now and look forward to your next post.

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.


  1. What a nice compliment that you remember Summer’s End from when it was broadcast on television. Every filmmaker hopes their work will have a positive impact on viewers, and it’s a lovely validation to know that my film about a personal experience that I had at age 10 had so much meaning to you. Thank you. Beth Brickell

  2. i must agree with you Beth Brickell, today society really is forcing gender rols on everybody. It seems shocking to see a woman single and making a nice living for herself or having a house-hold where the husband stays at home to take care of the children while the wife/mother is out making a living for her family. I, also, must agree with you about the whole same sex marriage and how their gender roles are not defined, in my opinion it is easier to define your own role in the house-hold then being told by society on what to do.


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