Relationships: Complementing and Complimenting

Dear Kim,

It was wonderful to see you at the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today Gathering in Indianapolis a few weeks ago and to continue these intergenerational conversations before a live audience!

I know that we were both disappointed that Erin Lane Beam, the advertised third member of our panel, was unable to be with us (due to her grandmother’s death), but I was glad that you and I could talk about some of the topics the three of us had discussed in our planning session via a three-way phone call a few weeks before.

Looking Ahead

I hope over the months ahead, you and I can share some thoughts about these subjects right here on our 72-27 blog — topics such as relationships, gender inequities in pay, time pressures, balancing work with personal and family life, sexuality,  body image and fashion, social activism, the intersection between gender discrimination and other forms of discrimination, inequities in the church, different expectations for each gender from childhood forward, and some ideas about what second and third wave feminists would like to give to and receive from each other.  Those are some of the topics that come to mind at the moment. Maybe you remember some additional ones.

The Ginsburg Marriage

A couple of weeks after the conference, I was reminded again of our discussion of male-female relationships in dating and marriage when I heard an NPR piece about the long marriage of Martin Ginsburg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Did you happen to hear it?   It’s available online in both audio and transcript form.

Martin Ginsburg, a Georgetown University tax law professor and one of the top tax lawyers in the U.S., died of cancer on June 27, at the age of 78 — just four days after the couple had celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary. Shortly before his death, he told a friend, “I think that the most important thing I have done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done.”

The couple had met on a blind date at Cornell University when he was 18 and she was 17. They married after her college graduation (a year after his), and were both accepted at Harvard Law School.  In addition to a difference in personality (he was outgoing, she more quiet and introverted) “the Ginsburgs complemented each other in ways too numerous to list,” said National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg in her report.

According to the obituary written by T. Rees Shapiro for the Washington Post, “the foundation of their relationship, they both said, was mutual respect and equality — and a willingness to share domestic duties.” (Martin, in fact, became an outstanding cook and prepared most of the family’s meals. It was a standing joke in the family that Justice Ginsburg couldn’t cook and that even while their children were quite young, they voted for her to be banished from the kitchen.)

Shapiro quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg as having said that Martin Ginsburg was “the only man I dated who cared that I had a brain.”  The article went on to report Mr. Ginsburg’s having said that “he was proud of his wife’s accomplishments and had no regrets about the compromises they made for each other.”

Contrasting the “Ginsburg Way” and the “Complementarian” Way

I was especially struck by Nina Totenberg’s sentence: “The Ginsburgs complemented each other in ways too numerous to list.” I think it struck me so powerfully because its point about complementing was such a stark contrast from what has come to be called complementarianism, a teaching that’s being heavily promoted in many conservative Christian circles today. I know you’re well aware of it, Kimberly, since you’ve often run up against it in your own experience.  Anne Eggebroten has an excellent critique of the philosophy behind this movement in the July, 2010 issue of Sojourners.


“Complementarianism” is just another name for patriarchy, although the newer term sounds less harsh. Complementarian spokespersons take care to emphasize equality in the spiritual worth of women and men while at the same time emphasizing differences in the roles they are assigned to fulfill, especially in the home and church.  Men are said to be created to be the leaders, and women to be their complements, helping and supporting them in their work and never forgetting that the men are in charge.  The model is hierarchical.

But conscious of the times in which we live, many of those who espouse this theological ideology try to soften the teaching by saying complementarianism doesn’t limit anyone but just recognizes God-designed distinctions.  Jonathan Leeman, who promotes complementarianism, claims that egalitarianism(the contrasting idea that men and women are to be regarded equally in all aspects of life)  leads to the “homogenization of men and women.” He believes that the notion of gender equality is popular because it’s a way of avoiding the risk of offending anyone since everyone is treated the same. “But what if God created men and women differently?” he asks. “What if it’s not a question of limitations but a matter of distinct purposes for different parts of the body? I guess you could say that the eye is limited because it cannot hear. Or that the ear is limited because it cannot see. But that would be missing the point, wouldn’t it?”

Of course, Kimberly, the point is the same as what you and I have discussed so often. It harks back to the ideology of “separate spheres” that was so prominent in previous centuries to keep women from access to higher education, property ownership, voting rights, career achievements, and so much more.  Not that complementarianism (as usually presented today) calls for a retrogression in those particular areas. But it’s a repackaging of an old idea nevertheless.

Owen Strachan says that complementarianism is a biblical truth rooted in the first three chapters of Genesis and claims that “gender is front and center in creation, the fall, and the curse.”  Here’s his explanation:

“In the wise and gracious design of God, women are ‘helpers.’ They are to be wives and mothers, the bearers of children. While men lead, protect, and provide, women come alongside and support them. Sadly, after the fall the two vie for each other’s roles, men either becoming abusive or seeking to divest themselves of leadership, while women elbow for the primary role and threaten dissension.”  Owen Strachan, “The Genesis of Ecclesial Womanhood.”

Complementing and Complimenting in the Ginsburg marriage

What we saw in the descriptions of Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s marriage was a totally different kind of complementarity because it was not gender-based.  Rather it was based on the respective talents, interests, and personalities of two unique individuals. Neither spouse expected or demanded certain actions of the other just because “he’s a man,” or “she’s a woman.”

In the case of the Ginsburgs and how they complemented each other, news reports spoke about one person’s extroversion and the other’s introversion and how each individual’s personality was enhanced by the other’s.  Both partners saw their marriage as being built upon “mutual respect and equality — and a willingness to share domestic duties.”  They shared in parenting and they shared in each other’s career interests.  They each compromised for the other as necessary, never expecting that one or the other was required by gender to always be the one to yield or to act a certain way. They were there for each other through their respective dealings with cancer.  (Justice Ginsburg herself had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2009 and colon cancer ten years earlier. And when Martin Ginsburg had undergone treatmentfor testicular cancer during their student years at Harvard law school, his young wife was by his side, helping him keep up with his studies and taking notes in his classes.)

Not only did they complement one another, but they complimented each other to the very end.  In so doing, they fulfilled what marriage researcher John Gottman lists as number 2 of the “seven principles for making marriage work.” They nurtured the fondness and admiration each had for the other. They were generous with compliments.

Justice Ginsburg called her husband “her biggest supporter” and her best friend. She praised him for his help throughout her career.  He spoke of having admired and loved her ever since they had first met. He voiced his pride in her achievements. Among the memories and condolences listed on the Georgetown Law Center’s website was a comment by one of his colleagues, Professor Emma Coleman Jordan, whose office was next to his. She wrote:

“As a next door neighbor, I saw most of the postings on his office door. They invariably included some reference to Ruth, like the news clipping from many years before that announced Ruth’s selection as the first tenured woman on the Columbia Law faculty, or the misaddressed invitation to ‘Justice and Mrs. Marty Ginsburg.’ I will always remember Marty as the most adoring husband I have had the privilege to observe. He was more than a feminist, he embodied the ideal of marital equality and we are all the better for it.” Prof. Emma Coleman Jordan, posted on “In Memory of Martin Ginsburg,” Georgetown University Law Center’s website, June, 2010

In the comment of another colleague, Professor Mitt Regan, was this observance:

“Especially remarkable, [Martin Ginsburg] was a man secure enough to support and help nurture his wife’s accomplishments, at a time when he easily could have treated his career as the more important one. In this respect he set the bar so high that more than a half-century later few of us are able to meet it.” Prof. Mitt Regan, posted on “In Memory of Martin Ginsburg,” Georgetown University Law Center’s website, June, 2010

According to Gardiner Harris’s report in the New York Times, Martin Ginsburg had said at the time of Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court nomination, “I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time, and she has been supportive of me.  It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.”

Competition and Conflict

In contrast to the view of marriage just described is the view in which male-female relationships are considered to be competitive.  Remember the comment of the complementarian theologian quoted earlier who said that part of the curse in Genesis was that women would “elbow for the primary role and threaten dissension”?

Of course, the complementarian would say that if women would just accept their place, this wouldn’t occur.  The problem is, it does occur any time there is concern about the protection of a man’s ego in a way that limits a woman’s living up to her full potential.

You probably remember my spring edition of Web Explorations in which I included  a paragraph about the media’s coverage of the recent Pew Study that found an increase in the percentage of men married to women who earned more than they (the husbands) did.  Some of the reactions to the findings raised questions in my mind about competition in marriage.  I’ll repeat that paragraph here for our readers who may have missed it:

Pew Study on wives out-earning husbands 
How is marriage affected when a wife out-earns her husband?  These comments from various scholars center around a Pew report released in 2010.  This report on husband-wife income comparisons is interesting to read and contrast with some traditionalist viewsvoiced by conservative Christian author Elisabeth Elliot during the 1990s as she cautioned wives about competitiveness in marriage. Or with this negative assessment from an anti-feminist Christian blog more recently.  It makes me wonder why a husband and wife must be seen as competitors.  Why must a marriage relationship be seen as a contest for power and superiority?   Why can’t the income that each spouse brings into the relationship (regardless of the amount) be seen as contributing to the whole and as an asset to their marriage and family, rather than being part of a race in which the individual spouses aspire to one-upmanship?  (Excerpted from Letha Dawson Scanzoni, “Web Explorations for Christian Feminists,” Spring, 2010.)

In phone conversations, you and I have already discussed the reference to complementarian writer Elisabeth Elliot’s archived radio program in which she admonished wives to be careful not to let their career achievements overshadow those of their husbands. Widowed twice, she said that the man who was to become her first husband had found it difficult to see her outpace him in Spanish language studies in their preparation for missionary work — that at one point he had actually cried because he found it so difficult to master what came so easily to her. She explained this was just a matter of different gifts.

She said in her second marriage she made sure her husband’s work and schedule always came first but that one day she was surprised to learn that her husband was counting up the royalties he made from his writings and comparing them to the royalties she made. She said she feared this could get out of hand but, in her words: “Well, the Lord took care of all that in a way that I certainly would never have imagined or asked for. And my husband got cancer and very soon became unable to do either the speaking or the writing, and died when he and I had been married just a little over four years.”  (Since this was an extemporaneous remark made as part of an unscripted radio talk, I don’t think she meant it to come across to her audience in quite the way it probably did, and she didn’t mention whether she had asked her husband why he was making those calculations. It could have been for a reason as benign as tax purposes.)

Elliot went on to say that her third husband had no problems with the greater attention given to her and her work and that “he is a big enough man to realize that God gives different gifts to different people.”  She said her main point in this radio talk was that a wife should be sensitive to the feelings of her husband.

But of course, we should all be sensitive to the feelings of others.  The problem is that in trying to stay true to the complementarian ideology that she has emphasized in her books, she was putting gender as the foremost consideration and building on her belief that it is the wife’s duty to be subordinate to the husband. Thus, wives are urged to be sensitive to husbands’ feelings about wives’ work and achievements, but nothing is mentioned about the reverse. (At the same time, her recognition of individual gifts seems to indicate an underlying struggle in her reasoning).

The other blog post I mentioned in my Web Explorations excerpt linked to the story of an executive director of a nonprofit organization who was offered a significant pay raise for her outstanding work.  But she kept refusing the additional money. The board was puzzled until she finally explained that because of having made a commitment to Christ, she never again wanted to earn more than her husband.  She said, in her resolve to obey God, she wanted nothing to stand in the way of her submissiveness to her husband.  So therefore she could not accept a salary increase.

I couldn’t help but wonder why both she and her husband could not have viewed such a pay increase as an asset to the family unit, rather than something that would exalt her and diminish him.  But the underlying reasoning illustrates the difference between complementarian theology and the egalitarian ideology exemplified in the Ginsburg marriage.

(As an aside, the writers of this second blog apparently noticed my link to them and added a new prologue to the particular post to which I had made reference with the story just cited.  They hastened to warn readers that I was somehow dangerous and accused me of having “betrayed biblical Christian faith” in order to “promote sexual immorality,” citing as proof a talk I had given to an inter-faith group on how the principles of justice, compassion, and humility from Micah 6:8 could be applied to religious discussions of same-sex marriage.  What troubles me about such tactics is that rather than discussing and disagreeing with a writer’s ideas or even sticking to the topic at hand, such religious leaders attack the person’s integrity and question her or his Christian commitment, citing as proof of supposed apostasy something that doesn’t fit with their litmus test of acceptable views on some social issue or biblical interpretation. I think such unloving tactics must grieve the heart of God.)

Your Pedagogy Post

I know I have changed the subject from our prior discussions, Kimberly, and introduced an entirely new topic. I felt we had covered the previous topic quite well for the time being. But I want you to know I thoroughly enjoyed reading your last letter (June 14 post on this blog) as you added some really excellent thoughts to our discussion about pedagogy and creative approaches to lifelong learning.

I also appreciated your related essay on “Re-Dreaming Education” on your new personal website.  Have you noticed how frequently you and I talk about dreaming and re-dreaming, Kim?  It’s not that we are unrealistic visionaries, but we both like to dream about what could be and what we can do to help turn the “could be” into an “is” or a “will be.”  I know you are still wrestling with career choices, but I’m sure you’ll make a difference in the world regardless of the path you take — whether it’s through a teaching career in academia (with all the accompanying pressures you’ve worried about) or whether you do your teaching through your writing.  Most likely it will be both.

In all of your reflections on pedagogy, you’ve been emphasizing self-knowledge as well as subject-knowledge, and an openness to the human experience, including the questions, skills, and personal knowledge that students bring to the classroom, thereby assuring that the process of teaching and learning is interactive and occurs in relationship.  I like that.  And I think that you and I practice such an exchange right here in these letters, continually learning with and from each other, rotating which of us is the teacher or the learner at any given time, in any particular paragraph, without even being aware of it. There’s an ongoing reciprocal giving and receiving, as there should be in any rich relationship.  “Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other” (Proverbs 27:17, CEV).

All for this time.

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. Evangelical complementarianism is built on heteronormativity. As soon as we’re talking about committed same-sex partners, the theory of complementary gender roles falls apart. Conversely, any marriage, regardless of the biological sex or gender performance of the adults involved, can practice egalitarianism.


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