Why Should Difference Make Any Difference

Dear Kimberly,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my October 11 letter about how gender roles become straitjackets. I’m glad you watched the trailers of the films I mentioned. And I was delighted to hear that you are also familiar with the Dar Williams song, “When I Was a Boy” and even used it as a part of your recent conference workshop!  (The P.S. you added this past week was interesting, too; and it is so good to hear about the special event you and your friends are planning in Seattle to encourage women to exercise their right to vote.)

You made such important points in your October 15  letter, and there’s so much I’d like to reply to; but I’m going to limit myself to two things that especially stood out:  (a) your description of gender fundamentalism and (b) the impact of remembering our childhoods.  Even at that, this will be a long letter since it’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote.

Resurgence of Gender Fundamentalism

First, I was struck by your term, “resurgence of gender fundamentalism,” in describing what some influential pastors are teaching about distinct roles for women and men.  It’s the old “separate spheres'” arguments from earlier times all over again. (Of course, “separate spheres” teachings and customs have never entirely disappeared and are rampant and much more extreme in many other cultures.)

But from what you’ve been hearing from certain pulpits, it seems some 21st century Christian leaders are turning up the volume on such teachings.  They’re loudly insisting that girls and women should not pursue their interests and dreams if they don’t fit with stereotypical notions of femininity (as these pastors define the term).  Otherwise, say these fundamentalist preachers, women are being rebellious against God and subject to God’s judgment.

We need to help people distinguish between femaleness (a biological fact) and femininity (a construct or expected role that societies assign to persons born female and which varies from culture to culture and in different times over history). Because of its link to societal approval, the concept of “femininity” can be used as a weapon to keep strong women from achieving their full potential by calling them “unfeminine” if they refuse to let themselves be fitted into a predefined box (or Procrustean bed, as we discussed in our recent posts).

Kathleen Hall Jamieson says that we women often find ourselves in any one of at least five “double binds” that she lists  in her book, Beyond the Double Bind (Oxford University Press, 1995). One of the double binds is this:  “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine.” Another double bind suggests that “women who speak out are immodest and will be shamed, while women who are silent will be ignored or dismissed” (p. 16).

A Recent Political Dilemma for Christians Who Take a Patriarchal Approach to Scripture

As we both know so well, conservative Christians who hold strong traditional gender-role views have long insisted that devoted Christian women should be “keepers at home’ and “obedient to their own husbands” (Titus 2: 4-5).  Those who hold these views believe that such instructions are universal principles for all times and cultures and not specific to the situations and cultures at the time they were written.  As a result (as we’ve been discussing in these 72-27 posts), many church leaders continue to tell women their purpose in life is to devote themselves entirely to marriage, housekeeping, and motherhood and to find fulfillment in that alone.  Women who have aspirations for careers in the world beyond the home or who wish to be ordained as clergy for service in the church are told such notions are contrary to their true feminine nature and an indication that they have been influenced by what these pastors like to call “the feminist agenda.”  To such preachers the issue is settled: Men were destined by God to be the leaders, and women to be followers and supporters of the leaders.

Then something unexpected happened during the presidential race of 2008. Along came a socially conservative Christian female vice-presidential candidate who was at the same time a mother with teenagers and young children at home, including a baby with a disability.  Yet, her social and political ideology lined up with those of these pastors and other spokespersons for their viewpoint, and so they were elated to have her on the ticket of their preferred party, even though they had long proclaimed that a woman’s place was in the home.  For some people, that posed a dilemma.

The argument that women may lead a country but may not lead in the home or church

Suddenly, spokespersons for the conservative Christian movement seemed to be scrambling to answer charges of hypocrisy for supporting her candidacy.  The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, Jr., tried to answer such charges in a Washington Post article (Sept. 5, 2008).  He said a woman could be permitted to lead a country and still be Scriptural, even though at the same time she could not be obedient to Scripture if she were to lead a church congregation or claim equal authority to that of her husband in the home.

On a similar note, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which teaches that God designed men and women to be equal in worth but complementary in roles (the separate-sphere argument again)  has posted on its website a four-part series to answer the question of whether Sarah Palin’s candidacy poses a dilemma for complementarians.  The author of the series reached a conclusion much like Mohler’s — it’s OK for a woman to lead a country but not OK to lead in a church or home.

It’s fascinating to see these discussions taking place among those who were so quick to judge feminism and to claim that if a woman pursued career aspirations outside the home it meant she was negative toward motherhood and not fulfilling her true calling.   Now Christian social conservatives are trying hard to say something quite different in the case of Sarah Palin and yet not sound inconsistent.

The argument that women should not lead anywhere at all!

However, I have also come across the writings of still another minister who believes the views expressed by CBMW and Mahlor don’t go far enough in limiting a woman’s right to hold leadership positions.  Representing an ultra-restrictive approach to the question, this minister said that not only is a woman not permitted to exercise spiritual leadership in the church or home; she is not permitted to lead a city, state, or country either. And  to support his argument, this author even dragged out a quotation from the 16th century reformer John Knox who said,  “To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature; contumely [insulting or contemptible] to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance; and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice. ”

I immediately recognized the quotation as being from Knox’s angry tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which he composed out of the intense loathing he felt toward England’s Mary (“Bloody” Mary)  and Scotland’s Marie de Guise (Mary of Guise), the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, whom Knox later had to deal with as well.

Knox’s loud blast was part of intense political and religious conflict. It was basically not a tract about gender roles per se, but Knox knew that an appeal to the Bible on questions of women’s place would provide a convenient argument to condemn the rule of these particular women.  He understandably despised them because of their power in persecuting Protestant reformers (“Bloody Mary” got her nickname from putting 300 Protestants to death on charges of heresy).  But Knox was condemning women as a group, not certain individuals who were misusing power as individuals.  In any case, Knox felt it was his duty to sound what he called “the first blast to awaken women degenerate.” He  wrote, “‘I am assured that God has revealed to some in this our age, that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman shall reign and have empire above man.”

Well, I won’t go on about that any further, Kimberly; it just surprised me to see someone referring to this 16th century treatise to argue that it would be contrary to God’s will for women in the 21st century to aspire to high government positions.

More about Remembering Our Childhoods

In reading your last letter, a second thing that especially struck me was the way you elaborated further on the gender freedom of childhood.  I appreciated your sharing the feelings generated by remembering that period and also how the memories of childhood touched such a deep emotional core among both women and men who attended your workshop.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni as a childWhat you said fits so well with what I was saying last time about how I resonated with the 10-year-old girl in Beth Brickell’s drama, Summer’s End.The energetic free spirit and outdoor activities of the little girl in the film reminded me so much of my own childhood in a tiny Pennsylvania town. And the story took place around the same time period.  I turned 10 in 1945, and the picture on the right was taken shortly before my 10th birthday.  I didn’t have to face the prospect of having my pigtails cut off or permed as Kath did in Summer’s End, but I was becoming uneasy about what it would mean to grow into a young woman and leave behind the carefree, adventurous days of childhood.  I already sensed that whether I wanted to or not, I would be expected to conform to an image that I didn’t think would be the real me.  Would I dare defy those expectations?

“The Girl Within”

In her book, The Girl Within, Emily Hancock writes about the adult women she studied for her doctoral research at Harvard.  Her findings correspond to my own remembered feelings and those that you and your workshop participants also remembered, Kim, even though we’re of different generations. The feelings also match those that were expressed in both Summer’s  End and in the Dar Williams Song, “When I was A Boy.”

Hancock wrote:

It was through the process of telling me about their experiences as adults that women stumbled almost by chance on the girl they had long ago left behind. They themselves were distressed to find that they had lost her — a disturbing insight that often came to them unbidden when they confronted the contrived self that had stolen in to take her place. They were unprepared to find that the task of a woman’s lifetime boils down to reclaiming the authentic identity she’d embodied as a girl. (The Girl Within, Ballantine Books, Fawcett Columbine imprint, 1989, p. 4)

Hancock says that the women in her study at Harvard, along with the scores of women she has talked with since then, have each expressed a similar sense of loss. They couldn’t name what they had lost but they knew something was missing, and they were especially aware of it when they remembered what they had been like at age 9.

There was melancholy and sadness as each woman Hancock spoke with “realized that she had early put this girl aside, replacing her vitality with feminine compliance.” She goes on to describe the women’s composite picture of the 8- to 10-year-old girl as “one who pulls on her blue jeans, packs her own lunch, and gets on her bike to ride to her best friend’s house to build a fort or a tree house. Liberated from the confines of the family, she is proud of her newfound ability to order and direct her life” (p.7).  She collects things — stamps, coins, bugs, stuffed animals, rocks, sea shells.  She may aspire to be a scientist or detective or writer or athlete.  She has confidence, and “no matter what her particular bent, this independent and adventurous girl has many capabilities. . . . Heady with the power that comes from genuine competence, she brims with initiative” (p. 8).

But then something happens. “Suddenly, well before puberty, along comes the culture with the pruning shears, ruthlessly trimming back her spirit” (p. 18).

“Reviving Ophelia”

A similar picture emerges in psychologist Mary Pipher’s best-selling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Grosset/Putnam, 1994).  She speaks of our culture as “girl-poisoning.”  Pipher was writing her book more than ten years ago.

In light of how she defined the characteristics of a girl-poisoning culture, I’d say the problem is magnified today.  Her book was based on her observations of what was happening in the lives of young adolescent girls who came to her for therapy with eating disorders, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts, as well as less dangerous problems that were nevertheless serious and puzzling.

Pipher writes, “Girls between seven and eleven rarely come to therapy. They don’t need it. I can count on my fingers the girls this age whom I have seen.”  She points out that “most preadolescent girls are marvelous company because they are interested in everything — sports, nature, people, music and books.”  She goes on:

They can be androgynous, having the ability to act actively in any situation regardless of gender role constraints. An androgynous person can comfort a baby or change a tire, cook a meal or chair a meeting. Research has shown that, since they are free to act without worrying if their behavior is feminine or masculine, androgynous adults are the most well adjusted. (p. 18)

Androgyny as Simply Being Human: A Biographical Note

I think Pipher’s comment in that paragraph brings us full circle to what Dorothy Sayers said in Are Women Human, which you and I discussed in our posts for August 18 and 22.   If we could just be, rather than feeling we must act in ways that society considers “feminine” or “masculine — in other words, if we could just be human and develop all that being human means in terms of our potential as individual persons — how much better we’d all feel.  Both males and females could be spared a lot of anguish. Why do differences in biology have to make a difference in who we are and how we want to live in this world?  What difference does difference have to make?

Speaking personally, I think it was that kind of questioning — and a resolve not to be straitjacketed by traditional gender roles — that helped me avoid the hazards of adolescence and make my teenage years quite happy. True, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I did not have to face the particular kind of “girl poisoning” environment that Mary Pipher observed forty years later, but there were plenty of toxins in the gender constructs and societal messages during the time period when I was a teen, too.  As you know from our earliest posts in July and August, Kimberly, that historical period was the time that laid the groundwork for the “problem that has no name” that Betty Friedan wrote about in the early 1960s.

Letha Dawson ScanzoniWhat I think made the difference for me rather than anything else during my teen years was my music.  When I was 12  years old, I began playing the trombone and it became the love of my life.  I practiced hours and hours and excelled.  And I rather liked the fact that the trombone was not considered a stereotypical “feminine” instrument. (Yes, research has shown that gender stereotypes even affect how musical instruments are perceived.  Brass instruments, for example, have been perceived as masculine, and flutes and violins considered feminine.)

Of course gender has nothing to do with musicianship or choice of instruments, but it has remained a perception nevertheless and has affected the choices of both male and female children as they choose instruments, though perhaps a bit less so now than when I was growing up.

Letha Dawson ScanzoniIt wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being a girl.  I did.  But I wanted to be my own kind of girl.  I didn’t want notions about limited opportunities for girls to keep me from being all I could be. I believed girls and women should be able to achieve anything that boys and men could achieve, and my trombone would be one way of demonstrating that.

I had my own band, which I called the “the Swing Teens,” with kids from four different high schools. I entered contests and would always be the only girl in the regional and state trombone competitions. When I gave solo performances, I usually wore an evening gown, leading one of my high school teachers to tell my parents admiringly that she considered me to be a “tomboy-lady.”

How “Gender Fundamentalism” Clips Wings

Like you, Kimberly, I dedicated my life to Christ when I was a teenager.  It didn’t happen in a church but through reading a book on my own.  I didn’t tell anyone about it at first.  I went on as planned to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY and studied under the world-famous trombone teacher, Emory Remington, who encouraged me by telling me about one symphony orchestra that hired a woman as first chair trombonist.

It was only after I transferred from Eastman to major in sacred music at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago that I first ran into a systematic promotion of what you call “gender fundamentalism” and was told that God had created women and men to fulfill distinct roles. Women were designed to be helpers and to subordinate their interests to those of men. I heard that women couldn’t be ordained as pastors because it would be usurping authority over men. They could, however, be missionaries when there were no men to do the job. I was told that women couldn’t be entrusted with doctrine because women were last to be created and first to fall into sin.

I knew the Bible verses some of my teachers were using to teach these things, but it did not make sense to me, though I said nothing at the time. It just didn’t sound at all like something that the God I loved and served would do!  Why would God create females with brains and talents and abilities and yearnings to serve and advance the good news of the gospel and then say, “No thanks, I don’t need or want your service”?

It is painful to have one’s wings clipped. I tried to follow the gender hierarchy that I was taught, but down deep the seeds of what would later be called Christian feminism were taking root.

Kimberly, I feel so sad when you tell me that you ran into the same kind of teachings in your teen years more than four decades after mine.   And I’m sadder still that the liberating message of the Christian faith, which means so much to both you and me, is today still being commandeered by some preachers and teachers who use Christianity to clip women’s wings rather than helping them to fly.

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. Gender fundamentalism. I think one of the problems that modern day feminism needs to overcome is this in their own ranks as well. The oppressed have become the oppressors in some ways and that is truly sad. I want to use part of an article to demonstrate what I am talking about (and hope this all comes across right). This piece is titled Are Rape Crisis Centers Feminist Organizations? and is from Feminist Criminology Volume 3 Number 2 April 2008 82-100 (FYI I can send you the entire article in pdf format if you want it):


    We don’t really take male volunteers. It is tricky because we technically can’t say no to them because it is discrimination. So we say we don’t have any room or maybe it would be uncomfortable for a man to work here because of these issues. It is a feminist organization, and can men really fall underneath that feminist ideology? If you look at the survivors themselves, whether they are male or female, they would rather talk to a woman than a man. People always say that men would rather talk to a man, which is a common misconception. They would rather talk to a woman because they are more understanding.


    I have been trying for quite awhile to say what I think feminism needs to do to move forward and this article is one way of trying to explain it. Look at the piece above, it is written by a Director of a DV shelter.


    I have always seen feminism as starting out as being a push for justice and not excluding anyone. It was about wrong is wrong no matter who it happens to or who does it. Males were not excluded or seen as less than and, my perceptions were anyway, that men were seen as allies to effect change and justice.


    However over time that seems to have changed and now we see things like the above statement. If something is wrong (discrimination, sexism, etc) it is wrong regardless of who does it. To discriminate against males in a subtle way the piece above suggests is just as wrong as doing it openly. And the comment about they would rather talk to women because they are more understanding is just as bad and false.


    Now there may only be a small percentage of women who do this but they touch and impact a lot of people when they are in certain roles rather than just as an individual. These are not gender issues but rather human issues and until that is embraced their will be little progress.


    I want to make a comment about this statement “People always say that men would rather talk to a man, which is a common misconception. They would rather talk to a woman because they are more understanding.”


    In all my years working in the field I have found that this is in no way true. I have people that specifically request a male, specifically request me, and some that specifically request a female. I have had clients who have been sexually abused by their mothers, aunts, etc who feel very uncomfortable discussing it with a female. I have one lady who was sexually abused by her mother who stated that trying to talk about this with another woman has caused her no end of grief and she feels safer discussing it with a male. I have had DV victims request a male because they want a “male” perspective on this and it often does them a great deal of good to know that “men” are not like this rather it is an individual “man”.


    No gender is “more understanding” than another. Every individual is a unique person with varying skills. I have met and worked with some great women and men who were equally skilled in dealing with sexual assault victims, domestic violence victims, etc.


    By purposely excluding men from trying to be a part of the solution causes the problem to last longer, be more complex, etc. If male violence is to decrease than you certainly need males involved in all aspects of the issue to make it decrease. I personally have learned so very much from working with victims that it has shaped how I see things for all human beings.


    I apologize for the long poast and hope that comes across right. If not I can clarify if need be.

  2. Letha,

    A friend just told me about your blog, and I have loved reading your exchanges! I, too, am a trombonist, and in May will graduate with a Masters in Trombone Performance. Although there are more female trombonists than there were in your childhood, I am still definitely in the minority! I’m amazed at the responses I get when I tell people I play the trombone. I’ve often been asked, “But isn’t that a man’s instrument?” As if there is something inherently masculine about a loud, forceful, but beautiful, instrument. I think I was probably attracted to the trombone for similar reasons you were. I liked that I was one of the few girls playing trombone. I have had a few female trombone teachers – the first told me never to perform in a dress, since the trombone is a masculine instrument. Lately I’ve loved playing recitals in a formal gown, as if to make a statement that I can be a woman and still a great trombonist.

    Growing up I was taught and raised in such a way that a woman could do anything a man could…outside of the church and home. I find it amazing that the one place, the church, that should be empowering women with the radical message of Christ, is a place that is still oppressing women. Thanks for sharing part of your life!



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