Great and Not-So-Great Expectations

Dear Kimberly,

While listening to NPR’s Morning Edition earlier this week, I was struck by a phrase that reminded me of some of our discussions on this blog.  The phrase? “Expectations of how a woman judge should act.”

It occurred during a discussion about critics of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor who claim her style is “overly aggressive.”  Senator Lindsey Graham was quoted as saying that he doesn’t like “bully judges,” and implied that the term might apply to the nominee’s temperament.  With this and similar harsh judgments in mind, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg interviewed Sotomayor’s mentor, Judge Guido Calabresi, the former dean of the Yale Law School. Calibresi had been keeping track of how Sotomayer questioned attorneys in cases brought before the Court of Appeals as compared to how male judges questioned them.

“I must say I found no difference at all,” said Calibresi. “So I concluded that all that was going on was that there were some male lawyers who couldn’t stand being questioned toughly by a woman. It was sexism in its most obvious form.”

Nina Totenberg reported that when she asked him how he would explain similar criticism if it came from a female attorney, Calabresi told her that women also can be sexist “in their expectations of how a woman judge should act.”

Gloria Steinem has speculated, in another context, that sexism of this sort among both women and men may be pervasive for this reason:

. . . .[M]ost of us of every race have experienced female authority when we were children, so we think it’s not appropriate to adulthood. Some people feel regressed to childhood when they see a powerful woman — which is another reason why men should plan an equal role in raising children, and why women should be equally in authority outside the home.  (From“Gloria Steinem: Still Committing ‘Outrageous Acts’ at 75,” an interview with Gloria Steinem by Joni Evans for The Women on the Web website–

I wonder if such (possibly unconscious) fears of being regarded as children may explain the anxieties some male church leaders have as they keep sounding alarms about what they term the “feminization of the church.”  It would help explain their fondness for emphasizing 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and applying it to the church today without regard to its historical and cultural context.  (“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent,” NRSV).  You and I are both aware of how often this passage continues to be quoted in many conservative Christian circles, where it is generalized as being intended for all times and places, not a local situation.

But I don’t want to get sidetracked here; I want to move on to talk about expectations in general and how that theme fits with our most recent discussions about the seemingly disconnected topics of Susan Boyle, the Taliban’s denial of education for girls, and your last letter about the commodification of women’s sexuality in advertising.

Revisiting the Susan Boyle phenomenon as a case study in expectations

When Scottish singer Susan Boyle auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent, the judges and the audience expected little of her because she looked so ordinary. And when she said she was 47 years old, talent judge Simon Cowell raised his eyebrows and scowled, possibly shocked at her audacity in thinking she had a right to be on the stage at that age.  (Cowell himself was 49 at the time — I looked up his birthdate.  I’m reminded of Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s observation in Beyond the Double Bind that one of the double binds women find themselves in is the prevalent idea that “when men age, they gain wisdom and power; as women age, they wrinkle and become superfluous.”)

So it wasn’t hard to see that Susan Boyle, a woman who wanted to achieve her dream, was up against both ageism and lookism.  Most people seemed to expect her to fail and be quickly pushed aside to make way for the next contestant. But instead, she wowed the audience onto their feet and became an immediate worldwide sensation through YouTube.

But then a whole new set of expectations emerged. Now it was assumed that she would happily yield to an image others wanted to dictate to her and be “made over.”  If she could perform,  she must also conform.   She was expected to change her appearance, appreciate the unrelenting media pressure, and play the celebrity game.  Having been thrust upon her so suddenly in just a few weeks, that game didn’t seem to fit her.  I believe she simply wanted to share the gift of her voice with the world and not have to deal with all the trappings that the entertainment industry expects to go with it.  She had difficulty coping and was hospitalized with exhaustion. The media criticized her harshly and spread many rumors that (according to one of the show’s judges ) were both unfair and untrue, not to mention lacking compassion.

But totally apart from the Susan Boyle story, I see a pattern in this trajectory that in a somewhat different way can illustrate and represent what often happens to all of us as women.  It’s all about expectations.

Low expectations

Women have not been expected to achieve to the extent that men are expected to achieve and so women have often been blocked from having a chance to prove they can.

I know you love history, Kim, and we’ve often discussed the foolish ideas that were promulgated to keep women from having access to education, voting, and career aspirations.  Women’s minds were said to be weaker, their brains smaller, their bodies more fragile. And exposure to too much education was thought to harm women’s abilities to bear and rear children.  Governor John Winthrop of the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony  wrote about a woman who had been afflicted by an infirmity in which she “lost her understanding and reason” over a period of years because, he said, she had “given herself wholly to reading and writing and had written many books.”  He went on to say that her loving husband realized too late that he was in error by not insisting she devote her time solely to household duties “and had not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger.”

(Winthrop’s statement in 1645 is reminiscent of  something we discussed in our two most recent blog posts, the assertion of the Taliban that girls and women existed for domesticity alone and have no business getting an education or being out and about in public.)

Now fast forward to the 20th century. When Steven Goldberg’s controversial book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy was published in the 1970s, he argued for the existence of a “biologically-based male superiority” that equips the male sex for dominance and achievements. He claimed that “there is not a single woman whose genius has approached that of any number of men in philosophy, mathematics, composing, theorizing of any kind, or even painting.”  Goldberg conveniently ignored all the roadblocks placed in women’s way or the fact that women did accomplish such things but had to publish, paint, or compose under a male name to even get their works into public viewing (and then usually without acknowledgment of their contributions).

Fast forward again to the 21st century, where the debate continues about the degree to which women in comparison to men are likely to excel in such fields as mathematics, science, and engineering, and observe the disagreements about whether differences in scientific achievements are due to nature or nurture.

In an article for Women’s E-News (June 17, 2009), Caryl Rivers tells of numerous studies (all too often ignored by the media) that are showing that girls can perform as well as boys in science and math.  And yet parents, teachers, and guidance counselors continue to have low expectations for girls’ abilities, steering them away from career paths in these fields. “If we want our daughters to thrive in math and science,” writes Rivers, “We have to peel away the layers of myth, misinformation and conditioning about women’s lack of ability.”

New expectations emerge after low expectations are overturned by success

When a woman demonstrates that the low expectations others may have held for her were wrong, she is then confronted with a new set of expectations.

Although she may desire to put her energies into her accomplishments and furthering her abilities, societal pressures may dictate that she owes the world not only her talents but her conformity to a certain definition of “femininity,” dressing certain ways, speaking certain ways, deferring to men or risk being called assertive, strident, tough, or bullying (as in the opening story on this post), making sure her abilities and aspirations do not intimidate men, and taking care to conform to a mold society expects her to fit.

Furthermore, she is now encumbered with even higher expectations than those her male counterpart is expected to fulfill. You’ve probably heard it said that a woman has to do a job much better than a man in order to be considered equal to him.  Women who succeed are expected to be almost super human in responding to the pressures put on them to excel not only in careers, but in relationships and/or parenthood, active social lives, civic responsibilities, and so much more.  Women are expected to have it all and do it all, without succumbing to the pressure!

In Beyond the Double Bind: Women in Leadership, Kathleen Hall Jamieson says that “unrealizable expectations are also designed to undercut women’s exercise of power.”

By requiring both femininity and competence in the public sphere, and then defining femininity in a way that excludes competence, the bind creates unrealizable expectations. By this standard women are bound to fail. The power of the bind is rooted in a woman’s willingness to grant someone else the right both to define and impose the requirement of femininity. . . .Denying others the power to define appropriate behavior breaks the bind. Being feminine as femininity was traditionally defined may be incompatible with being competent, but being a woman is not. (p. 18)

Your May 23 blog post

I realize I have been rambling on and on, sharing what I’ve been thinking about recently, and I’ve neglected to tell you how much I appreciated your last letter.  I liked your analysis of how women are presented in the mass media and especially in advertising.  It’s another example of others believing they have the right to determine how women should be perceived — the expectations of a certain body image and ad agencies’ assumptions of how men want to see women. I especially liked what you said about certain images being “disturbing not just because they create culture and influence our minds, but more because they reflect what is already in the culture — a conscious and unconscious toleration of de-humanizing women and objectifying female sexuality for male use.”  I was glad you also pointed out that along with “these images of women-as-objects are the images of masculinity that are steeped in aggression and dominance,” with the result that both genders “miss out on healthy images of human sexuality that promote mutuality and equality.”  Well said, Kimberly.

I also wanted to tell you how happy I am that you were invited by a church to present a four-part lecture and discussion series on “Women, Faith, and Justice” and had an opportunity to talk about these topics with many people who were probably new to the ideas of Christian feminism. I’m especially glad your talks were recorded and can be listened to online, Kim, because it gave me a chance not only to hear you but also to hear the very interesting feedback by those attending.  I hope our readers will click on the link, too.

I can only imagine how busy you must be getting ready for graduate study at Yale Divinity School, along with teaching classes and everything else you’re doing in Seattle before your move to the East Coast.  What an exciting time for you!

I’ve been really busy, too, most recently putting together the latest edition of “Web Explorations for Christian Feminists,” which I like to call an almost-quarterly “magazine of links.”  Some of our readers may wish to check that out, too. The previous issue of Web explorations [Ed. Note: Web Explorations is no longer available on the CFT website.] might also be of interest. That edition has a lot of movie and DVD recommendations; and along with the description of the movie, Milk, I also tell of meeting Harvey Milk in 1978 (just a few months before he was murdered) when he attended the launching of a book I coauthored.  I’ve included in that post part of a speech our publisher gave at the event.  It was at a time when it took special courage to speak out for the rights of gays and lesbians, and to do so from a Christian point of view was an especially daring thing to do. (Still is in some circles!)  Also, it just occurred to me that some of our readers who work as counselors may especially be interested in the Christian Feminism Today special series on healing from childhood sexual abuse now posted on, too.

I guess I should get this sent off before I think of something else to say!  One thing that I did conclude in thinking about all the expectations that our society has for us is this:  We don’t have to allow ourselves to be conformed to someone else’s expectations. We don’t have to play a role to conform to society’s ideas about what femininity is or what a woman should be or do.  We can “break the bind” as Kathleen Hall Jamieson said. And we can enjoy the freedom of being the unique individuals we were created to be.

But as women of faith, I believe we both care about God’s expectations for us. What are they?  I think Micah 6:8 sums it up well.  “And what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Those are truly great expectations.

And with that, I really will sign off!

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. I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about Steinem’s hypothesis of why people of both sexes might respond negatively to female authority. It doesn’t entirely make sense to me… if a man acts powerfully, shouldn’t that by extension dredge up all our baggage about fathers as punishers, uncomfortably regressing us back to childhood?

  2. I’ve been enjoying popping in and out of this blog for awhile, just now reading Kimberly’s July 17th post and this one by you, Letha.

    This is something I have thought about a lot: “Women who succeed are expected to be almost super human in responding to the pressures put on them to excel not only in careers, but in relationships and/or parenthood, active social lives, civic responsibilities, and so much more.” I am called to Christian ministry… and not among the more liberal circles either. The pressures of being THE representative female are something that occur to me quite a lot. I will only be able to bring what I have….

    Alena brings up a good question. I’m thinking that for some of us male authority DOES bring up ideas of male punishers until we are healed of those experiences. I’m guessing it is the sense of displacement that “mothering” authority suggests in a society that presumes male authority which may jar men so–like they’ve just been moved out of their position even if they were not approaching leadership themselves. By its noticeablity, it may more profoundly stir these reactions from all. (?)

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