Why Is Feminism Resisted?

Dear Kimberly,

I loved your “Mr. and Mrs. Christian” wordplay on the “Mr. and Mrs. Human” heading that I used as part of my previous post. Yes. sadly, many churches still teach that a woman finds her true identity in her relationship to a man — that he is the primary entity, complete as a human being, representing the family to the world as the head of the household. The woman is his “Mrs.” The two have become one, and the one is considered to be the husband, with the the family’s life centered around his career, his wishes, his life. Until fairly recently, U.S. laws and customs supported that idea in many different ways, and even the woman’s own name was likely to be lost, subsumed under that of her husband (“Mrs. John Doe”– or in the Bible, Lot’s wife). Una Stannard has written a fascinating and well-researched book with the title,Mrs Man, tracing the story of feminism through the history of married women’s names. Maybe that’s a topic we should discuss here sometime. But let’s save that for another time.

Those Female Submission Teachings Keep Recurring!

You mentioned that you were shocked recently to hear a pastor say that women are “submissive by nature” and that (according to that pastor’s interpretation of Ephesians 5 and other passages) female subordination teachings were about something more than hierarchical home governance in which the wife was considered responsible to submit only to her husband, as you had heard as a teenager. As you indicated, that teaching had been troublesome enough, but at least tolerable in the way your 16-year-old mind reasoned through it at the time.

Yes, sometimes these interpretations of Scripture are taken to extreme lengths! After I had spoken about gender issues at a college several years ago, a young woman came up to me and told of her first (and last!) date with a young man who told her that to be true to Scripture, she was responsible to submit to him simply because he was a man. She was indignant! “Submit to you! I’ve just gone out with you for the first time, and you think you have authority over me!” That was the end of that date. (It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the young man could have used that teaching to his own advantage!)

In the present time, these headship-subordination teachings are coming up all over again — if they ever left in the first place. There seems to be a backlash, particularly among some of the Christians you’ve been encountering from churches in the area where you live. But it shows up everywhere, including in numerous websites and blogs on the Internet!

Differences and Ranking

You said you wondered if some of the strict complementarians (those who believe women and men are equal in God’s sight but have been assigned different but complementary roles in life) are fearful that masculinity will cease to be distinguished from femininity. No doubt that is a big fear. And the anxiety any dominant group has about giving up power is also probably a big factor, as you expressed so well in your August 22 post. But there is something else going on, as Judith M. Bardwick and Elizabeth Douvan wrote around the time that second wave feminism was gaining impetus:

In spite of an egalitarian ideal in which the roles and contributions of the sexes are declared to be equal and complementary, both men and women esteem masculine qualities and achievements. . . .It is not only that the culture values masculine productivity more than feminine productivity. The essence of the derogation lies in the evolution of the masculine as the yardstick against which everything is measured. Since the sexes are different, women are defined as not-men and that means not good, inferior. It is important to understand that women in this culture, as members of the culture, have internalized these self-destructive values (Judith Bardwick and Elizabeth Douvan, “Ambivalence: The Socialization of Women,” Chapter 9 in Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran,Basic Books, 1971).

Fear of Feminization

You asked if I was familiar with Leon Podles’s book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. I haven’t read it, but yes, I have heard of it — and numerous other recent books issuing similar warnings. What do they want — the Church Militant? Have they read the Sermon on the Mount that turns upside down the world’s way of thinking about power?

In the Stephen Clark book I quoted in my post last week, he spells out what he means when he tells men not to hang around with their wives too much lest they become feminized. Clark writes: “A feminized male is a male who has learned to behave or react in ways that are more appropriate to women . . . . Compared to men who have not been feminized, he will place much higher emphasis and attention on how he feels and how other people feel. He will be much more gentle and handle situations in a ‘soft’ way” (Man and Woman in Christ, Servant Books, 1980, p. 636).

In a world so filled with hatred, violence, and war, we need more men who know how to be “much more gentle and handle situations in a ‘soft’ way.” The problem is that femaleness is associated with weakness in the minds of many people. I think about the Apostle Paul’s list of traits that should characterize all of us as Christian believers. I’m so glad he didn’t wrap them in pink and label them “for women only” so that men could feel free to ignore them! Jesus said that we will be known by the fruit that our lives bear. And Paul told us what that fruit should be. “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal 5:22-23,NRSV).

Kimberly, you and I both know this has nothing to do with gender roles — even though in a different context some people would label most, if not all, of the characteristics Paul listed as femininecharacteristics. Nor do those characteristics signify weakness. Somehow, we need to keep getting out that message and help men to see they have nothing to fear. Many Christian women need such assurance, too, especially if they attend churches that teach them that even their doubts and questions about gender roles is rebellion against God.

There is so much more to say about this, but I’m sure we’ll be discussing all these issues a lot more in our future posts!

Your friend,
Letha

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. 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).

4 COMMENTS

  1. You know, one of the inconsistencies that puzzles me in the complementarian mindset is this obvious fear of gender differences getting obliterated by social pressures. And yet they claim that those same gender differences are innate, God-given and non-arbitrary. If they are, they’ll be pretty hard to wipe out!! In fact, we could almost paraphrase Gamaliel, from Acts 5, to say that if these differences are of human origin, they will fail, but if they are of God, then no one can stop them.

    True masculinity and true femininity are part of our God given identity; culture bound roles are eclipsed by our individual personalities, gifts and circumstances. A culture that has to oppress women to assuage its fears is built on a very shaky foundation

  2. I think you bring up a crucial point…the idea that we esteem masculinity over femininity. This is the most subtle and insidious form of misogyny because we don’t often see it. But most of us, men and women, often carry around these attitudes in one form or another.

    I vividly remember when I connected the dots in my own heart about this. After working with women in the Church for years, I realized I kept hearing the same soundbites from women lips; I don’t get along with women, I prefer the company of men, I have never had many women friends, I hate women’s events, women are so____. Women as well as men routinely spout off a string of adjectives that they find distasteful; emotional, weak, clingy, needy, irrational.

    The message…feminine-bad, masculine=good.

    Naomi Wolf talks some about this in “The Beauty Myth”, when she says the perfect body is associated with traditional masculine features; hard, lean, strong. We have systematically been trained to fear anything soft, round, squishy. We fear fat and despise our own bodies.

    Ohhhhhh…so much to say!

    Great blog.

  3. Why is feminism resisted? Why does a young man schooled in complementarity try to assert authority over a woman on their first date?

    The answer is simple–fundamental, shall we say. Sin.

    Someone said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We humans, given an inch, take a mile; having a dollar, want more.

    Another saying is that the oppressed person is complicit in his/her oppression–agrees to go along with it.

    Women saying a firm NO interrupt patriarchy, startle sin, and challenge oppression.

    Anne Eggebroten

  4. Something to ponder:

    When the ancient rabbis spoke of hearing the word of God they used the term Bat Kol, the Daughter’s Voice. When they spoke of sensing the spirit of God around and within them they used the term Shekhinah, a feminine noun. When the author of Proverbs described the first moments of creation he said that Chochma, a feminine noun meaning Wisdom, was the first of God’s manifestations. My experience is the same as theirs. When I hear God speak, the voice is female, when I sense God’s presence it is feminine, when I see God manifest as the world is it as the Mother.

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