Women’s View of Women

From Halee Gray Scott:

But rivalry among females is not limited to sexuality. Sometimes our negative reactions towards other women are much more subtle. Anytime there is scarcity, there is a potential for derogatory attitudes that undermine the potential achievements of women, and nowhere is the principle of scarcity more at play than in Christian ministries and organizations.

According to a report published by the White House Project, a nonprofit promoting women in business and politics: “Although women constitute over a majority of churchgoers (60 percent), men continue to dominate leadership roles in the church,” with women making up only 15 percent of Protestant clergy.” So does the scarcity of leadership roles in Christian ministry and organizations lead to catfighting among Christian women?

Maybe. Given the enormous strides made by women in the past century, the lack of research on Christian women is appalling if not embarrassing. But the study I conducted last year among Christian men and women serving in Christian parachurch organizations points to, at a minimum, some relational tension between Christian women.

In contrast to the majority of studies of this kind, Christian women were perceived to be more “communal” than “successful leaders” or “successful female leaders.” But they were rated as less likely to demonstrate certain relationship-oriented qualities, including compassion, fairness, good listening skills, inclusiveness, intuitiveness, sociability, and understanding.

Further, women differed from successful leaders in every single category, rating lower in characteristics such as ambition, analytical ability, assertiveness, self-confidence, competence, independence, intelligence, considerate, encouraging, inspiring, and trustworthiness.

These results suggest, first, that there seems to be some sort of relational tension among Christian women. Whether women actually demonstrate less relational qualities or they exhibit qualities that undermine relational qualities is unclear. However, in previous studies, women have usually scored higher on relationship-oriented qualities than any other group. But in this case, the data seems to support Vaillancourt’s suspicion that women may not be as “pleasant” to one another as our reputation purports.

Second, Christian women don’t have high opinions of other Christian women. In layman’s terms, we don’t have each other’s back. In the Christian world, most of our attention has been focused on how men, as institutional gatekeepers, have prevented women from assuming leadership positions. But even we don’t see other women as having what it takes to be a successful leader. So how might that make us feel about Christian women leaders who defy that expectation? How would that attitude shape how female Christian leaders feel about other women?

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  • Deborah

    The hornets’ nest has opened. This is such a real issue. We are confused. Some of the most feminist women I know (even ones whom evangelicals would describe as “liberal” feminists rather than “biblical” feminists) react poorly to a woman in the pulpit. We might talk about change a lot, but by the time change comes for a given woman, she has had to take so many batterings (OR has gotten there b/c she’s a controlling manipulator) that it is hard for her to have a healthy view of self and therefore to operate out of health toward others. And then there are the jealousies that I think inherently thrive in any group that has had to play the underdog role, easily dividing it…. THAT SAID, there are amazing female pastors out there, usually of small flocks, that just poor out w/ empathy, clarity, and love and set a stellar example.

  • Deborah

    *pour* out, that is….

  • Deborah

    Maybe–hopefully–these tendencies are far less common in churches and organizations that have long since allowed for women leaders. I did not see these problems, for instance, w/ parachurch campus ministries or mission organizations (although women also couldn’t be the head honcho in these groups, but they could be ministers). And Jonathan Martin has encouraging words from his denomination here: http://pastorjonathanmartin.com/uncategorized/why-mark-driscoll-is-wrong-about-women-in-church-leadership/

  • EricW

    Comedian/Activist Dick Gregory famously (IMO) said something to this effect: “When you went to a German concentration camp, you weren’t smelling Judaism, you were smelling Naziism.” Likewise, when you went to a Black ghetto in America, you weren’t smelling Black Americans, you were smelling racism.

    I think something similar could be said re: how women in ministry react to other women in ministry and/or are perceived by other women. I.e., a large part of how females relate to other females has to be attributed to the effects of the patriarchal hierarchicalism of the past several millennia. If women don’t act “whole” or the way “successful leaders” do or are expected to re:

    good listening skills
    analytical ability

    (some of which seem to be ironic when sought in Christian “leaders” in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:1-12 and Paul’s words about his own incompetencies and weaknesses, which he gloried in), I think that it may be that only time and the church accepting and letting women lead and fail and learn will begin the process of remedying this apparently real dichotomy between “successful leaders” and women leaders.

  • Diane

    This sounds like a very useful and interesting study. I’m surprised that women make up only 15% of Protestant clergy, though I’m sure that takes into account denominations that don’t allow female ordination.

    I don’t know that I would use “cat fighting” to describe women’s relational tensions but I am glad to see a light shone on this issue. I’ve noticed myself many subtle ways women make the same tasks easier for men and harder for women. My observation is that women, on a subconscious level, are less afraid to challenge other women–thousands of years of sexism and conscious or unconscious deference towards men feed this. Women are safer targets–and perhaps then react by putting up more walls. I’ve watched a person I know change sex from female to male and have been astonished at the increase in deference he receives now that he is male. He is astonished too.

  • Deborah

    At the risk of turning into a spambot, let me say that I love Eric’s comment which I suppose is where I was slowly heading in my processing of this article. Among egalitarians I know who really invest in theology, I have awesome, supportive (if mostly cyber) friends. Those more impacted by secular feminism than by evangelical egalitarianism seem to sometimes have a disjointedness in their thinking when they enter the church sanctum. But BY FAR the place where I’ve seen problems emerging is when women are in leadership or quasi-leadership situations among groups that have a patriarchal bent or one that is a mish-mosh of egal ideas and patriarchal ideas (which would be most churches). This is a hard place to be as a leader, and I think the confusion of “voices” that congregational women are trying to sort through and the fears and the sense of one’s identity being threatened that such change can arouse leads to relational complications. I do trust that these will diminish greatly in time. But I do think that this article points to the need for more helps toward that end, not just for the women who are swimming against the tide into leaderly callings but also for the women who are granted a more hidden calling and who may readily feel threatened in the same and/or yearn for a man’s voice of affirmation and leadership due to the patriarchal world that may still be embedded in their heart/mind. A lot has been written, for instance, about the tensions that exist between many stay at home moms and many working moms or between homeschoolers and public schoolers, and a similar attention and focus on unification needs to happen for the dynamics between female church leaders and women in more traditional callings.

  • Kristin

    In my own observation, while many women would withold open, unfiltered critique on a male leader (such as a pastor), for some reason female leaders in the same position are subconsciously considered ‘fair game.’

    I think #5 Diane nailed it: My observation is that women, on a subconscious level, are less afraid to challenge other women–thousands of years of sexism and conscious or unconscious deference towards men feed this. Women are safer targets–and perhaps then react by putting up more walls.

  • Bill Caulfield

    Love me some generalities. Everybody eats till full!

  • Victorious

    I think if we compare the behavior of women who refuse to support other women (as opposed to aligning themselves with men) to the Stockholm Syndrome, we can apply the end result spiritually as well.

    Stockholm Syndrome describes the behavior of kidnap victims who, over time, become sympathetic to their captors/or those in powerful positions. Captives begin to identify with their captors initially as a defensive mechanism, out of fear of violence. Small acts of kindness by the captor are magnified, since finding perspective in a hostage situation is by definition impossible. Rescue attempts are opposed as they threaten the safety and security of the one who is held captive.

    Basically, it’s a survival tactic ingrained in Christian women to protect themselves from “bullies.” Another woman who challenges that position, challenges her safety net; i.e. the men who hold the power.

    That’s how I see it.

  • PLTK

    I do despise the term cat-fighting, which in my mind propagates negative stereotypes about women.

    Deborah (6) has a good point that there a many incredibly tense issues dividing women with regard to our role in society and church that greatly complicate relationships at church.

    The article comments that “Whether women actually demonstrate less relational qualities or they exhibit qualities that undermine relational qualities is unclear.” Another very possible contributing factor is that women are also judged more harshly. Many studies of leadership indicate women are judged more harshly as compared to men (e.g., same behaviors performed, but women received lower ratings). Unfortunately, I have seen at least one study that indicates women raters are much more harsh on our own gender than are men.

  • Kevin Glenn

    Interesting study. I asked a gifted young woman to preach for me one Sunday. Our church embraces egalitarianism, so I saw no problems with the decision. Her sermon was solid, delivery was smooth, and and she connected well with the congregation…or so I thought. I received several complaints however…all of them from women.

  • EricW

    @Kevin Glenn:

    How sad.

  • Michael

    Ah, has anyone taken into consideration the reason for the lack of women pastors among evangelicals is because the bible clearly restricts that office to male leadership. I know scripture can be bothersome but it says what it says.

  • Elaine

    Where does the Bible say “pastor” is an “office”?

  • Sal

    In our age, Michael @13, the Bible says what we want it to say. If it says something other than that, we have conferences to decide that it really says what we want. It’s not much different than the prayer scene in Talladega Nights, only we come up with academic sounding theories and phrases to dress it up a bit.

  • Fish

    There has never been a time when the Bible did not say what we wanted it to say.

  • EricW

    @Michael 13:

    “the bible clearly restricts that office to male leadership”

    Yes, “clearly,” as long as you only read the Bible in certain translations and don’t bother working with the original languages or the meanings of κεφαλη or αυθεντειν or εξουσια, etc.

    (I know, I know, DNFTT)

  • kerry

    This post begins by noting the issue of scarcity of air space for women in churches. That is critical to understanding the conflict that emerges between women.

    In church discussions, say a church meeting, men typically dominate and their comments are seen to be “contributing to a discussion” whereas the comments made by women are often described by the chairperson as providing ” a woman’s perspective”. She represents a group, rather than herself. Yet I have never heard a chair so foolish as to assume that one man speaks for all of the men present.

    Such a construct begs the question, “how many women’s perspectives do we need?” The water gets muddier when the women disagree with one another. “How do we know what women want when they can’t even agree?”

    Add to this mix the unholy motives that lurk within all women and the atmosphere gets nasty quickly. Women are not the better sex, we just sin in ways that are not very visible to many men.

    There is very little wholesome power available to women in churches and that is a significant cause of church ill health.

  • E.A.B

    Kerry #18
    Thanks for adding your very significant points.

  • AJ

    “I wouldn’t be able to respect a woman pastor.”
    -I’ve heard this a number of times. Twice, from women recently.

    Most of my life I was frustrated with God, feeling that he made a mistake (or was playing a cruel joke) by making me a woman with my gifting and passion. “What am I supposed to do with myself?!” I tried to fit into the complementarian norm. I was deeply afraid of being labeled a liberal, power-hungry woman instead of a gospel-driven woman. I was even more afraid of being written off because of that label. So I decided to stay under the radar and have the women’s groups I led lead the church by example.

    But my worth was tied up in what men thought of my leadership and theological ideas. I “needed” men’s approval so much that I often got caught up in seeking it rather than loving freely. Here’s the thing. I didn’t really care what most women thought because I think unconsciously I saw myself climbing some gender ladder, trying to reach the area where I could play with the “big boys”. And looking back, I can see how it often felt there was very little room on the ladder.

    A year ago I confronted my fears and thanks to many years of the Lord working in me as well as the influential writings of Scot and a number of others, I came to an egalitarian position. I also gave up the need for men’s approval & experientially realized my worth comes from God. I began to rest. No more fears of what others think. No more ladder. It’s time to stand up for the gospel (King Jesus) and live a life of love instead of fear. For the first time, I’ve been honest about my position about women with myself and others. I have noticed a huge difference in the way I relate to men and women as groups and individuals. I’m not driven by the need to gain respect. In fact, I have been more able to love freely without demanding love or respect in return.

    I think my experience is common for women. It is easy for us to feel the competition to relate to the “big boys” – whether in ideas or in compliance with their expectations. It’s easy to unwittingly turn ministry into a competition because we’re all trying to be more than just deceived Eve.

  • Susan N.

    This is an interesting and important topic. (If only I could approach it in a detached, analytical manner — like a journalist or an anthropologist.)

    At a certain point, I had begun to feel that the relational dynamics at church mirrored that of high school, with all the jockeying for social status that that entailed. The experiences that my jr. high daughter had were not that far from the vibes I got among the mothers of those girls. Reading the book ‘Queen Bees and Wannabees’ by Rosalind Wiseman was insightful, for both me and my daughter.

    “Vaillancourt believes her study demonstrates that the bad behavior, i.e. ‘catfighting,’ we see on shows like The Bachelor is not an isolated TV phenomenon—it’s a reality in our schools and workplaces.”

    I think that the world’s way is most definitely “dog eat dog”, or in the case of women, perhaps, “cat eat cat.” To state the rather obvious, the problem in the church is that the world’s system of power and status has been superimposed on the “body” or fellowship of Christians.

    That is enough to make me want to cry. Where has it been said that “God is not a respecter of persons?” Those who are stronger, shouldn’t they care for the weaker members? Let’s forget about attaining a level of leadership for a minute, and just consider how we are supposed to care for one another. Active (not indifferent); *in*clusive (not exclusive). Valuing *different* body parts (versus despising one and obsessing over another.)

    Eric (#4) and Deborah (#6) have articulated especially well what I know to be true. Deborah’s last sentence really hit home for me.

    There is also a phenomenon among women that my husband and I have noticed. Among the senior “matriarchs” of his Indian “priestly” caste family, there is often a relational dynamic with the younger daughters-in-law which is hard and unsympathetic toward them in their struggles (workload, sense of belonging/acceptance/value in the family and community, etc.) My husband and I have hypothesized that since the matriarchs had to suffer so much, they feel it would diminish their suffering if they let their successors off the hook without “earning” it fair and square. So there’s a perpetuation of the unjust relational dynamic.

    Maybe this is a part of what women in the church are doing to each other? Why should it be easy for the next in line, when *I* had to go through so much to get where I am?

    I want to say one good thing about my former (conservative) evangelical church, one very big thing that I am continually grateful for. When I felt a strong calling to begin a nursing home Bible fellowship, and I consulted with the woman who was the director of women’s ministries with the hope of receiving a “how to” set of instructions or official rules of operation, she did not (much to my frustration at the time) grant my wish. Instead, she told me to prayerfully pursue the desire. Seek permission from the institution to come in and lead the Bible fellowship, learn (maybe through failing and trying again?) how to serve according to the need, and perhaps I would make my own “instruction manual” for others to benefit from in the future. I owned it, and depended fully on God to lead, and to this day I continue in that “ministry of mercy.” I really do owe a debt of gratitude to that women’s ministry director for her wise handling of my request for hers (and the church’s) leadership (e.g., “hand-holding.”) That was really one of the best woman-to-woman experiences I had in that church. That was a gift that keeps on giving (to me, and those whom I continue to serve in the nursing home.)

    In my current church environment (egalitarian), the issue of scarcity of leadership opportunities for women is non-existent; and, consequently, there isn’t such an underground current of insecurity, comparison/competition, and relational dysfunction.

    Two years ago, at Christmas, my family and I visited my dear aunt and uncle in Indy. We attended church (Garfield Park Baptist Church) with them on Sunday morning, and it was a real treat. I met the powerfully petite Pastor Judy and heard her preach and teach like the best of them!


    She is beloved and highly respected among her congregation. It was so inspiring to meet and hear her go. Women have gifts too. Gifts of all types. May we learn to celebrate and encourage one another in the use of our gifts. 🙂

  • P.

    Michael @ 13 – read Scott’s book Blue Parakeet. I believe you’d find it helpful.

  • Andromeda

    Doesn’t surprise me unfortunately. A lot of evangelicals only say women should be wives and molthers and not dare to change the world. At least Catholics allow women to become nuns and they can use their gifts there.